Thursday, January 19, 2012

Making things right (2)

Dr. King once famously said he dreamed of a day when a man was judged not by the color of his skin but by the content of his character.

Speaking for myself, I can't remember a time when I "judged" a person by the color of his skin upon first meeting the person. Of course, sometimes the person's character becomes evident the minute they open their mouth and speak, or when you read the writing on his T-shirt, but I have never said to myself, "Here comes a black man. I know what he's going to be like."

Of course, I grew up in the north and MLK experienced what he experienced in the south and formed his opinions about white people and black oppression from his own experiences there. He was right. On the other hand, just because blacks living in the north in the late 1950s or early 1960s didn't have the police set dogs on them or get sprayed with high pressure fire hoses when they tried to eat at the Woolworth lunch counter didn't mean they didn't suffer humiliating treatment or otherwise experience racism. Surely, sometimes the "quiet racism" of smiling white liberal Christians must be nearly as exasperating as police dogs. That's just my personal observation; I don't have any way of knowing for sure.

So, I ask myself where "prejudice" started in the first place. Way back at the beginning of mankind, was there racial conflict back then? Because it sure doesn't seem like it started in recent history. If this weird desire to not be around each other (it probably works both ways) DOES go back for thousands or tens of thousands of years, then maybe it had its roots in some sort of instincts back then. Just speculating.

What if humans have ALWAYS had this uneasiness inside them that made them be wary of ANYTHING new, anything different than themselves. A survival mechanism. Whatever. At the very root of it all, isn't that what "discrimination" or (insert your own hate-word here) is defined as? "You are different than I am. Let me slowly and carefully check you out and see if you mean to hurt me or not."

It's a good instinct to have if you meet a bear or a lion. Perhaps it's good to be a bit wary when you meet a new person, too. Especially if that person in some way looks different than you. Maybe that's why little children when they are "shy" take a while to warm up to a stranger and make sure there is no danger before they get too friendly. In today's world, good for them.

But, after being around another group of people for hundreds and hundreds of years, it would seem only natural that you would not be wary anymore. Not at first, at least. There is obviously much more than initial instinct at work here. Modern racism is obviously (to me) learned behavior.



  1. I agree in that I think the behavior is learned. Our tenure on earth has been sufficiently long enough to have evolved beyond instinctual behaviors. This is a tough topic for me as I grew up in the deep South. And my very best friend in high school and beyond was an African-American boy.

    Neither his parents nor mine would allow us to meet outside of school for a coca-cola at the local soda fountain or 'heavens' go to a movie.
    Seven years later, my little sister went to her junior prom with an African-American boy. She was a popular cheerleader. At spring try-outs that year, she suddenly 'didn't make the cut' and never cheered again for the home team ...I'd be a fool and liar to say that the 'good ole boy' network no longer exists in small southern towns. People are just a little bit quieter about it.


  2. I think the instinct to distrust difference is built on by learned behaviour.

    I remember taking a group of young children on a trip into a city. They had all been brought up in a small country town where I think the population was probably approaching 100% white. Suddenly one little boy piped up, "Do you see that very dark brown person? Why is he like that?" followed shortly by, "I don't like him".

    I would imagine he'd never seen anything other than white people before or he would never have phrased it like that. It wasn't too difficult to reply, "Why are my eyes brown and yours are blue?" and so on. But you can well imagine that his reaction could be quite easily steered in another direction.

  3. @Red Dirt Girl - That's a sad story. Though perhaps typical for that time. Hope it's changed. Has it?

    I was going to ask you what you thought about you yourself dating a black man, but that would be intrusive, I guess. But times HAVE changed in the South, at least on the surface. At least they do what the government makes them do.

    I was watching some TV news opinion show with a black guest the other night. He was asked why the South is no longer 100% Democrat. He shrugged and said they all changed their registration to Republican now, but their minds never changed.

    That can't be true.

    @A. - I'm not sure, but somehow your story supports my earlier theory that people are automatically wary of people who are "different" than themselves. Or do you think the child got that attitude from his parents? Sounds spontaneous to me. Maybe he will remember the comment about eye color and think twice. At any rate, his behavior and attitude will be learned, for sure, as he gets older.

    Our definitions of various categories changes as we learn in life (as the link pointed out.)

    Thoughtful comment.

  4. It was intended to support your argument. If he'd heard it from his parents he would have said "black man", I feel sure.

  5. Of course you will find fair minded people wherever you go. The closer you are to a large urban center, the more mixed couples you will see. Attitudes HAVE changed.

