I can still remember the point in my life when I realised that my colour and race mattered. Being a Fijian and raised in a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural environment, my best friends were just that, my friends. That Hazel or Sunil were Indo-Fijian or Inoke or Orisi were i-Taukei, or that Ronald was Chinese, Philip and Peter – European (Peter was actually Australian, but it didn’t matter back then), that Timoci, Robbie, Michael and Jonathan were Kai-loma or Part European or that Visoni and Raymond were Rotuman were never things that really crossed our minds.
I mean I am sure we recognised it, but our friendship overshadowed any physical differences. We played, we fought, and we made up, hung out. What made us different were our abilities, our interests and hobbies, whether we liked soccer or swimming and whether we liked Western or Commando comics. (I liked Commando but loved Phantom).
That changed when I went to boarding school in New Zealand. I remember the afternoon in 1985 when I got into my first real fight. This was not the play fights or the “you-ate-my-lunch” / “you-cheated-in-marbles” / “you-like-the-girl-I-like” (yes we had those in primary school) fights. This was the first time I experienced the frustration, the rage of being ridiculed, of being made to feel worth less that the other human being who was taunting me because my skin was darker than theirs. I was only twelve years old at the time but if my friend had not stopped me, I don’t know if I would have stopped myself.
Racism became something I had to get used to when living in a foreign country. I was the stranger, the other, the different. I remember being told at night to “smile so that I could be seen”. Racial slurs, intimidation were part of my boarding school experience. So was sleeping with a knife under my pillow. I learned to stand my ground when I could and to seek support when I couldn’t from the other older Pacific Islanders in my boarding house (my first experience at regional cooperation) who, having experienced racism themselves, were always there to back me up. I learned to bear indignity silently; and how to make my point to someone (at knife point). I was thirteen years old.
The other boys were also thirteen years old. What did they know of the world? What did they know about this boy from Fiji except what they were told by their elders, by their role models, or what they heard from others? I believe we were all good kids. Yet we were all insecure. We were all afraid. Afraid of those bigger than us. Afraid of failing. Afraid of being seen to be weaker. So we made ourselves feel better through our bigotry. I became racist too. I made fun of the boy who was heavier or not as bright or cool as I was.
That I came back to Fiji at a time when the one place I thought ethnicity didn’t matter was experiencing ethnic conflict in all spheres of life – political, social, religious and economic was a rude awakening. I was made to realise that those kids at boarding school were not the exception to the norm. Contrary to what some have said, I believe the ethnic conflicts or discrimination that flared up three decades ago were not simply simmering embers of racial discontent but the fanning of insecurity. The reality is our aggression comes from not hate but fear. People still fear what they don't understand or what's not familiar. For so long many of us lived side-by-side but not together. So instead of loving our neighbour we remained suspicious of them. That suspicion led us to fear, to discriminate.
How quick we are to make judgments based on stereotypes. How quick we are to make assumptions based on physicality. We make judgements about people we don’t even know. What is worse, these days it seems that we don’t even take the time to get to know people. Our judgements, our perceptions of others are based on the judgements and perceptions of others. What happens when we get it wrong? What happens when the oppressive structures we have built up cause someone to suffer? What happens when we withhold the one thing no one is supposed to be able to take away from another – their dignity?
Last week my dear mother celebrated her 73rd birthday. Her birthday is special for a number of reasons: it marks one month until Christmas and two months until my late father’s birthday. It also marks the start of the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence. 16 days in which we need to remember how many women and girls suffer because their human dignity is not valued by those who would never wish the same suffering on themselves.
Tomorrow is World AIDS Day. Tomorrow many articles will be written about the ongoing response to the HIV and AIDS epidemic. I understand that this year the focus will be on discrimination of people living with HIV and AIDS. Again the phrase rings true - people still fear what they don't understand or what's not familiar. Those living with HIV and AIDS, those who are most at risk, and those in vulnerable and marginalised groups still suffer stigma and discrimination.
"Stigma is unacceptable, because stigma kills." These were the words of the Governor General of Papua New Guinea, Grand Chief Sir Paulias Matane, as he launched the Papua New Guinea Christian Leader's Alliance on HIV and AIDS last year. Tomorrow as you read, hear and see stories about those who suffer and the lives in the balance of the HIV and AIDS epidemic, ask yourself if you are person who is willing to transform the stigma and discrimination surrounding HIV and AIDS into understanding, or whether you are someone who keeps the vicious cycle going.
If you think that is a difficult question then, simply ask yourself if whether fear and suspicion will be the guide by which you relate to others or whether understanding and acceptance?
Many of us learn at an early age that, male and female, we are created in the image and likeness of God. Unfortunately, many of us also misunderstand this and make God in our own image. What doesn’t fit our image of God is to be feared, mistrusted, and eventually mistreated.
Let’s correct our perceptions together, let’s understand, accept and try to even love the stranger, the other, the different. Who knows, they may be trying to do the same to you.
One person at a time. One relationship at a time. One step forward at a time.
“Be still, stand in love, pay attention.”
Rev. J.S. Bhagwan is currently a student of the International Graduate School of Theology at the Methodist Theological University in Seoul, South Korea. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org or visit http://thejournalofaspiritualwonderer.blogspot.com/