Looking inside ourselves to uncover the sources of our prejudices is the key to welcoming difference as a gift, writes ANDY HAMILTON SJ   

We have seen the evil of racism in historical and current events. The Nazi persecution of Jews and attempt to eradicate them are among the greatest evils of last century. The perhaps lesser but still monstrous assaults on the Armenians, the Hutu and now the Rohingya are also fresh in mind. Hatred for particular racial groups can lead to appalling deeds on a massive scale.

Because hatred begins in prejudice, people who call out racism and point to its dangers do society a favour. Although they are often shouted down for their pains, the angry shouts directed at them are the tweets of canaries in the dark mine of popular prejudice.

To understand racism, however, it may be best to reserve the word for its worst examples.  It is too heavy for indiscriminate use. It evokes images of Klu Klux Klan killings, of gas chambers and of mass graves. These are the endpoint of racism.  Its beginnings lie in attitudes and words that breathe of prejudice and contempt but do not find violent expression.

To call these things racist lumps together the monstrous and the regrettable. It makes for confusion and defensiveness in conversation, not for understanding and change of heart. Where it is confined to attitudes and wounding words it may be better to speak of racial prejudice than of racism.

Easy accusations of racism can also suggest that it can be readily isolated and dealt with. In practice many strands of experience and culture are associated with racial prejudice, both in its milder and more extreme forms. It is best understood as the product of a network of relationships that lead us think the less of people who differ from us. When we meet or hear of people who are different we see first their race and only secondarily their face.  Racial factors can sometimes be a secondary factor even in racial prejudice. It can flow out of a deeper antipathy held on religious or cultural grounds, or many other sources of difference.

These tangled threads need to be untangled and their complexity given full weight.

To understand racism we must study its ecology, reflecting on the interaction of different elements of experience and attitudes rather than looking for simple unitary causes.  These include the experiences and responses in us that generate a free-flowing anger and resentment that seek for a target.

They may also include the frustrations of inadequate education and difficulty in finding work, living in an environment that is marked by disadvantage, a history of prejudice passed down across generations, and hearing coded racial abuse from politicians and media. What seemed simple turns out to be rooted in a complex network of relationships, many marked by disadvantage. This is the world we see through the eyes of the people with whom we work at Jesuit Social Services.

The antidote to racism lies first in reflecting on our own heart and on the prejudices that cloud our minds, and cultivating a habit of welcoming difference as a gift not as a threat. That will make us first wonder instead of judging when we meet people who display racial prejudice.