Most of us humans are social creatures who tend to form groups and cliques with others who share similar interests. Perhaps this tendency is wired into our DNA at birth, or perhaps it is due to the fact that most of us are born into families populated with people who look like we do. As we grow up in our respective families, we subconsciously absorb our parents’ values (good and bad) because at that stage of our lives, most of us are still too young to independently make up our own minds. In the first few years of our lives, many of us grow up seeing everyone in our biological family as part of “us”, and everyone outside the biological family as “them”. As such, we can be drawn into an “us-them” mindset from near the very beginning. Perhaps this subtle mental shift in the way we perceive the world becomes even more pronounced when we make the transition to the more socially diverse setting of early school. All of a sudden, there are all sorts of people who neither think the way we were raised to think, nor share the same values that we do. When we are confronted with this reality, most of us usually react in one of two ways. Some of us become intrigued by the fact that there are actually people who aren’t like us and become eager to learn from them. For others, the ingrained fear of the unknown kicks in, prompting a bit of defensiveness.
Perhaps the social shock that can come from the first exposure to the fact that there are other humans who have different physical features and cultural values can be significantly reduced by thoughtful and compassionate messaging from more experienced people around us, but it is rare to find a person who is willing and able to consistently deliver such a message. Think of how many racially charged acts of violence could have been completely avoided if the perpetrator(s) had been regularly encouraged in pre-school and beyond to love all other decent people regardless of color or what part of the globe their family came from. How many other racially charged injustices could have been prevented if our groups of friends did a better job policing itself when one of us said or did something that was racially insensitive? I can’t speak for you, but I’d venture to say that we would probably be living in a much more harmonious world if both things described above (as well as other related uplifting things) were commonplace in our community. In the ideal case, all these helpful and healing things would happen with great regularity but as we all know, life is anything but ideal.
In reality, experience seems to show that it is often some of the very groups that we are members of that encourage racism and prejudice against other equally beautiful people who just happen to be different from us. This may seem a little harsh on the surface, but let’s dissect this premise together by way of a thought experiment to see if we can make sense of it. Let us pretend that we magically had two 1.5 year olds at our disposal. Further, let’s also pretend that one of them is from the south side of Queens and is of African descent, while the other is a caucasian from Northern Europe. What do you think would happen if both of these young children were placed in a nice comfortably padded room full of awesome colorful toys? Something in my gut says that both kids would probably start by having a good lung stretching cry because they’ll be a little ticked off at being transplanted from their familiar surroundings into this new environment. It will take a while, but as soon as both children get tired of crying, they’ll probably find a way to start playing with each other, completely oblivious to the difference in their skin color or ethnic background. While these two children will probably quarrel with each other, and fight over a toy that they each decide they want, I’m guessing that any disputes they have won’t at all be racially based. It is likely that they’ll probably just see each other as another person who is being slightly annoying at the time.
Fast forwarding the above scenario 15 odd years, may result in a completely different outcome. If our African baby from the south side of Queens as well as our caucasian baby from northern Europe (who have both grown into strapping young men) are now placed in the same room having primarily grown up around people of their own kind with little exposure to other ethnicities, there is no telling what could happen. In the ideal scenario, these two individuals could be of the open minded variety, becoming fast friends and eagerly learning from one another. Realistically though, there is a non-zero chance that both of these folks will be a bit racially biased and wary of the other due to a number of preconceived notions about the other that they may have internalized from their surroundings as they grew up. The moral of the story here is simple… racism does not seem to be an inbuilt trait that is genetically wired into a person’s psyche at birth. Rather, personal experiences suggest that racism is a learned behavioral pattern.
In all honesty, most adults are a bit racially biased to a degree and perhaps this is because we can’t help but notice the very real differences in hair color, skin color, eye shape, etc that so starkly distinguish each racial subset of the human species. The blunt truth is that a caucasian woman will probably be on heightened alert if she sees a couple of black dudes hanging out in a dark alley while making her way to the BART (Bay area rapid transport) train station late at night in Oakland California. In the same way, a black man walking down the street of a small town in some of the southernmost parts of the United States may feel a sense of trepidation at being the only one of his kind in his immediate vicinity which by the way is crawling with white policemen. Both these examples are probably reasonable reactions to the described circumstances considering the current state of racial tolerance in our world.
Although some sort of racial bias is expected from most people, racial bigotry is what really causes the problem. It is hard to argue with the mental process of a black man who becomes a bit wary if he were to be all of a sudden surrounded by white police officers that he doesn’t know. This is especially true in light of the well documented (by way of members of our society armed with their smartphones) violent altercations that have occurred between white cops and young black men . In the same way, it is difficult to fault a white woman who is a bit apprehensive of “menacing looking black dudes” hanging out in poorly lit alleyways as she makes her way to the train station. Having said all of that, having a bit of racial bias is not at all an excuse for not making an effort to understand others that are different from us. If our hypothetical black man happens to strike up a conversation with one or two of the white cops we refer to in our example here, and after a few months of regular interaction, finds them to be perfectly nice and respectable gentlemen and in spite of all that still harbors a racial bias, then we have crossed into the realm of racial bigotry. In the same way, if one of those “menacing black dudes” walks up to our hypothetical lady on her way to the BART station and returns the wallet that she forgot at the local pub and develops a friendship with her over many months and she still harbors a strong racial bias in spite of all that, then we’ve also crossed into the realm of racial bigotry. You probably already know where I’m going with this but I’ll type it here all the same. There are decent people in every race, and bad people in every race. Thus it makes no sense to hate another person just because someone once told you that all people of that race or ethnicity are bad. If you find a good person, it shouldn’t matter what skin color they have… hang out with them and perhaps learn from them if you share a connection.
Being a scientist, the issue of racial bigotry seems completely idiotic especially when you learn that we are all made up of pretty much the same stuff. For example, the same 4 nucleotides – Adenine(A), Guanine(G), Cytosine(C), Thymine(T) – are the building blocks of every human’s genetic code regardless of what continent your forefathers called home. We are all a lot more alike than outside appearances would suggest. I’m not particularly religious, but the existence of DNA as the fundamental building block of all life on this planet is the most compelling proof of a divine all powerful creator that I have ever come across. How weird is it that we are all pretty much made up of the same 4 things? If that doesn’t give you a sense of kinship with your fellow humans regardless of race, you might want to check your pulse.
In conclusion, the titans in history like Dr King and Nelson Mandela that fought and even died for integration between different races and ethnicities were on to something. With the passage of time, the clearer it becomes that we’d probably do much better if we lived in the spirit of cooperation and mutual aid than one of violent competition. That being said, general human consciousness hasn’t quite reached the stage where this is clear to all of us, so we fight on… scratching and clawing our way to quasi meaningless victories and losses. I hope you and I live long enough to see the day when bi-racial couples can walk down any street in the world without fear of being harassed. I hope you and I live long enough to see the day when everyone who is interested has a shot at a great education regardless of where they came from. I hope you and I live long enough to see the day where the need for ethnic wars and disputes no longer exist. Till that day comes my friends, take care of yourselves and each other.