There is no worse way to start the day than to encounter unbridled prejudice. Moments after I got into the lift on the way to work, the elderly Chinese woman standing in the corner beside me gave a sharp jab to my ribs with her elbow. Surprised, I shuffled a few centimetres from her, but that obviously was not enough for her comfort zone: she poked again, then protectively tightened her embrace on the two kindergarten-age children with her. Figuring out what was going on, I told her what I thought of such rudeness, but the words fell on deaf ears and as we reached the ground floor, she scurried out, unperturbed by her actions.
That incident was a month ago, but it comes to mind each time I press the lift button. Not in the 15 years that I have lived in the North Point apartment block have I encountered such blatant intolerance. There have been stares and scuttling as people make way, as might be expected when someone of larger size approaches. Once, a family of mainland tourists clustered around, wordlessly looking up open-mouthed at my 190cm, but not before has there been someone so disdainful of my presence that standing in close proximity was unpalatable.
I am familiar with the yesterday views of my mother's generation; racism was rife then and it was usual to look down on those with different skin colours. But while the thinking of that minority has little moderated, many developed societies have become ever-more tolerant, understanding that strength lies in equality and diversity. Changing the opinions of those who have lived a lifetime of prejudice is not going to happen, so it is up to parents, schools and the community to teach the wrongs of discrimination. It was not so much the woman's message in the lift to get away that shocked me, but the fact that she had two impressionable youngsters with her that were taking it all in.
The consequence of society not taking prejudice seriously enough was shown in a recent Equal Opportunities Commission survey. Questioning 152 children aged between three and six, it found many had negative views of people with darker skin. The findings were in line with similar studies elsewhere over the past 50 years, with respondents generally believing those with white skin were more beautiful and those whose appearance was dark were least friendly and trustworthy. Couple that with surroundings that send a message that brown skin means menial work, a lack of racial diversity in all but international schools, advertisements that feature only Chinese and white models and television programmes with rarely a brown or black face, and there is a risk of old prejudices flourishing.
In such an environment, it is understandable - although lamentable - that the government, backed by the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, is so adamant that foreign domestic helpers should be denied permanent residency. The racism has also seeped into the debate about whether the English Schools Foundation should be subsidised. Coming on the heels of last month's anti-migrant attacks in Norway, there is a tendency to believe that intolerance is on the rise and spreading. This is not the case: hatred has always been there and requires constant effort to quash.
Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post