    However, the further you travel into small rural communities, the less changes you will note. And you will be met with a fair amount of suspicion no matter what the color of your skin.

    My ex-husband was a dark skinned Hispanic man from Central America. I took him to dinner, once, in a pretty little town in the mountains of North Carolina. Returning from the ladies' room, I passed a group of giggling waitresses talking about him, "He ain't white, but he ain't black either ... I wonder what IS he ?"

    We just laughed. But he didn't want to spend the night in that town.

    Another example:
    When I was 17, I spent the summer living on a college campus attending a camp for 'academically exceptional students.' We had wide ranging debates about topics such as this one. One day our professors greeted us with this statement: "While most of you are here based upon your academic achievements, we also chose to include a number of students who are NOT high achievers. Our belief is that the low achievers will rise to the level of their peers. It's an experiment."

    We were stunned. But it didn't take us very long to start speculating on who the low achievers were. We even made lists...

    The next day our professors confessed that the experiment was on US! To teach us about prejudice, judging others, and the power of 'group thinking.' This time our silence was one of shame. It was a good lesson especially for us teenagers. I've never forgotten it.

    I believe in the power of one, Max. It takes the courage of one man / woman to change the way they think and act (and vote), to go against the tide of popular opinion.

    Today, my daughter dates an African-American boy and has never thought twice about the subject. She hasn't been subjected to any type of harassment or judgment of her peer group. Instead, it's like saying you prefer boys with brown eyes over boys with blue ...

    Me? Well ... I have a weakness for a certain British accent ... :)


    ps. Happy note: my HS best friend married a Caucasian woman. They are both professors at southern universities. Times, they are a'changin.

  6. I think there is a little wariness naturally - why is so and so different than I am?

    However, I think the widespread villification of certain subgroups ("color" being one but not the only one) is the side effect of people who vie for power using the most effective methods: hatred and fear.

    For decent individuals, going to a foreign land already populated and ripping it out from under them, stealing their wealth, putting the natives to the sword would be unthinkable.

    Label them heathens, marked by God to be lower, needing our religion and our civilization to better themselves, and suddenly it's all good. Need cheap labor? Import "heathens" again, comfort ourselves we're feeding and clothing them - they wandered around naked and ignorant before! We're doing them a favor only they're inherently incapable of understanding this because they're not as smart. Same happened (to generally lesser degrees) to other waves of desperate immigrants, from Irish to Chinese, given crappy jobs with low life expectancies and treated like dirt because it was cheaper than justifying paying reasonable wages.

    For decades, the fear was kept alive, even when slaves were no more - the brutal treatment of the south brought resentment and blacks were an easy target. Stirring up that resentment with tales of raping or violent black men or reminding hardworking folks about their "failings" kept people in political power. Of course, that works best among the ignorant, but really, I keep getting surprised.

    Stirring up hatred and fear against segments of the populace still works wonders politically, though I think there are becoming more and more central thinkers who are finding it distasteful and hard to swallow.

    Or that could be wishful thinking on my part.

  7. @A. - I appreciate your support. I think my position on this is still being sorted in my head even as I continue to write about it. I am not sure enough to push my “opinion” forcefully, but I think right now I am suggesting the idea that a certain amount of this distrust is “hardwired” somehow in humans a birth, perhaps with roots in the very beginnings of the species. But the second thing I am more sure that I think is that overt racism that might begin to manifest itself after a person is, say, 8 or 10 years old, or even younger, is learned behavior. Definitely. So, I would believe that the child in your example spoke with innocent honesty and stated his youthful opinion just as spontaneously. Soon, hopefully, his parents will teach him that his initial impressions and reactions were unfair. THEN we get into the situation where he will learn as his parents teach. If they are racists, he will pick up on this until he has enough personal experiences of his own to form a more logical conclusion than blanket racism. Conversely, his parents may teach him fairness, but he may be bullied at school by black children. It works both ways. But, eventually, one hopes he will let the cumulative learning of life forge his beliefs on this and other important issues, and not be blindly closed-minded about anything.

    But I guess that is what you said in your comment. You know me; I have to go on and try to say these things using more words. :)

  8. @Red Dirt Girl - Thank you for sharing some of your personal experiences with this issue. I think you covered a lot of ground with just a few words. I have some personal experiences too, but can’t really improve on what you’ve said. You must be very proud of your daughter, by the way. She’s lucky to have you.

