I was slowly getting familiar with this year’s trending r-word, R0, which is pronounced as R-naught. It represents, on average, the number of people a single infected person can be expected to transmit a disease (in this case, Covid-19) to. Scientists say that R0 empowers governments and public health authorities to make better decisions about how best to control the disease.
But the other dreaded r-word, racism, also made the news again. Indeed, one could say it probably makes the news on more occasions than it is reported. Racism is a form of prejudice that involves negative attitudes towards members of a specific racial or cultural group.
It is the infantile and mistaken belief that the offender’s group is somehow better than other groups of people. In my view, racism simply expresses feelings of inferiority. The word prejudice comes from the two Latin words, prae and judicium, which combine to form pre-judgment.
As I reflected on the sad exposure of racism’s tempestuous nature, my mind went back to Denzel Washington’s 2007 movie, ‘The Great Debaters’. Built around the virtues of critical thinking, research, teamwork and open mindedness, the movie shows a triumphant engagement with issues of the day.
‘The Great Debaters’ follows the lives of the African-American four-member debating team from Wiley College in the town of Marshall, Texas, in the 1930s. In an environment marked by lynching and other, hate crimes, the coach of the debate team must teach them to rise above their fears.
The debate team coach, Professor Melvin Tolson (played by Washington), has the task of imparting strong thought processes that will help the team to stand up for, and declare their rights. It is worth noting that the professor repeatedly challenges the team to identify their opponent.
Their answer is only correct when they realize that the opponent “does not exist, he is a mere dissenting voice to the truth I speak”. Further, the teacher encourages the team in the values of shared humanity, a passionate belief in education, and a realization that history imbues one with timeless and unforgettable lessons. Thus equipped, the Wiley College team, long seen as the underdog, goes on to win a national debate championship.
The team is able to overcome its doubts and fears and to embrace teamwork and selflessness. By overcoming the competitive streak and adopting the cooperative strategy, the team members traverse worst-case scenarios to achieve a happy outcome.
Amanda L. Hodges notes that “instead of being awed by noble, nearly omniscient teachers who single-handedly transform the lives of their fortunate students, audiences are watching teachers and students co-construct learning, redefine texts, and work together to challenge the status quo.”
I wish to propose yet another dimension to the film’s lessons, that of personal growth. In one part, the coach says “somehow black is always equated with failure. Well, it’s time to write your own dictionary.” It is possible to take events that would ordinarily stress and handicap people, to rise above their deleterious effects, and still conquer.
Experiences and priorities build the discourses, which live around us. Each of us is a work in progress that needs to realize that the opponent “does not exist, he is a mere dissenting voice to the truth I speak”.
Different societies and communities call us by various names. Among these are the image of God, the higher self, or the desired state. Whatever name one comes across, it is time to shed self-loathing and feelings of inferiority and focus instead on seeking one’s mission in life. It is ongoing.