One afternoon when I was a kid, a friend from the neighborhood showed up with a new kickball. We had great fun kicking the ball around my backyard until I noticed it looked pink and said so. A heated argument ensured, my neighborhood friend insisting the kickball was red, as he wouldn’t own a pink kickball. That was “girly”.
The argument was due partly to a congenital condition I have. Having fewer fat cells in my eyes than the average person, I don’t perceive colors quite the same as others. While this ball was none of the known colors, it looked pink to me and red to him. As the argument progressed, we began name calling in earnest – which was how arguments were settled among children in our neighborhood. After calling each other “blind as a bat”, “color-blind”, and “stupid” several times, we both worked hard to come up with a truly derisive word or phrase to sling at the other for a decisive win. But, it soon became clear that neither could win. There was no sufficiently derisive word or phrase to label someone whose perception of color wasn’t to your liking . . . at least with respect to kickballs.
Although I had a visual handicap, my friend’s emotional investment in the issue (not wanting to appear “girly”) made him less than objective. Thus, we were both handicapped.
Handicapps also arise in our perception of People of Color. We are prone to emotional investments in skin color, attributing all sorts of things to skin color that have no real connection to it.
People also have a tendency to engage in categorical thinking, i.e. trying to put everything into one box or another so we can try to make sense of it. We do this to people also.
Perception of color is based on how our eyes process electromagnetic radiation and the version of categorical thinking incorporated into one’s particular culture and language. The average human eye will respond to wavelengths from about 390 to 700 nm, 430–770 THz. To communicate the perception of colors, we employ categorical thinking and divide the visible light spectrum into different sets (or boxes, if you will) of named colors. European and American perception of color is based on the categorization of “primary colors” formally announced by Sir Isaac Newton. Other cultures (and their languages) divide the visible electromagnetic spectrum into different categories. They have different words that divide the color spectrum into colors different from ours. Thus, color is truly in the eye of the beholder.
Categorical thinking is trying to sort everything out into predefined boxes. Although very useful when initially tackling complex subjects, categorical thinking has its inherent drawbacks. It often leads to thinking that similar things are more different than they are. With respect to light waves that fall next to each other at the boundaries of two “colors”, one just to the left of the boundary and the other just to the right of it, we are forced to treat two very similar things as though they are significantly different by ascribing a different “color” to them. In retrospect, I suspect the kickball was neither pink nor red, but somewhere in the spectrum between them. We also tend to treat similar people as being different because of skin color. Categorical thinking forces us to put things (like the kickball) and people (like people of different skin colors) into categories that don’t really fit them.
Effects of Categorical Thinking
During times of slavery, Reconstruction, and the subsequent Jim Crow era, similar people were treated vastly different based on the perception of their skin color. This had devastating effects on otherwise assimilated Native Americans with dark skin, while also liberating many African-Americans with light skin. It still has an effect today in the practice of institutional racism – a dark skinned person is still treated differently than a light skinned person in terms of discretion in enforcement, police force used, and prosecutorial discretion. Thus, categorical thinking applied to the perception of skin color has, and still does, affect one’s opportunity for freedom.
The net effect is that one’s opportunities and freedoms often depend upon the distance of their ancestors from the equator – two things that should really have no connection to each other. Ancestral distance from the equator should not determine the amount of freedom allowed a person. ASIP, MATP, TYR, OCA2, and SLC24A5 are the genes currently believed to influence the phenotype we call “skin color”. These genes influence the amounts and types of melanin produced. Melanin is a skin pigmentation agent that helps the epidermis protect itself against UV radiation. The distance of your ancestors from the equator determines which versions of these genes you may have and thus your skin color. Skin color has no correlation with intelligence, cooperativeness, ability, or potential. Social restraints, however, create a self-fulfilling prophesy. More black people are arrested to make it appear they are more prone to crime. More Black people have been held back economically and in educational opportunities so it can be said they don’t have ability. But, these outcomes are the self-fulfilling result of societal limitations placed on them, not any inherent biological factors.
The Influence of Culture
So, if biology doesn’t justify the long history of adverse treatment of People of Color, why does the adverse treatment exist? This is where the question gets complicated. When there are no significant biological differences associated with skin color, other than skin color itself, why has skin color been used to determine opportunities for freedom and economic advancement as well as the resulting imposed limits on feelings and expressions of pride by People of Color.
Perhaps it is because, for people as a whole, our cultural beliefs got formed and cemented long before knowledge of our biology came to fruition. In the absence of information and knowledge, people tend to respond to the simplest, most obvious, visual stimuli. Perhaps simply because skin color was noticeable, it was given significance. In any event, the emotional responses and cultural perspectives placed on skin color are nothing more than long-held superstitions, having no basis in fact or logic.