    I’m a bit sad that you fell for that phony northern accent of his, but I wish both of you all all the best. Perhaps in time you’ll come to understand some of what he says. :)

    Ok, not phony. Phunny.

    Oh, incidentally, when you were describing your experience at age 17... "While most of you are here based upon your academic achievements, we also chose to include a number of students who are NOT high achievers. Our belief is that the low achievers will rise to the level of their peers. It's an experiment." ... At first I thought he was talking about Affirmative Action. Heh.

  9. @A. - Before I forget to say it, that little boy was very lucky to have you there when that happened, too.

  10. @Stephanie Barr -

    "For decent individuals, going to a foreign land already populated and ripping it out from under them, stealing their wealth, putting the natives to the sword would be unthinkable."

    I couldn't agree with you more in condemning the brutal Spanish conquest of the entire continent of South America and most of North America. Starting in 1492, a hundred years before the British made their first toe-hold on what is now the USA, the Spanish decimated entire native civilizations almost to the point of extinction, ruthlessly killing and enslaving tens of thousands of native people. Then they intermarried with their remaining victims and now, today, these descendants of that mestizo people are attempting to do the same thing to our own country, ...going to a foreign land already populated and ripping it out from under them, stealing their wealth..." with the illegal immigration of "reconquista."

    Ok, I realize you didn't mean the 10 times more ruthless Spanish, but were instead making a typically progressive "point" of how rotten the descendants of the British settlers were. What you say won't make me feel guilty. I have never felt guilt that we made something we now call the USA, and I am proud to live here. If you want, you can mope around and do penance for the both of us.

    Oh, Stephanie, Stephanie, Stephanie. There is not a country in the word you can name whose territory did not once "belong" to someone else. The Romans once owned most of Britain. We took a lot of our land from the Spanish who took it from the Indians and enslaved the Indians... who took it from other Indians and enslaved other Indians and forever and ever until the beginning of time. I don't feel personal guilt for what my (perhaps) ancestors did to the ancestors of the blacks or the Indians, or Chinese, or Irish... though I feel remorse that it happened and vow to personally treat their descendants - those who live today - with all the friendliness and goodwill I can muster. If a person who is descended from Native American former landowners, or from black slaves, or from Spanish-Indians, I vow that they won't suffer anymore at MY hands. That's all I can do. No guilt. I didn't do anything. Natural Selection, as you are fond of saying. Well, enough of that.

    Of course you were speaking of the possible origins of racism and bigotry and discrimination, and your points are very valid.

    Many of us, though, are not afraid of Native Americans or African Americans, or any other hyphen you can think of. I disagree with you that a significant amount of current-day white racism stems from fear of the people themselves, but rather fear of losing what little they may have left. That in itself proves your point, though. I don't know, Stephanie. We need to learn to get along, I know that much.

    Don't confuse the evil divide-and-conquer tactics of low-life politicians of all parties with one-on-one fear of one American of another, or think for a minute it is the desire of most Americans to trample on their minority brothers and sisters. That's a political tactic.

    My opinion, of course.

  11. It is the herd instinct within human nature as I said. It occurs through colour, religion, sex, place of residence, anything that distinguishes us from them!
    It is seen throughout history that when bad times come the ones who are different get picked on because they are not 'us.'
    It is within us all, but we prefer not to admit it.

  12. Actually, Relax Max, I was thinking specifically of the Aztecs as an example. If I'm not as convinced of the pure-white innocence of other "settlers" as you seem to be, I share your view on my own culpability. I won't perpetuate the ugliness, but I can't undo the past either.

    I wasn't actually attacking any specific invader or any specific group, though some were clearly involved in examples. Most exploring nations followed the same trends; war and invasion encourages that us vs. them thinking so decent people can be induced to kill others for wearing the wrong uniform. I was using examples of where I thought the severe and debilitating bias comes from the precedents of dehumanizing groups of people to justify one's own inhumane actions.

    As for your last two paragraphs, I think your intent is the same I intended with my last two. In other words, I agree with you.

  13. @Stephanie Barr - God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change. One of those things is history. History can muck up your life if you get mired in useless remorse. History is good for just one thing: to learn from. Let us learn from it. Let us not roll around in it until we are saturated with regret and misery. So that was my point, and it is also my basis for refusing to feel guilty about the sins of the fathers.

    I disagree with this statement you made:

    "...war and invasion encourages that us vs. them thinking so decent people can be induced to kill others for wearing the wrong uniform."

