How hitchhiking taught me to discuss with racists and sexists

Discussing with a driver - not always a pleasure

Discussing with a driver – not always a pleasure

In our everyday lives, most of our deeper encounters are generally limited to a bubble of people that have a similar education, are from a similar income class and also have a similar mindset. While hitchhiking however, we burst out of this bubble as our encounters are very random and we never know what our next driver will be like. And many times, we then get confronted with opinions that we rarely encounter inside of our bubble. Even though we encounter people outside of our bubble in our everyday lives, we like to avoid confrontations like these and instead stick to interacting with people we’re comfortable with. In the confined space of a car this is much more difficult though and suddenly you’re more or less forced to discuss with people you normally might not argue with. This can be an exhausting, but also eye-opening experience and it is why I think hitchhiking taught me to discuss with racists and sexists.

To begin with, I think it’s important to state that I’m a straight, white, blond German guy. This is important as I’m generally not affected by discrimination and I imagine that people feel much more comfortable to share their xenophobic or sexist views with me as they often expect to find acceptance from my side. Most likely, it would be a lot more difficult for me to discuss with a racist driver in case I was born with a different skin colour.

I vividly remember one lovely Romanian driver of mine who suddenly stated that at times he wished Hitler didn’t stop in Romania with his genocide on ‘gypsies’ so they wouldn’t have problems with the Roma today. I was shocked and had problems to form an answer at first as he apparently expected me to agree with him on that phrase. He wasn’t an intimidating neonazi that immediately sent shivers down my spine – For me, he seemed like a very nice and caring guy prior to this, driving out of his way to give us a city tour and buying us water. After getting over my first shock, I managed to ask him if he really thought that this was an acceptable method to solve problems. We managed to discuss on the topic and even though we certainly didn’t agree on it, I learned much more about the complexity of the problems between Romanian Roma and Romanians and about his perspective of working in the UK as a Romanian. Among other things, he told me how people wouldn’t lend him money in the UK as they associated Romanians automatically with thieving Roma gangs. This would often make him pretend to be Hungarian to avoid racism. In the end, even though what he said was totally inacceptable (which I made clear to him), I learned about this unique perspective of him which I never would’ve gotten to know out of my privileged position.

I’ve had similar encounters in every country I’ve travelled in, from racists Germans that would like to shoot at arriving asylum seekers, over nationalistic Hindus in India who’re burning to invade Pakistan, to Burmese Buddhists who’d like to drive all Muslims out of the country. And I’ve almost always questioned their beliefs openly or at least gotten to know where their mindset came from. Insensitivity and discrimination towards minorities exist everywhere on this world and is not exclusive to some regions. In fact, probably every single one of us is racist, sexist or generally insensitive to some degree and often we’re not even aware of it. I learned that one should always keep this in mind before judging others, especially if you are part of a privileged majority.

Especially nowadays with the rise of populism and black-and-white thinking around the world, I think listening to other opinions is incredibly important. Way too often we just condemn our opposition before trying to question their beliefs. Even though some answers might not be acceptable at all to us, underlying questions and problems can often be legitimate. And many times you might find out that others’ extreme opinions are based on severe misinformation.

Most importantly one should keep in mind that even on the same issue, people’s perspective will differ and you will open your eyes to a whole new face of a topic. You will generally have a very subjective perspective on every issue and the only ways to change that is to either do a lot of research or to speak to people with different perspectives. Talking to people with differing opinions also makes it much harder to generalize and abolish them as evil as, in my experience, the vast majority of people is good-hearted and wants to do the right thing, but some perspectives are very far away for them and therefore hard to understand for them. Finally, it might also force you to question your own perspective. Breaking out of your social bubble, you might discover that your environment is much more diverse than you thought. This might help you to understand others better.

To sum up, I think forcing yourself to break out of your social bubble will bring other perspectives closer to you which is an important step to be aware of discrimination. I know that it’s hard to do this and you might not know where to start. I think the first step is to free yourself as much as possible of your stereotypes and to see everyone as a new individual person that is insensitive about various things. Because that’s what people are, including yourself. Others will have reasons for their actions that you don’t know about – that doesn’t mean that they’re right in what they’re doing, but it means that you don’t know them and if you judge them it’ll be out of your narrow subjective perspective. Of course there are things which are objectively unacceptable and must be condemned, but most of the time it’s worthy to look at the other person openly. Often a simple ‘Why do you think that?’, ‘What are the problems you are afraid of?’ or ‘Why do you think that refugees are so different from Germans?’ can spark a conversation, or reveal racism openly and make it a topic you can discuss about without assuming a whole lot. It might show you a new perspective and force you to look at the person as a human being. And if you’re lucky, you might provide the other person with a new perspective, too.