Perhaps for a very long time, white people have employed the strategies of self-fulfilling prophesies as noted above and those strategies have become engrained into our culture, reinforcing those superstitions.
It could be suggested that differences between people, rather than their similarities, have been focused upon since our early evolution. When humans existed primarily in tribes of 100 to 200 people and resources were scarce, they became suspicious of anyone not in their tribe. Members in a tribe shared the same skin color. (Interestly, the skin color of a tribe was subject to change over time (tens of thousands of years) and distance migrated from the equator, but always essentially the same within the group at any given time.)
Humans, as their large brains have accumulated knowledge about the world, have struggled with whether to cooperate or compete with each other. The same choice has been made by other species through evolution rather than intellect. Some species cooperate within the species, other species compete within the species. (Among other species, including many primates, some compete even within their own group, with only the strongest allowed the greater resources and opportunity to reproduce. Other primates cooperate within their group, sharing all resources and opportunities to reproduce.) Human evolution has been unusual in that it has left us in the middle ground, not quite knowing whether or when to cooperate or compete with each other, within our own group or with other groups. Thus, it has fallen on our intellect to make the ultimate decisions.
So far, we haven’t fared well with those decisions. Although we have achieved much progress over other species in terms of intra-group cooperation and, with the rise of civilization, even inter-group cooperation, we still hang on to old superstitions like skin color. It is past time to come to terms with the issue. It is time for intellect to eradicate superstition.
Who is a Racist?
Categorical thinking can also be problematic when white people start thinking about their racial attitudes and the racial attitudes of other white people. It’s easy for a white person to get lost in the game of “who is really a racist and who is not”. Perhaps, though, there are not just two boxes, “racists” and “non-racists”. Rather, there are varying degrees of racial attitudes. Those marching and shouting about white supremacy are easy to categorize, but there is also some accuracy in saying that every person who has enjoyed white privilege retains some racist attitudes, however unawares. The liberal suburbanite, who knows and promotes all the politically correct language to refer to racial issues and protests the white supremacy marchers, and yet calls the police when she sees a black man wearing a hoodie while jogging in her neighborhood, can be said to be – to some degree – “racist”. On the other hand, a hardworking, good hearted, fair-minded person, lacking in formal education and political correctness of language may take great risks to protect People of Color from unfair treatment within her sphere of influence, yet still be labeled a “racist” due to her politically incorrect language.
Perhaps there is little utility in white people using the term “racist” at all. We might be more productive in eliminating harm and lack of opportunity to People of Color by thinking and speaking in terms of “the racial attitude spectrum”, rather than in terms of “racism”. While it is useful to carve out some area of that spectrum and create laws that proscribe hate crimes, it may not be useful for white people to attempt to label each other as “racist” or “non-racist”. Perhaps our efforts would be better spent attempting to enlighten ourselves and those around us regarding how our attitudes can cause harm to People of Color and how we can adjust our attitudes to be less harmful and even helpful.
Perhaps by focusing on identifying and eliminating superstition, rather than labeling and condemning each other, we might have better progress. Rather than assigning blame, let’s move toward a more enlightened future. After all, all white people are to blame to some degree.
So, if categorical thinking and racist labeling are not productive, do we go about the burdensome process of attempting to create new rules of language, new rules of political correctness? I think not. Perhaps everyone is always trying to evolve language faster than it is capable of evolving. “Political correctness” often becomes a tiresome process with little actual utility in preventing harm. It is important to remember that progress should not necessarily be about language rules and “political correctness”. Rather it should be about our hearts, our actions, and how we respond to skin color in a variety of situations. Many hardworking white people do not have time to scour periodicals, social media, and talk shows to determine the currently trending acceptable use of language. Being good people who are often good allies to People of Color just comes naturally to many of them.
Look to Thine Own Eye
Perhaps, it is not my place as a white man to tell another white person how to think or how to talk. What is important for me is to examine my own heart, examine my own attitudes, and do what I can to make myself less harmful and more helpful to People of Color. Hopefully then, if I get it right, others with a desire to do better can learn from my example. I don’t need to judge them or preach to them. I need to show them by my actions.
Perhaps, by promoting the elimination of superstition, advancing our understanding of science, and focusing on the benefits of cooperation and altruism rather than labeling and blaming other white people (especially when I am also to blame) I can do more to advance our growth as a culture.
What about those out marching and chanting white supremacy slogans? Maybe racist labeling does have utility when describing these people. There is no equivocation there. Those folks have a belief in a superiority based entirely upon race and, more significantly, they allow that belief to become the defining point of their lives. Even more significantly, they aggressively try to impose that belief on others. These folks are superstitious. They are ignorant. They are so far to one side of the spectrum it leaves no doubt – they are racists. But, beyond confronting them, is a white person’s time best spent trying to judge, classify and “correct” all the other white people around them or in self-examination and self-improvement? Logs verses splinters in the eye and all that.
