When I lived in East London, I once started to talk to a Taliban-looking guy (his words ) in a cafeteria. He was a Muslim who had married a Christian girl from Sweden. He told me about their cultural differences and how people reacted to him in Sweden. He lamented that it was not easy to look the way he does: “Nowadays, people have all these prejudices about dark-skinned people with a beard like me. Where ever I go, be it here in London or somewhere else, I get suspicious looks and see the fear in people’s eyes. I feel for them, because I know that I am not dangerous. But the funniest thing that happened to me was when I was boarding a plane the other day and the guy sitting next to me scared the shit out of me because he looked exactly like me!!!” We had to laugh so much about this anecdote and at the same time we were so shocked about what the media was able to create: a fear that is completely absurd.
I very much appreciated his honesty though. When I was studying intercultural communication, I did not like it when people were pretending that they never have any prejudices about others. I was clearly observing some within me and was questioning myself. I then intensified my studies in the field of stereotype research and how the brain forms categories. They help us make sense of the overwhelming amount of information that our senses are confronted with every second of our lives. They help us discern the world around us. They are a form of protection from the unknown. Say you have been robbed three times by a tall white man, it will alert you when the same superficial setting occurs again. This is when I realized that we are all racist, judgmental, and have wrong expectations due to past experiences but what makes the difference between a racist and an open-hearted person is being aware of this and consciously deciding to not go down that road – unless it saves our lives.