    I think it is still only the "you are different than me" (or "us vs them") thinking that causes wars. Wars are the result of that thinking in my opinion. Don't rail against the inhumanity of war or cluster bombs or land mines. Rail against the thinking that I have the right to kill you because you are different from me in some way.

    "You are different from me" is what I have been pounding on here. It doesn't matter if the subject is the slaughter of the Aztecs or the smug ridicule of Republicans by Democrats; it all stems from the same root of intolerance for another's thoughts, beliefs, values, or skin color.

    It naturally follows, then, that I also disagree with your statement that: "...severe and debilitating bias comes from the precedents of dehumanizing groups of people to justify one's own inhuman actions." It is still the same thing -- you are different than me, so I hate you, so I will kill you and take what you have. Bias doesn't come from precedents of history. Bias, and the way you act because of your biases, comes from what is going on in your heart and your head. A person can change his thinking. A person can control and shape his attitudes. He is not helpless to repeat history or be a slave to the opinions of those around him.

    Finally - and I don't want to get into our old argument - but you used the words "decent people" and I was wondering who I should take my definition of that from? Who are decent people? Not Republicans, to be sure. That is a given. But is the general definition simply people who think like you do? Live like you do? Decent might mean something different to me. For example, I think soldiers who risk their lives on the battlefield to defend our country and who die and get maimed in the process, are decent - not mindless robot pawns of politicians who are sadly mistaken in their personal beliefs.

    I have missed you. I am trying to make up for lost time. :) At least you let me vent.

  14. @Adullamite - Perhaps we are saying the same thing and I just don't realize it, but, to me, the "herd instinct" - a desire to keep to your own kind - is different than wanting to attack those who are different to your own herd.

    True, bullies tend to persecute the weak and ridicule the different. True, also, that many of us, to our shame, go along with the bullies in that persecution, so we won't stand out as being different and be the objects of scorn ourselves.

    Yet I believe still that there is something inside us, perhaps even at birth, that makes us wary of people and things that are somehow different. It is our job to overcome this when unwarranted. It is a lifelong job.

    Perhaps you are right and we are wary because we are comparing the new thing to our own herd. Or perhaps I just like to argue.

  15. I think the difference in our perception when it comes to the quotes of mine you pulled is what came first. I don't think wars are started because people are different; I think wars are started because people want power and are willing to use the perceptions of those differences to get it done, to convince people to fight and fear. Ditto for using people for economic gain. See Hitler.

    I don't think people said, "Oh, these people have dark skin, so of course I have the right to own them." I think people said, "I need cheap labor and Africans are selling other Africans as slaves. That could solve my problem and it's OK because they're just a small step above 'real' people and I'm bringing them civilization and they don't know any better etc..."

    My contention is that the differences aren't inherently the source of hatred and misuse but become an excuse because someone sees an advantage in it. Of course, that's just my opinion.

    And you hit it on the head. It's not the weapons (other than the notion that the "good guys" can decimate an entire city of men, women and children and think their hat untarnished) but the use of the weapons and the reasoning behind it. And that I do rail against. I dislike war not because I think violence is never called for but because I hate the notion of collateral damage. If someone deserves to die (and some I believe, from their actions, do), I don't like the notion of taking out 948 innocent bystanders to do it. Even more, I hate the notion that I've dehumanized other human being to justify killing them without knowing anything about them but the label I've been given for them.

    When I speak of decent people, what I mean is really what I consider most people. The kind that wouldn't drown their children to get a boyfriend or chase down children in the middle of the night or spread deadly drugs to our children for cash. I don't know what to expect of people like that, but it isn't much.

    When I say "decent people," I mean regular people who, under most circumstances, would never contemplate enslaving a neighbor or torturing another human being or wandering into a stranger's home and stealing everything they had, leaving the owners for dead contribute to actions that do the same thing (whether through inaction or direct involvement). Think German citizens in 1939 - do we really think every one was a monster? Of course not. Or rather, I don't.

    I think there are more decent people than any other kind (though I've been told by many I'm too optimistic). They can be manipulated and cowed and riled and used, but I also believe that education and setting good examples are the best way to help those people stay decent so they don't contribute to more atrocities whether directly or through apathy. I think they are prevalent in every religion, every race, every gender, every sexual orientation, every nation.

  16. There is of course a US view which differs from the UK one. Those born in Birmingham Alabama would have a differing perspective from those born in Birmingham England. The date of their birth would also influence them. It is breaking away from such influences that help us see how much we respond to them.

  17. @Stephanie Barr - I will let you have the last word. :)

    @Adullamite - You may be right about Birmingham.



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