The term “racist” now appears to be universally accepted as bad. No one wants to be called a “racist” and no one wants to admit that they are “racist”. I have seen interviews of high ranking members of the KKK in which they insisted they were not racist. That is a strange phenomenon to me. Everyone manages to come up with their own definition of “racist” to include others and exclude themselves. When one takes all these potential definitions into account, who is left to admit they are “racist”? Perhaps only the person placing the rope around the black neck – and even that person might describe that action as his societal duty and not due to an inherent racism. If you ask people whether they are “racist”, and accept their answers, very few people are racist. Those few that admit to racial attitudes may actually fall toward the better side of the racial attitude spectrum in their actions, relatively speaking. Recognition of their problem may be the beginning of overcoming it.
And, then, there is the very unproductive concept of reverse racism. Some whites scream about the racism practiced against them because of their whiteness. Racial quotas at colleges and job opportunities are often pointed to as the practice of “reverse racists”. Outspoken People of Color who dare to say that Black people are superior to whites are also so labeled. (Even some Black people who don’t say that, but act with a certain superior arrogance, are also so accused.) Here, in arguing for the concept of reverse racism, is where the beast of categorical thinking most reveals its silly, ugly head. Providing previously denied opportunities to one race, is not racism against the long-privileged race. That’s silly damn nonsense!
The Beauty of Color
That we perceive skin color is without doubt. We can’t help but perceive it. That we react to it is without doubt. We can’t help but to react to it. We should see color. When we see it, we should rejoice in it. We should celebrate its diversity. It makes the world more interesting that people come in different colors.
That we have long-held societal attitudes surrounding skin color is, though, unfortunately without question also. We need to examine the sources of these long-held attitudes. We need to ask these questions: How are these attitudes perpetuated? What can we do to improve our own attitudes about skin color? If and when we have obtained a certain degree of insight and enlightenment regarding these attitudes within ourselves, how can we best be an example to others?
How to Best Affect Change
The European (white) culture tackles its problems with engineering. We build large, strong buildings, vast transportation systems, big ships, powerful bombs and fast rocket ships. When we encounter a societal problem, we also attempt to employ engineering. We attempt to re-engineer society to correct the problem. That societal engineering usually involves the government imposing unpleasant outcomes for actions we consider bad and providing favorable outcomes for actions we consider good. It has been suggested, however, that certain things can only be permanently changed by internalization, not outwardly imposed reward and punishment. That is, if you control people’s behavior from the outside, they will never internalize the need to change their own behavior and will only comply while the enforcement is in effect. The person never really changes, only their behavior – and only temporarily. On the other hand, the argument that over time we internalize changes to become more compatible with our enforced behaviors may also be a valid argument. Perhaps, though, instead of societal engineering, what we need is for people to change their minds and their hearts, give up their superstitions. You can’t make people do that. They must want to do it. Calling them names doesn’t motivate them to change. It only alienates them and makes them less receptive to learning from your actions.
As a starting point, we should show these superstitious people that people of other colors should not be feared, show them by not fearing them yourself – even when they show up in your white suburban neighborhood. We can teach others by example.
All change starts within oneself.
I do not mean to suggest patience when patience has been worn thin. I do not mean to suggest that ignorance and superstition should be pleasantly tolerated when ignorance and superstition only perpetuate themselves when allowed. I’m just suggesting to other white people that we start within ourselves, individually. We start with a hard self-examination and self-criticism. Then, when the process reaches a certain point, we attempt to be an example to others.
I do not mean to suggest to People of Color that they continue to be patient when their patience has been worn out. I understand they have been patient and it has not been rewarded.
I also must confess to not knowing all the answers. After all, I don’t always see things clearly due to the sparsity of fat cells in my eyes.
Getting Past the Arugments
Eventually, my neighborhood friend and I gave up the arguing and went back to playing kickball. Except for accumulating a few scuff marks, the kickball continued to reflect light as it had from the beginning. It would have still done the same if one of us had won the argument. It would not have become the color the winner ascribed to it. Only our perception and the way we referred to it and treated it would have changed (had it been determined “pink”, it may have been discarded or given to his sister). No matter how our society decides to perceive People of Color, they remain people. They remain human. They retain the same abilities and potentials that they’ve always had – which are the same as white people. It is past time to recognize the truth and perceive them correctly. It’s past time to stop putting scuff marks on them by kicking them around to bolster our own egos and placate our own irrational, superstitious fears.
Oh, and as for my friend feeling that a pink kickball would make him look “girly”. I’ll save that for another article.