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Vive la Différence

February 26, 2021

Isabelle Wilkerson tells us in “Caste” that it’s easier to hate and fear people en masse than it is to fear and hate them one at a time. The trick is allowing ourselves to meet people that way.

Robert Kahn

By Robert Kahn

Deputy editor emeritus, Courthouse News

I must be a bit different from so many Americans you see on the news these days, who seem angry and fearful and worse. In my walks around town, I like to hear people speaking other languages, whether I understand them or not.

I’ve made a few Russian friends at the dog park. I like to tell them zdravstvuyte when we meet and do svidaniya when we part. I like to see the four Chinese women who walk their little dogs most mornings, and hear the rise and fall and cadences in their language, and smile and wave at them and their dogs. And I love to joke around with little kids in Spanish.

A lot of Americans today — tens of millions — seem afraid of simple things like this. It’s gotten worse during this pandemic, with repeated violent attacks on people of Asian ancestry — even women and old people.

These attacks are born of ignorance, which can but need not lead to fear, which can but need not lead to hatred. In “Caste,” Isabelle Wilkerson’s latest book, she points out that it’s easier to hate and fear people en masse — by the millions — than it is to fear and hate them one at a time.

One on one, if we get the chance, or allow ourselves to meet people that way, it’s hard to fear or hate them. We see they share too many things with us: a family, aspirations for themselves and their children, love of good food, music, and the urge to express themselves.

I’m speaking in platitudes, I know. Now I’ll get more specific.

What, I would like to know, are the people who assaulted and desecrated the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 so afraid of?

What is it, exactly, that they hate? Because no one who did not have hatred in their heart — for people they never have met — could have done what they did that day.

Do they really believe that Joe Biden — Joe Biden! — will “turn our country socialist”?

Do they really believe that lynching Nancy Pelosi or Mike Pence — Mike Pence! — will somehow “save our country”?

If so, where did they learn that? Or should I say “learn” that?

At home, probably. On the internet, surely.

Permit me to say, as an old high school English teacher: That ain’t learning. That ain’t anything close to learning.

Not that I have not seen this in myself. Let me tell you a story.

Many moons ago, I lived in Vermont and rented my house in Southern California to a family from India. Came the day I had to drive back to California to rescue the house from them.

They had stolen all the furniture. They’d dragged the refrigerator into the living room and tried to sell it but couldn’t get it out the front door. They’d unstrapped the water heater and tried to sell it but faced the same problem. Left 3 tons of trash in the back yard. And so on.

So, after cleaning up for a week, I went to Sears to buy a part for the washing machine they had somehow failed to sell. An elderly Indian gentleman, immaculately dressed in a white Nehru jacket, waited on me. 

I felt furious at him. For no reason at all. Just because he was Indian. I controlled myself, and acted hospitably, picked up the part, then drove straight to a friend of mine, who happened to be African-American. I told him what had just happened.

“Racism is a terrible thing,” I said. “But listen …”

And he listened, nodding his head. “I hear you,” he said. “I hear you.”

“There is no reason for me to hate that man,” I said. “He was nice to me. He never did anything bad to me. But I found myself hating him.”

“I hear you,” he said.

Well, I don’t know if there is a cure for this. My old grandpa, born in Louisiana in 1895, whose hero was Abraham Lincoln, told me: “Robert, this racial prejudice won’t be over until everyone has married everyone else for so long that we don’t know what anyone’s race is anymore.”

Now there’s supposed to be another “refugee crisis” at our border. And you know what I say? Bring ’em in. We might learn something. For instance: How to stop creating “refugee crises” at our border.

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