Gurdeep Parhar on Fixing Racism: Racism is at the Root of Many of Humanity’s Evils at TEDxStanleyPark (Transcript)

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Gurdeep Parhar – Executive Associate Dean Clinical Partnerships and Professionalism for Faculty of Medicine at the University of British Columbia

Chinese? Bad drivers.

Italians? Mafia.

Mexicans? Trafficked drugs.

Irish? Drunks.

Middle Eastern people? Terrorists.

Racial stereotyping is very common. Racial stereotyping often leads to misunderstandings, discrimination, and sometimes even violence.

Six million Jewish people were killed during the Holocaust because someone thought they belonged to an inferior race. Millions of African people were bought and sold as slaves, and killed because someone thought they belonged to an inferior race.

Millions of indigenous people around the world have been oppressed and killed because someone thought they belonged to an inferior race. Most recently in Rwanda, a million people, as part of an ethnic cleansing, were killed because someone thought they belonged to an inferior race.

I grew up on the north coast of Canada. And when I was a child in school, we would change out of our regular school clothes into our gym or exercise clothes, and we did that in the locker room. And in that locker room, when I was all alone, partly dressed — my feet were bare because I was changing my shoes from my regular shoes to my gym shoes — two big bullies came and found me.

They came up to me and they said, “Hey! You, Paki. You, Hindu.” First I was just confused. Because I wasn’t from Pakistan. So the word “Paki” didn’t make any sense. I wasn’t Hindu, so the word “Hindu” didn’t make any sense. Were they mixing me up with someone else?

My feelings of confusion were quickly replaced by fear because I realized the meaning of those words didn’t matter, because of the venom and the hatred in their tone. I realized those words were meant to insult me; those words were meant to hurt me. This happened week after week.

When I was alone in that locker room as a child, these bullies would find me. I didn’t know what to do. The way I dealt with it was, I wouldn’t make eye contact with them, I would look down at the floor in that locker room, and I still remember the blue tiles to this day. I still remember the cold under my bare feet making my feet chill. I would just keep staring down at the floor, not making eye contact with the bullies. I just kept thinking to myself: I hope they don’t beat me; I hope they don’t hit me; I hope they go away. I was very frightened; I was very scared.

I was too embarrassed to tell my teachers; I was too embarrassed to tell my parents or my sisters; I was too embarrassed to tell my good friends. I’m telling this story for the first time today. I’m telling the story because I’m tired of looking at those blue tiles. I’m also tired of feeling the cold under my feet. But most importantly, I’m tired of being frightened.

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That locker room — that locker room story has an ending. But before I tell you the ending of that locker room story, let’s talk a little bit more about racial stereotyping.

Sometimes racial stereotyping isn’t frightening, it isn’t scary, it’s just awkward. So I’ll be at a party, having just a splendid time, a cocktail party, but just a great time, and then the inevitable happens. Someone comes up to me and says, “Tell me about your culture.” Yes, it’s usually someone white.

And before I tell you my answer, you need to know a little bit more about my history. So I came from India to Canada when I was a year old, and we settled in Northern Canada. So my earliest childhood memories are of snow and ice, lots of snow, lots of ice.

So when someone says, “Tell me about your culture,” my immediate reaction is ice hockey, salmon fishing, and black bears. The person asking the question is perplexed and confused. I think they think I didn’t understand the question. And because what they really expected me to say was that I was an expert in samosas, the Taj Mahal, and the Kama Sutra.

So interestingly over the years, I have become an expert on those three things too. I’m seeing the fear and look of panic in some of your eyes. Don’t worry, I’m not going to demonstrate that expertise right now.

So racial stereotyping is really common; we all racially stereotype. Why is it common and why do we all racially stereotype? We do it because that’s the way our brains work. Our brains are wired to recognize patterns. We recognize a pattern, and then we attribute characteristics to that pattern.

As a doctor, if I’m seeing a patient for the first time — let’s call her Maria — I see Maria is large in appearance. I’ve never spoken to Maria, I’ve never examined Maria, and Maria is walking towards me. Because of her large appearance, what’s going through my mind is, I have to check Maria’s blood pressure because she’s at risk for having high blood pressure. I need to check Maria’s sugar because she’s at risk for having diabetes. I need to examine Maria’s knees because she’s at risk for having arthritis. The amazing thing is, all that’s happening without me knowing it, that’s happening subconsciously, that’s subconscious bias.

What I need to remember though is that when I check Maria’s blood pressure and it’s normal, I check Maria’s sugar and it’s normal, I examine her knees and they’re normal, then I need to shift my thinking of Maria. Because otherwise, without even having spoken to her, I’ve given Maria and myself three diseases to worry about for her.

The same thing happens when you see someone that belongs to an ethnic group that’s different than your own. You see someone standing across the street wearing a turban. It’s very natural to attribute characteristics to that person wearing a turban based on the one other person you’ve interacted with who’s also wearing a turban.

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And the same thing happens when you see somebody with a body piercing, or a tattoo, or speaks with a particular accent: we recognize a pattern, and then we give characteristics to that pattern.

But why do we give characteristics to that pattern? We do it for three reasons. The first is that we often have a very limited experience of dealing with people who belong to that ethnic group. So if you had interacted with not one but a hundred people wearing turbans, you would quickly understand that group was pretty diverse. And because that group is diverse, the next time you see someone wearing a turban, you couldn’t generalize, you couldn’t stereotype. Because that group was so diverse. We have limited experience of dealing with different ethnic groups, and so for that reason, we stereotype and we generalize.

The second reason is that the media re-ingrains and re-emphasizes stereotypes. When something horrible happens in France or the Middle East, the media reports it as, ‘There were members of a particular faith group, ethnic group, this community group,’ and that then stays with us. We start to think that the entire community behaves like that, or the entire ethnic group behaves like that. So the media is partly responsible for our stereotyping.

The third reason is, it’s so much easier and requires less work for us to think that a group is entirely homogeneous and the same, rather than get to know them as individuals. Getting to know somebody individually and uniquely within a group takes a lot of effort. So we sometimes take the path of least work.

Those are the three reasons that we take that pattern and attribute characteristics to it. What we always need to remember is that we recognize difference. We all see color, we all see difference, and we all have a subconscious bias. The important thing is not to let that subconscious bias operate back here. When you take that subconscious bias, bring it to the forefront, put it on the table, deal with it. Because we all have that.

The other really important concept to keep in mind is that racial stereotyping often happens even if we have the best of intentions. In our schools, in our community centers, in our law practices, in our medical practices — we are hungry; we are starving to learn about people that are different than us. Why? Because we want to serve those community members very well. I want to be the best doctor I can be; my colleagues want to be the best lawyers; people want to be the best teachers, and we can only do that if we understand our constituents, our community members very well. So we use terms like cultural awareness, cultural sensitivity, cultural tolerance, cultural safety, cultural competency.