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On discrimination

Updated: Mar 19, 2021

There was an excellent audio documentary by Nienke Zoetbrood on the Dutch radio this morning about the otherwise forgotten life of Corry Tendeloo, "auntie Poppy". It is fair to label her as the Dutch Ruth Bader-Ginsburg of the first half of the 20th century. The "resolution Tendeloo" turned around the "handelingsonbekwaam" rule that women had to stop working as soon as they got married and gave Dutch women roughly two generations ago in 1957 the right to have their own bank account and to own property.

Mandating women to become full-time mothers and/or housewives as soon as they get married may seem outrageous in the modern "free world" of the west that we know today. But not too long ago, it was the ordinary, accepted social norm that the overwhelming majority of women simply accepted as the way things were back then. Maybe understandably so, in generations without democratized access to anticonception methods. Condoms and the anticonception pill were not widely or not at all available yet. How could a family with on average six children back then be managed without at least one caregiver present most of the time?

Assigning designated gender-based roles to men and women seems something humans do all over the world, cross-cultures. Judging other cultures by the standards we happen to grow up with, hence, is but a testimony of hypocrisy. Why should anyone criticize the sociocultural values held by people one is not in any way connected with? If you are a "modern western citizen", chances are that those very same values were held by your ancestors sometime in the past. Time then becomes a mere confounding factor for the impact that innovative technologies have on societies with access to them.

Rather than trying to convince another party of why your beliefs and values are better than the other's, objective results matter most in the end. What Corry Tendeloo's own life evidenced during a time we may call highly conservative, is that being an independent full-time working female boss of a law firm, having an own house and being a loving aunt can work perfectly fine, too.

For unknown reasons, she did not marry anyone, nor did she have children of her own, but did this make her a bad person? Depending on your values, you might think so. At least, Corry's happiness is ignorant to what (future) strangers think of her. Eventually, she achieved a major milestone for generations of Dutch women after hers.

Although I wished this topic was irrelevant to talk about, I feel the need to relate this to a subject that has received more recent media attention since the news on what happened to George Floyd and now Harry and Meghan Markle: racism.

We all discriminate all the time

Whether we are talking about unfair treatments based on gender or race, these phenomena all stem from the way our brains are particularly sensitive to contrasts. Whether it is a green-coloured button on a white page to accept cookies, strong emotional expressions, an unusual circumference of another person's waist or a blue note in a piece of music: things that are different from most things automatically grab our attention.

The pure meaning of the verb "to discriminate" is just the distinguishing of properties of things we perceive in this world. For example, colour, brightness, volume, sociability. Babies discriminate - it is essential to our functioning. However, when we talk about discrimination nowadays, we often mean it in the sense of connecting a negative value judgment to an individual property that differs from our normative expectations. From deeming the perspective of young employees as less important just because of their age, straight up to directly insulting people merely because of their skin tone.

Importantly, the latter definition of discrimination pertains to the impressions and life experiences of an individual. That is, what you and I find "normal" is shaped by whatever we are exposed to up to this point in time.

In my series on "Why I am not afraid of singularity anytime soon", I dedicated the complete first part to causes of stupidity. To explain where harmful biases and expectations come from: the rolemodels in our childhood and significant experiences that leave an imprint on our behavioural identities.

How I deal with discrimination

As an Asian Dutch "banana", I have experienced my fair share of racism. Even today, I know that anywhere I go, most people will look at me as an Asian in the first place - with whatever stereotypical expectations and self-fulfilling prophecies that may come. But I find solace in three things.

First of all, we cannot choose where and when we are born. I cannot directly influence what family environment a given child grows up in and what particular issues it may be dealing with. Hence, any harmful behaviour to me is most likely the unfortunate result of their rolemodels and lack of empathy. This is not to justify their behaviours, but the hope is that as such individuals eventually mature, the corrective nudge of society as a whole makes them realize that a life based on mistreating (certain) others is not a sustainable one. Because most people are not "bad".

Secondly is the fact that anyone with a trait that is slightly unusual in the local population can fall prey to some form of discrimination. You may naturally be very shy and introverted - an easy target for bullies. You may be the tallest, you may be the shortest, the smartest or the dumbest. You may have a different accent, bigger or smaller eyes. You may be the only male or the only female. Even famous people like the late guitar legend Eddie van Halen, a Caucasian guy, was bullied as his family settled as migrants in the United States back in the '60s. We are all discriminated for our unique traits all the time. Problems arise only when people treat you inferiorly for it. Thus, anyone in the (not so) right environment could be the target.

The third point brings us back to Corry Tendeloo: results matter. Corry worked all her life for equal women's rights. She was focused on achieving positive social change, despite being of Indonesian descent and one of only nine women in the Dutch government back then. An applicable Dutch proverb here translates literally as "the one who laughs last, laughs best". My mother used to say this quite often to me when I was younger to motivate me to do well in school. Another example is legendary MMA-fighter George St Pierre, another Caucasian guy, who was bullied in school as well and later accidentally ran into his childhood bully. Being the successful (retired) athlete and multimillionaire he is today, he explained in an interview that he did not take revenge on the former bully at all - rather, he helped him. Being better off in the end than those who mistreated you before is the best counter to any form of negative discrimination.

Final thoughts

In my opinion, George Floyd is a martyr. The injustice he endured united people of all different colours all over the world to stand up against racism. Whatever the exact reasons behind Harry and Meghan's highly publicized interview, these examples show us how insidious and of all societal layers (racial) dscrimination can be.

On the societal and governmental level, the best way to counter (racial) discrimination is by exposing children early on to the many shapes that human life can take to show that it is normal to be unique. Asking "so what?" when they encounter someone with an unusual physique and shifting the focus away from superficial traits - focussing on cooperation, learning new skills and quality of results instead.

Altogether, I am happy to see that norms and values are slowly changing, as the social process of globalization further matures. My tiny contribution in the form of this post to the collective discussion on discrimination is hopefully one that puts things into perspective. Otherwise, have a laugh with these stand-up comedy excerpts:

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