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The Poverty of ISM Thinking


Pastoral scene of the gallant South
The bulgin’ eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolias sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burnin’ flesh

~ Strange Fruit, Billy Holiday

I make it a practice to read books outside the mainstream, revolutionary and counter-revolutionary works, ideas seeping from the underground and in the wide open above-ground from respected houses. Books by authors with English as a first language and, increasingly, by people without knowledge of my mother tongue writing concepts that have no counterpart in my language thus are imperfectly translated.

Aside from traveling the world and talking to people, I find varied reading the next best way to obtain a well-rounded understanding of the world, of cultures, of history, of life experienced by the seven billion people alive today.

I read books that assault me viscerally to ensure no stone goes unturned, ensuring I am exposed to the marvel of diversity and the ugly seemingly present in every society. This lead me to the book, “Blood at the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America” by Patrick Phillips, a treatise on racism in America.

I started reading “Blood at the Root” on a train, public transportation carrying me into the heart of Chicago, a highly diverse city. I was surrounded by people of color, people of non-European ancestry, people whose first language was not English. People with money. People who sleep on the train because it’s the only warm place they can rest their heads. I hear music in the cadence of other languages. I see beauty in the many shades of skin.

My exposure to diversity, especially while living in nonChristian, nonWestern, nonWhite South Asia, has helped me become extremely comfortable with people that don’t look like me, people not raised in a lily-white suburb of working class America. I grew up in an area formed mostly by ‘white flight’ from the inner city. I was surrounded by people seeking homogeneity, people fearful of diversity. A populace comfortable with ‘ISM’ thinking.

I was indoctrinated either overtly, mostly covertly, with reasons why ‘those people‘ can’t be trusted. Reasons why children of mixed race will suffer unduly. Reasons to keep them out of our neighborhoods.

Thankfully, I have clawed my way out of the narrow band of thinking and can say with conviction, “Thank God for diversity!” The phrase is a mantra I started using years ago to supplant learned negativity to anyone that was not us, was not me. A phrase I repeat to myself whenever I catch myself looking negatively at anyone I see in society.

I have since come to understand ISM thinking, racism, ageism, sexism, nationalism, sectarianism, heterosexism, antisemitism, classism, triumphalism, any of those words dividing people into groups, into subcastes, into categories designed to separate rather than unite as a refusal of people to think.

I understand why it’s done. It saves people from the effort required to think, to meet people and get to know them personally. To classify oneself in the ‘better’ group is a boost to a fragile ego. It all derives from people suffering a poverty of thinking, or an inability to think, or a people mired in the negativity taught to them in youth. It comes from people who can’t say, “Thank God for diversity”, even though it was their infallible God that, in the beginning, designed a world with beautiful diversity.

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