“But why did she have to adopt a black child?!”

This was an auntie’s response, years ago at a holiday party, to news of a friend’s relative adopting an African-American orphan.  I think she proceeded to make further racist remarks, like black people are not good people and anything after that I missed because I chose to walk out of the room instead of throwing my wine glass at her.

Does any of the above sound familiar to you?  I bet it does!  Because I’m sure most desis are all too familiar with the words kala, kali or kalu – slurs used in the South Asian community towards blacks.  Indeed, said auntie has laughed heartily at the fact that she has to be careful now because black people know what desis are saying when they use those derogatory words.

Are you uncomfortable yet? Good.  Because this conversation is worth having.

A few weeks ago, I came across the post, Ron is Racist – and that’s Great – an eye opener for how we look – or don’t look – at racism and racists.   I think many of us wrongly assume all racists are evil but that mindset blinds us to the fact that good people can also be racists, including ourselves.

Make no mistake, there is definitely a sense of superiority among desis when it comes to how they view the black community.  I think it’s disgusting, embarrassing and I have zero tolerance for it.  But in order to get racist desis to become better people, we have to be willing to engage in uncomfortable conversations with them.

Trevor Noah’s op-ed piece in the New York Times is brilliant.  Growing up in South Africa under apartheid, he had no choice but to learn how to approach people and problems with nuance.  His survival depended on it.

But moderation, compromise and finding common ground sit uneasily with our country these days, especially after the presidential campaigns and election results.  Trump’s language and encouragement of bad behavior has widened the safe space for extremism and racism.  He has given these hurtful ideas a false sense of legitimacy and all of this has further divided the country.  And a divided country will not grow.

Trevor believes that moderation and compromise allow radical ideas to become possible.  He cites Nelson Mandela’s ability to ease tensions between white and black South Africans as proof.  He believes that we can be “unwavering in our commitment to racial equality while still breaking bread with the same racist people who’ve oppressed us.”  Trevor also reminds us that Republicans and Democrats have more in common than we realize, like the desire for good jobs, homes and respect.

I want to believe him.  I want to believe that America is more in the middle than at the extremes and that most people are good.

So this holiday season, if you hear friends or family at the dinner table make a racist or otherwise divisive remark, how should you respond?

By finding common ground.

Auntie may be racist but she loves kids.  Perhaps I could appeal to our shared belief that we need to be good role models to the next generation.  That means demonstrating tolerance to people and ideas that might be different from our own.


If that feels like a tall order, then I’ll leave you with this clip for guidance and strength:


Good people are racists, too.  Finding common ground is the best way to help them become better people.  If you don’t have these uncomfortable conversations with them, we stay divided as a country.  And divided people are easier for undemocratic politicians to rule.

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