When we open up a newspaper or listen to a newscast the information is often so dismaying we may simply be tempted to shut up the paper, turn off the television, turn away. The news seems to be universally bad: bad in Gaza, in Ukraine, in Iraq, and closer to home in Ferguson. We are surrounded it seems by insolvable problems: ancient enmities between Arab and Jew; between pro Russian rebel groups and Ukrainians, between Sunni and Shia, and between white policemen and black citizens in Saint Louis.
What, we tend to think, can I do about this? I’d rather not even follow the news. “Just don’t tell me!” one is tempted to say.
Yet there are some small things we can do. We can start by taking a good look at ourselves to see how others perceive us and realize that as Malbranches says, “We are not our own light.” We do not always see ourselves clearly and our attitudes may not be as free of prejudice as we would like to believe. We may be aware, if we look hard enough, that our responses to people who are different from the way we are, may be emotional.
In my own case I know that growing up in South Africa I did not always see the Afrikaners, the Boers ( the white settlers who came from Germany, Holland and France) and settled most often on isolated farms in what was the Transvaal and the Orange Free State and speak Afrikaans. I was brought up to think that these people were often ignorant, prejudiced, and treated the black people unfairly. But were the English speaking South Africans much better? Did my own group of supposedly enlightened intellectuals do much to change the situation? Behind a veneer of education and polite behavior their treatment of the blacks was just as bad if not worse.
So certainly one can begin there. Secondly, one can try to actively do something about prejudice and racism around us. Invite a foreign family, someone of a different skin colour , different ethnic background into your home. Give them a meal and engage in conversation openly. Or make an attempt to talk to someone at church, in the synagogue or mosque who might be different from your own cultural heritage.
A third thing we can do is to learn about other groups, read about their history, their literature, see a foreign movie which might portray a point of view we do not necessarily espouse. Prejudice almost always disappears when we enter into the mind of the other person from a different group or religion, and literature does this perhaps better than anything else.
I remember the impact of reading Ralph Ellison’s “The Invisible Man” at fifteen or sixteen. A white South African girl I was able to identify with his character completely, or Richard Wright’s “Black Boy” or even more so by reading the South African Richard Rive’s work. “Writing Black” presented a whole world to me and I was able to say and feel, “But he’s just like me!” Literature enables us to grasp our common humanity and makes prejudice impossible at least while we are reading and hopefully changes us indefinitely after that.
Sheila Kohler is the author of many books including Becoming Jane Eyre and the recent Dreaming for Freud.