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March 21, 2011

Today is the United Nations International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

Why is this a day to recognize this topic? On March 21, 1960, police opened fire and killed 69 people at a peaceful demonstration in Sharpeville, South Africa, against the apartheid “pass laws”. The notorious passbooks were a repressive tool to control the movements of black South Africans.

That was 50 years ago, right? Unfortunately, although South Africa has, since that time, made progress, racial and ethnic discrimination occur on a daily basis, hindering progress for millions of people around the world. Racism and intolerance can take various forms − from denying individuals the basic principles of equality to fuelling ethnic hatred that may lead to genocide − all of which can destroy lives and fracture communities.

Racism exists today in societies that brag about how tolerant and democratic they are. Unfortunately, it is human nature to not only compare yourself to another group, but when that group looks different and comes into your country as refugees, or in need or assistance (or in the case of the U.S. hundreds of years ago, was brought against their will as slaves), it is easy to look down upon them, right?

I remember the first time I “realized” that people were of different races, and looked different. I had a Girl Scout calendar (the year was the around 1980) and when I looked through it, I realized that some of the girls were white and some where black (Asians were not portrayed in the calendars at that time). I realized they were different, but that was that – so what? So they looked different. Big deal.

Unfortunately, it still is in our world today. Racism and Xenophobia have not abated with the advent of globalization and the dispersal of people across different countries. If anything, I sometimes think it is worse – I have been to a country where it is more desirable to have lighter-toned skin. I have seen advertisements for skin-lightening creams that people use (at significant hazard to their health). I have read about numerous examples of this – the desirability of lighter colored skin – through history. And I have read about and heard about “ethnic cleansing”, from thousands of years ago to World War II with the murder of millions of Jews to the situation in the former Yugoslavia only a few  years ago.

I am lucky that I read about these things, and do not experience them. I realize how fortunate I am to be white skinned in this world. However, I am also a Jew, and last week I ran across a web site while trying to prepare for a lecture. The writer had written all these lies, with such hatred – all directed at Jews, and there were so many people who made comments on his post – all of whom agreed with him – I was nearly physically ill. To have such hatred directed at you, whether it is you as a person or you as part of a group – well, that is disturbing and more than a little frightening.

It is so important that we realize that no matter what we look like on the outside, we are all humans, we all have souls. We none of us are superior to the other as far as races, ethnicities, colors, religions, or any other category you should choose.

The first article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights affirms that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights”. The International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination reminds us of our collective responsibility for promoting and protecting this ideal.


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