I listen to a great show on NPR called Tell Me More. The show has a clear multi-cultural bent. The host asked a question awhile back, ”Will racism ever end?” I’ve been thinking about that ever since.
I started by wondering why we have prejudices in the first place? Are all prejudices bad? Prejudice, I think, is a basic skill which allows us to distinguish one from another. It’s like in the Kindergarten song that asks, “Which of these things don’t belong together?” So when it’s a drawing of 3 oranges and 1 apple, it’s an easy task. If the drawing showed 3 white kids and 1 black, well, that’s rife with all sorts of implications. My son has a difficulty distinguishing a friendly smile from a sarcastic grin or pained grimace. It is a survival skill he is learning, one painful encounter at a time.
In the most basic, instinctual sense, a baby needs to know who her “safe people” are. She learns who her mom, dad, grandma and neighbor are. As adults, we learn to assess a friendly situation from a potentially dangerous one. Seeing people similar to us puts us at ease. Most women will feel more comfortable walking into a room full of women, than a room full of men. When I drive through a certain part of town and see people hanging out on the street corners, cigarettes hanging from their mouths, donning ghetto gear, I feel uncomfortable. I’ve thought this through and it’s not the color of their skin so much (they are equally black and white) as all the other symbols of their condition, that puts me on edge. “What will they think of me?” is as vital a question as “What do I think of them?” We make ourselves the “norm,” from which all judgments are made. “I am safe,” and “I am normal,” are adages which we must live by.
I have 3 older brothers, each a year apart in school. Growing up in an area 99.6% white, they were constantly mistaken for each other, so much so that they stopped correcting people. And really, they did not look alike. Ask any Asian. They are similar in height, with brown eyes and black hair, but then, so are several billion east Asians on this globe, right? My one brother is fair-skinned, with fine-features set on a broad, square face atop broad shoulders. My other brother is very olive, with thick black brows, coarse hair, a triangular face and much slimmer build. Yet another brother is fair skinned but has a rectangular face and wore glasses.
Cut to scene 20 or so years later. I am having a conversation with a white friend and we are talking about who his children look like. He analyzed the exact tone of his children’s auburn hair and lighter brown eyes and the similarities to the Smith side of the family, as opposed to the blonder shade of hair and deep brown eyes of the Jones side. He went on for several more minutes comparing the exact tilt of the nose and freckle structure. These two examples, though occurring years and miles apart, made me realize something important:
We are more aware of our “own kind,” because we consider the basics "normal," and can easily get past these superficial qualities and see deeper.
Despite having spent most of my years in the US, it is still harder for me to distinguish the subtleties of Caucasian features. It is harder for me to see past the blond hair of the 4 tow-heads in my son’s class and constantly get them mixed up with each other. Likewise, I think one race can’t see past the most basic features of another race, past the unfamiliar, past the "otherness" unless we really spend time and effort to see past the basics, dig deeper and really try to see.
Being able to recognize our own, to judge a comfortable situation from a threatening one, are lifesaving skills for us as human beings. It’s no wonder then, that one white male executive will be more likely to hire another young white male, from his own fraternity. I get that. But as human beings, we have the ability to get past our instincts and consciously choose to make wise choices that take us past merely our own comfort zone.
Will racism ever end? In this life, on this earth, as long as our ability to segregate and differentiate is essential and instinctual? I don’t think so. But while we are here, can we at least try to see past the surface? Can we set ourselves aside as being the “norm,” or the “normal,” as the basis by which all things are measured? Can we look at the other person, part the curtains, and see more?