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Ethnicity is not the problem. Bigotry is.

Ethnicity is not the problem. Bigotry is.


Haile Tessema, Oct. 07, 2018


There’s perhaps partly well-intentioned, yet a misguided approach presumably aimed to fight bigotry, which has become fashionable: “No one has chosen his/her ethnicity at birth”. As if ethnicity is some kind of social disease the ethnicity carrier has to defend him/herself against by pleading, “Don’t blame me for belonging to an ethnic group, please. I didn't bring it on myself”.


This raises the question, what if someone were to choose his/her ethnicity, would he/she be a fair game for ethnic targeting then? Of course not.


We had an overly obese neighbor who would often say, “It’s not because I ate more than anyone else; this is how I was born”. As a child, I didn’t understand why she would go out of her way to make such a statement, often without any provocation. But I later realized that it’s because the lady was not happy with her body, and well aware of the stigma attached to obesity, thus she wanted the entire neighborhood to know that it’s not her fault that she appeared the way she did.


Something similar was common to hear from people with severe physical disability: “It’s not that I chose to be the way I’m; this is how God created me”, which of course is a call for empathy.


It really is unfortunate that obese people, especially those with medical condition, and the physically disabled feel compelled to defend themselves against society’s prejudice and shaming.


Thus, expanding that sense of shame to ethnic identity is naive at best and dangerous at worst. It’s like – after experiencing an ongoing act of violence against women by certain male perpetrators – declaring, “No one has chosen to be born a man”. Or, following a senseless act of war that claimed many lives, to lament, “No one has chosen to be born human”.


Yet, being born male is not the problem. Rather, sexual predators, emotional and physical abusers and violent men are the problem. And it’ll be a disservice to take the fall for them. So, the right thing to do is, hold the offenders accountable for their actions, and bring them to justice.


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The entire human race is not responsible for a senseless war and loss of human lives either. Instead, companies and countries in the arms race, war hawks / warmongers and politicians who mislead their people and army into war are to blame. Hence, in a fair and just society they would be held to account.


Similarly, ethnicity or race is not to blame for any ethnic or racial conflict in any way, shape or form. Rather, ethnic bigotry or racism is the problem. Thus, caution should be exercised not to confuse the two, thereby purposely or inadvertently give the weapon to bigots by misdiagnosing ethnicity as the problem, while bigotry is, in fact, at the root of the evil.


I once read a story about former Chief of Staff and 65th. Secretary of State Colin Powell’s visit to his alma mater, City College, in New York wherein a black student asked him in awe how – as a black man and the son of Jamaican immigrants – Powell was able to beat the barrier during the 60s and 70s overt cultural, institutional and structural racism.


The four star general replied with a simple advice, “If someone doesn’t like your color, don’t make it your problem. Make it his/her problem”.


The same applies here: If someone doesn’t like your ethnicity, don’t make it your problem. Or, to be more specific in the case at hand, don’t make ethnicity the issue, while the problem is rooted in bigotry. So the fight evidently should not be against the former, ethnicity, but rather the latter, bigotry.


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