Updated: Feb 23, 2021
Some of my first memories as a human were of being in kindergarten, the only kid at my rural school who was neither white nor indigenous First Nations. I had no friends, was called Gandhi and shitface and Gaddhafi by both groups, and faced fights regularly on the playground.
I ran to my Indian identity, imagined moving there when I grew up, to a place where I belonged. Much later my dad told me I’d never get into Oxford because they didn’t take Indians. I didn’t find that to be true at all - the negative attitudes I encountered there were towards my North American accent. Over the years to follow I lived in many countries, risking my life many times for human rights in Sierra Leone and Liberia and to stop a genocide in Darfur. I moved to the US and lived in Harlem in New York with my girlfriend, an immigrant and immigrant rights activist. I went to the Riverside Church there for 5 years, where I listened to, admired and eventually worked for an inspiring voice for liberation, the Rev Dr James Forbes.
I lived in Europe for years, including northern Germany. I dated a blonde German girl at a time when Turkish immigrants were arriving in the region. I was eyed watchfully in shops. My girlfriend’s doctor was concerned why she was dating me. We were walking alone in the street one night and a police car pulled alongside us, an officer repeatedly asking if my girlfriend was ok, not willing to believe she’d actually be with me by choice.
After 9/11 I was sent to the back room almost every time I went in and out of the US, berated by angry officers and made to wait for hours. When I got profiled in a magazine, the comments on Facebook said I looked like a terrorist. One night, outside Madison Square Garden, 3 men leaving a hockey game surrounded me, took a picture of me, and asked if I had a bomb in my bag.
But I didn’t take solace in victimhood, or let any of these experiences define me. I won the respect of my peers in school by being a good fighter and good at sports. I laughed at the German police. I learned to berate the immigration officers back, artfully. When they’d invent rules I’d broken, I’d tell them they knew full well their department was a shit show with no standard operating procedures - it appealed to their disdain for their bosses. When those 3 guys surrounded me, I took the hat of one of them and wouldn’t give it back until he deleted the picture of me on his phone.
And I didn’t let it shape my view of the world, or my fellow human beings. I keep hold of the thousands, tens of thousands of positive interactions I had with decent, lovely people in each of these places. As I healed with my Dad and grew out of my fears and insecurities, I grew less and less suspicious and fearful of people, and fell in love with humanity. At the end of the day, I saw clearly that it was my feelings about myself, not my experiences of others, that most powerfully drove my worldview.
I started an activist organization that has fought intolerance and inhumanity all over the world for 15 years - nearly 3000 campaigns and half a billion online actions protecting and standing in solidarity with the human rights of minorities in dozens of countries, fighting for gay rights, women’s rights, racial and ethnic minorities, the rights of Muslims, Palestinians, immigrants, refugees, and oppressed peoples everywhere.
What all that taught me is that there are two paths forward to fight racism in our world - one is the path embodied by history’s most inspiring leaders - Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Mandela. It’s a fight grounded in love of all people, in universal principles that we all value, and that unite us in progress. It has an empathy and a powerful grace that holds true promise to create restorative and transformative justice.
The second path is the one offered by those mortals among us who cannot meet enormous pain, shame and suffering with the kind of extraordinary humanity and wisdom exemplified by our heroes and the movements they led. Tragically, this other path can lead to a toxic call-out/cancel culture and “woketivism” that characterizes some of the American far left approach. It’s rooted in anger and fear and pain, and it breeds intolerance. In my experience this path is often embraced most fiercely by guilty or scared ‘white’ people who one-up each other to prove their wokeness, or blindly support any claim of victimhood.
Like most fanatical political ideologies, on both left and right, this one tends to demonize opposition, venerate anger, promote distrustful division that simplifies, and can’t digest the truthful complexity of our beautiful diversity - the fact that each of us contain multitudes. It splits the world into good and bad. And it’s not particularly concerned with the nuanced truth of specific situations, but mostly just who is on who’s side in every situation.
Living in the US for 16 years, I watched as passionate activists demanded “the conversation” but then treated any actual diversity of thought in that conversation, any perspective that differed even slightly from an extreme woketivist view, as worthy of condemnation and exclusion. And if contrition was not immediate, cancellation.
I think something is struggling to be born in our world. A world where we all cut through all the lies that have divided us, to recognize a revolutionary truth: that we human beings are truly one family, far far more similar to each other than we have been taught to believe. A world where we can all just be ourselves.
Our greatest leaders fought for that world. They endured criticism, and their greatness lay not just in their speaking truth to power, but their willingness to speak truth to their own “tribe”, to earn their opprobrium. Martin Luther King was widely unpopular when he died, in part for standing with the Vietnamese people against his country’s war there. Gandhi was killed by a Hindu extremist. I have at times felt that my political “tribe” is the left. And I feel inspired by the courage of my heroes to speak truth to my tribe, and say that your values and your yearning I feel, but whether we actually liberate people or oppress them depends on which of the two paths we choose.
The most toxic woketivists will, breathtakingly, call me, my beliefs, and my work racist for choosing this path, and will convert our differences of view into the language of hurt feelings, unsafety and victimization, but I believe they are the real home of cruel intolerance on the left. The beliefs that some hold, such as that virtually all white people have an implicit bias against non-white people, are not just verifiably untrue for anyone familiar with the science and research of implicit attitudes, they are, quite simply, racist lies.
Fascism is rising. It threatens us again. This is the real face of age old oppressions in our time. But history teaches that extremists feed off each other - that a divisive and demonizing far left typically midwifes the ascent of fascism by demonizing political moderates and driving polarization. The leftist identity politics of the last century was around class, and the far-left “woke” were the communists. Hundreds of millions died in wars and proxy wars fought in part over their certainty that a free market was a system of oppression and only a dictatorship of the workers who eliminated private property could liberate people. Many were passionately idealistic and compassionate for the suffering of others. But they were just wrong. Wiser political moderates built modern social democracy, and humanity has enjoyed exponentially growing prosperity and unprecedented poverty reduction since.
Now a new kind of angry, demonizing and divisive identity politics beckons to the left, and with it I see a spiral downward. And it competes with the love, wisdom and true strength of a transformative justice approach that could really make the world we dream of more real. This is the approach of the older civil rights movements that have won such liberation for so many people. There is a spectrum within the woketivist movement - and on one side of it there are inspiring leaders that carry forward the vision of the civil rights movement. Almost everyone claims to be against racism now, but we must choose what approach we take. For the sake of all of us and everything we love, I pray that enough of us choose wisely.
PS - the pic is of my Mom and Dad :).