“We don’t think your daughter will fit in here,” the Brownie leader told my mother.
I stared up, clutching the permission slip the leader had just given me for the camp next weekend. What had changed?
As an eight-year-old, I looked like a white girl. My mother is visibly olive-brown. Despite being in a western country, in the middle of the Gulf War, the Brownies didn’t want “that sort of person” near their group.
I had a privileged upbringing, a good education in safe, stable countries. My exposure to racism was secondhand, mainly watching how people treated my mother.
I knew war and poverty were Very Bad Things because my schoolteachers told me so, but Very Bad Things didn’t happen in my world. That meant they weren’t real. Until, of course, they were.
In another country, the broken glass glinted in the sun.
The little boy, no more than eight, showed off his English. He was describing what had happened to the previous occupants of the burned out house. “Doesn’t the Bible say you’re not supposed to kill people?” I asked, my throat dry.
He shrugged. “They weren’t people, they were [another religion].”
I stared at the little boy, nodding with his friends. What could I say to that?
Those of us who are lucky enough to grow up in safe, stable countries with safe, stable governments live in safe, stable bubbles. When we’re lucky enough to be forced out of our bubbles, we’re in for a rude shock.
In another country, on another island, another group of small children surrounded me in the barren playground. They were excited to have a visitor. We were waiting for the bell to ring so we could get out of the burning sun and they could listen to me drone on about maritime history again.
“You’ll like [the next port], Miss,” a little girl told me.
“Will I? What’s good about it?”
“They got people there.”
I shrugged. “There are people here, too. Why don’t I stay here instead?”
A small boy looked at me as if I were an idiot. “You know what we mean. They got real people there. White ones.”
As a teenager, I didn’t know what to say to those children. As an adult, I still didn’t know what to say to those girls and women.
Another country, another island, yet another group of small children.
“Where is your husband?” asked one of the boys.
I giggled. “I have no husband. I’m only nineteen.”
The boys looked confused. One asked, “What about Mister Gary?”
I glanced over my shoulder to make sure “Mister Gary” wasn’t nearby, then shook my head vehemently. “Definitely not. Why do you think he’s my husband?”
The eldest boy, almost nine, shrugged. “He shouts at you, he hits you, and you don’t go ashore unless he’s with you. He must be your husband.”
The first time I sailed with a trans woman, I didn’t know how to help her when the bigots arrived. I learned a lot from her confidence, her ability to ignore their prejudice and do the best job she could. Now I speak my mind, but I still have a lot to learn.
In yet another country, the patients stared at me as I enunciated, “Begguma jekker. Begguma gor bumai wax lumai def.”
In English, that means, “I don’t need a husband. I don’t want a man telling me what to do.”
The girls giggled. They thought I was joking. They already knew that, without a husband, a female’s life, is meaningless. The men were silent as they glared at me. It was 2019.
Someone once challenged me to consider what evidence would convince me to change my core beliefs. It made me think.
Many of my beliefs have changed as I’ve grown. If I refuse to change my views or behaviour when there’s good evidence I’m wrong, I’m part of the problem. However, I hold one belief that I can’t imagine changing: judging people on things they can’t change and choices that harm no one is always wrong.
The little boy’s eye had burst. His burns were extensive, and he was hysterical. Even after we bundled him into an ambulance, I couldn’t get his face, his screams out of my mind. When I finally got home, I phoned my mother, hoping for reassurance. Instead, for the first time, she talked about the things she’d seen when she was growing up in a war zone. For the first time, I was ready to understand.
Like you, I have more than one identity.
I’m Australian. I’m English. I’m female. I’m a seafarer. I’m a daughter. I’m a writer. I’m a friend. I’m a volunteer. I’m a survivor. I’m a sibling. I’m a martial artist. I’m a student. I’m a maker. I’m an atheist. I’m a teacher. All at the same time.
I’ll judge you if you’re an asshole, a thief, a murderer, or a liar. Those behaviours are choices, and they harm the people around you. You’re not an asshole because of your gender; you’re not a liar because of your race; you’re not a murderer because of your religion.
You’re not stupid if you’ve never had a chance to learn, but I’ll judge you for your ignorance if you choose not to learn.
Likewise, you’re not a good human being because of your religion. You’re not trustworthy because of your gender. You’re not a great parent because of your skin colour. You’re not intelligent because of your education. I’ve met many people who are decent human beings despite their religion, culture and society, not because of them.
I’ve met dishonest and violent folk in every category I can think of. I’ve met wonderful human beings in every category I can think of. I may not always agree with them, but they’re still human beings.
I’ll judge your behaviour and your harmful actions without hesitation. If I catch myself judging you for your religion, gender, sexuality, skin colour, race, culture or any other inherent characteristic, it’s time for me to reassess the situation.
When I catch myself judging you for your choice of leisure clothing, your hairstyle, your food choices, I take a good hard look at myself. Most of the time, I don’t like what I find.
Stereotypes are heuristics or mental shortcuts. They exist for a reason and often have some truth in them. The problem is, none of us fits into just one category.
I often fit the stereotype of a feminist, but I’m not a stereotypical seafarer. Sometimes, I fit the stereotype of an Australian; at others, I break the stereotype of an atheist.
When we judge each other on the basis of one stereotype, one aspect of our identities, we overlook the many things we have in common. If you avoid me because you don’t trust stereotypical Australians, you might not realise that we both love writing fantasy novels. If I avoid you because I believe religious folk are idiots, I might miss out on a wonderful friendship based on our shared interest in community service.
When I see you referring to people of other races, religions, sexualities, and genders as animals or criminals, I think of those children poking through the ruins of someone’s house.
When I see you claiming that people of other skin colours are stupid, I wonder what you would have said to the schoolchildren who told me that real people have white skin.
When you respond to #metoo by explaining that women are making it all up, I wonder where you think those children got the idea that marriage is defined by violence, abuse and control.
Children mirror of what they see around them. Children are not born racist, prejudiced, closed-minded or religious: we make them that way. As a child, you absorbed the beliefs of your family, your society, just as I absorbed the beliefs of mine. Until my circumstances forced me to question those beliefs.
In a worldwide pandemic, the implications of our prejudice are more dire than ever before. If you’ve never questioned your beliefs, this is the time.
Even if you believe that homeless folk, folk of a different race, religion, gender or sexuality don’t deserve shelter or medical treatment, do you really think we’re not all in this together?
Do you really believe you can’t catch the virus from a homeless person or a person of a different religion, culture, or sexuality? If rich countries don’t help poorer countries control the virus, do you really believe it won’t affect you when it spreads again? Do you really think that the checkout worker, the immigrant nurse and the homeless teenager aren’t just as human as you?
If so, then I definitely judge you for that.