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Racism Has A Vaccine

Mahela Jayawardena went to the Wellawatte registrar and the form had a place for the baby’s race and religion.

“How can you ask a 45 day-old child what their religion is? They haven’t even had their first proper feed yet,” he said.

He refused, but then the registrar refused to register the child.

If you don’t give a child a race and religion, your child doesn’t even exist.

I have experienced this as well.

I discovered my wife’s ‘race’ when we went to the marriage registrar. My wife speaks and identifies as Tamil, but the registrar insisted that she was Malayalee, because race is passed through her father. So Malayalee it was. This was news to me.

This is not to blame registrars, mine have been nice old ladies. But this is where I live — a country defined by race/religion from birth to school to marriage to filling out a police report. And we wonder why we have ethnic conflict.

At the same event, Prashan De Visser was talking about the 1,000 kids that Sri Lanka Unites has gathered every year for a decade, representing all 25 districts. Of those kids, 70% did not have a friend from a different community. People don’t believe that stat, but I’ve been to these events and seen the kids. They have diverse friends after the event, but not before. If you think outside of urban Colombo you’ll see that it’s true.

Out of 10,000 government schools, only 1% have both Sinhala and Tamil streams (still segregated internally). Every other school is completely monolingual, not to mention divisions by race or religion.

This is what we teach our children and we wonder why they learn.

The problem is not education. It is exposure. The problem isn’t stupidity or hatred or anything so abstract. It’s just ignorance.

I was racist until I was vaccinated

At various points in my life I have been racist. As a youth I read a lot about Israel and began thinking that Jews were bad. But then I met a bunch of Jews and ate with them and prayed with them and that essentially vaccinated me against that particular virus. I could disagree with Israel without being mad at Noah, whose mother fed me.

I have also felt racist towards Muslims. But I became friends with and travelled with Halik. I would meditate while he prayed and we’ve slept in mosques and broken fast together. So when someone says something abstract about Muslims, I think about him and my other Muslim friends. It’s not some debate about Islam. I’m thinking about human beings that I have broken bread with.

This is the vaccination that fights racism. Friendship.

Where I live, we have been dealing with cycles of racist violence for, well, ever. The usual solution people come up with is education. I think this is wrong. Nobody’s paying attention in school, but we are learning from each other.

The solution is simple exposure. It will take decades to desegregate our schools, but we can start by mixing kids up at sports meets or summer camps or just random events. The content doesn’t matter, but the human contact does. This is what Sri Lanka Unites has been doing, but it needs to be done on a massive scale.

Segregation is what gives racism power and enables it to spread like a virus through communities. Friendship and empathy is what gives us immunity. Exposure is how we vaccinate our children against racism. Just let them play and break bread together. They’ll learn.

Written by

A writer living in Colombo, Sri Lanka. He/him. indi@indi.ca. Videos: tiny.cc/indication and podcast: anchor.fm/indication. patreon.com/indication

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