Sunday, February 06, 2005

Racism and Foreign Relations

Last weekend, I watched the movie Hotel Rwanda in the theater (an excellent movie I'd recommend to anyone), which really got me thinking about the way the Western world has tended to handle foreign relations throughout history.

Hotel Rwanda is based on a true story in April, 1994, where nearly a million innocent people in Rwanda were brutally murdered and the world community, which could have stopped it, instead stood by and did nothing.

Perhaps the one quote that adequately summarizes the theme of the whole movie comes from Colonel Oliver (the fictitious character in the movie who represents the real Lt. Gen. Romeo Dallaire who served in Rwanda). After finding out the UN was not sending more troops, a disgusted Col. Oliver (General Dallaire) retreated to the hotel bar where he told Paul the hotel manager:

You should spit in my face. You're dirt. We think you're dirt, Paul . . . The West, all the superpowers . . . They think you're dirt. They think you're dumb, you’re worthless. You could own this freakin’ hotel, except for one thing. You’re black. You're not even a nigger, you're an African.

A quote that nicely summarizes the theme of the whole movie... and this post.

Throughout much of history, people have been brought up to think that their own ethnicity and culture is superior to all others. People with a different color of skin, people who speak a different language, and people who know God by a different name are somehow less human and their lives are less valuable.

A few hundred years, ago, Europeans deluded themselves that blacks were genetically inferior to themselves, and used this warped rationale to justify the capture and enslavement of countless people for the simple reason of the color of their skin. While slavery has since ended, this warped mentality has been allowed to fester through more recent programs like "segregation" and "apartheid".

In recent years, this poisonous mentality has resulted in the Western world's lack of attention to atrocities being committed in Rwanda in 1994, the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire) in the late 1990s, in Sierra Leone and Liberia, and in the present ongoing massacre in Darfur, Sudan. In all three of these African conflicts, news coverage in the West was scant, and intervention nonexistent. Contrast this with the former Yugoslavia in the late 1990s, when Serbs launched a murderous campaign against Muslims in the name of "ethnic cleansing". Even though the violence in Yugoslavia was not nearly as bad as what was seen in Rwanda in 1994, the response was much greater: Western newspapers were awash with color photographs of victims of the "ethnic cleansing" and NATO responded by bombing the Serbs into submission.

An obvious difference between Yugoslavia and Rwanda is that the victims of the violence in Yugoslavia were white Europeans, and in Rwanda they were just black African "savages". To the Western world, the Africans slaughtered in Rwanda were wild animals, no better than a herd of antelope or a bunch of gorillas.

I have sometimes joked that if there were two news stories on the same day, one about OJ Simpson getting arrested for murder again, and one about a massive earthquake submerging the entire continent of Africa underwater killing everyone, the article about OJ would be on the front page of the newspaper and the Africa earthquake would be relegated to page 23. Unfortunately, while this joke may be a bit of an exaggeration, it is not much of one.

One might ask why we, the West, have a responsibility towards Africa. Part of the reason is that, for all the seeds of harm that Western colonialism has sown within Africa over the past four centuries, we owe it to Africa to help them undo the damage we as a society helped cause. The bigger reason, however, is that we have the resources to do so, and thus we have a moral obligation to assist our brethren in need, just like we did in Yugoslavia. In the words of 18th century English statesman Edmund Burke, "all that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing."

Unfortunately, the West's dealings with other parts of the world are not much better than our dealings with Africa. Western corporations operating abroad often maintain colonialistic sensibilities: polluting the environment, allowing safety rules to slip, discounting local innovation, and preferring to ship in expatriate managers than to develop local talent. And, unless a disaster in a far-away place is really big (like the recent tsunami) the Western media tends to ignore it, possibly because they feel their readers would not be able to empathize with the victims.

When are we as a society going to get over this collective delusion and realize that all of us are God's children? When we see a crying child on the news, it should not matter to us if that child has brown skin, or if that child is speaking a different language, or wearing different clothes - we should be able to feel empathy for that child just as if he/she was our next-door neighbor.

The word "racism" is a very strong word. Most people cringe when they hear it, and immediately deny having anything to do with it: "I'm not a racist. Never!" And yet, unless we can look at that crying child on the television and think of him/her with the same empathy like we would our own neighbor, we are racist. It is only when we realize this problem within ourselves and make a conscious decision to fix it that it can be eliminated.

Until we as a society are able to eliminate racism from our foreign dealings, the rest of the world will continue to look at us as hypocrites: people who preach good works, and yet fail to deliver.