Judging people by race or skin colour has never been fair and never will be. Kids don’t do that. We teach them to.
Let us be honest. Have you ever felt a tingle of discomfort if someone with a skin tone that looks markedly different from yours, were to sit next to you in a bus or train or flight? At a recent youth leadership program I helped facilitate, a young man recalled his first day at school. “I wasn’t too sure where to sit,” recounted the man. “Then my class teacher appeared, and the first thing he said was, ‘I want each of you to sit with someone who isn’t the same race or skin colour as yourself, on your left and on your right.”
The young man continued his story. “I realized years later that as a little child, I wasn’t bothered by people who looked different from me. It wasn’t just me. It was true of all children. Children are non-judgemental. They treat everyone the same. Treating people differently because of their race or skin colour is something that we learned growing up. Adults teach children to do that.”
At a glance, the young man’s experience seemed simple enough. Yet, here is a remarkable example of how adults who really care can shape the world, by instructing children under their tutelage, that race and skin colour are no more than skin deep. If only more adults were to start children on the right track as the young man’s teacher did.
I recall vividly a neighbour’s remark on seeing my newborn daughter for the first time: “It’s good she’s fair! She will get married early!” I didn’t quite know how to respond back then, although deep inside, I was appalled at the idea of my daughter being “measured” in terms of her “fairness”. There is just too much discrimination and prejudice happening around us, sparked by the seemingly innocent element of “skin colour”. You might have experienced something similar too! If you have two or more children attending the same school, with one child darker-skinned, you might have heard a less sensitive teacher saying, “I didn’t know these two are siblings! The two of them look so different. I mean, A is much darker than her sister!”
How does one explain this inexplicable obsession with fair skin across the world? Not too long ago, I learnt from a fair European woman married to a very dark Asian man, that, in her husband’s family, being fair, like it or not, is top on the list, especially when looking for a spouse. So much so that girls were referred to as “dark, dark” or “dark” or “fair”. Woe betide those girls who fall under the “dark, dark” spectrum. Meaning, it would be real hard for them to find suitors who would give them a second look. You must be fair first and foremost, to be considered worthy of marriage.
Really? How does skin colour influence our character, which should be the most important thing that matters? Despite humanity’s seeming advances of technology, much leaves to be desired with how we deal with people of differing skin tones. For example: in America, slavery officially ended more than a century ago. But the remnants of its not-so-pleasant legacy remains. Darker skinned African Americans are disadvantaged in many areas. For instance, lighter skinned African Americans found it easier to secure jobs, even if the resumes of the lighter skinned applicants and the darker skinned applicants were to be exactly the same (Harrison & Thomas, 2009). “I look to a day when people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character,” so said Dr Martin Luther King, Jr, world-renowned for his role to wipe out racial discrimination in America. It would seem that his dream has yet to fully see the light of day.
One might argue that the as humans, it is only natural for us to seek those who are like us. It gives us a kind of security that we are not alone; that we are among friends. We have ingrained in us a body system that finds it soothing, at a subconscious level, to be in a homogeneous environment. This argument of “natural instinct” might make sense to some. Yet, isn’t it a matter of concern that something as basic and fundamental as race and skin colour are still used as a yardstick to judge people?
Point is, I am not saying that you should never spend meaningful time with your own peoples. All I’m saying is, you have much to gain if you make real effort to get acquainted with people of different races, ethnicities and colours. Diversity has much to offer. Just as men and women have unique strengths, so do people of different colours and ethnicities enrich your life.
Allah says in the Quran, Surat Al–Hujurat [verse 13] – “O mankind, indeed We have created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you may know one another.”
It is good to remember that Bilal ibn Rabah, a black slave, was one of the most respected and trusted companions of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). Born in Mecca, Bilal was the first muezzin (caller to prayer), chosen by the Prophet himself. Bilal was among the freed slaves who gained honour for his selfless and exemplary character. By treating Bilal ibn Rabah as such, the Prophet proved that diversity and plurality and racial equality should be celebrated. Men and women of different races and skin tones enhance our lives. If we were to act unkindly and feel otherwise, that’s our loss, not theirs.[ends]
This article was published in page 25 of the August 2015 edition of Alwasat, a bilingual Australian newspaper based in Melbourne. Read it online at