Are You One of Us? Race, gender, and mental processes

Discussions about race have been making me uneasy. Not only because hate groups have been streaking in the media, flashing their naked prejudices. Even essential arguments for fairness and tolerance have been troubling me.

The problem is cognitive.  We refer to Whites and Blacks, or Afro-Americans, or the self-consciously polite “people of color.” But no matter what term you use, naming people into a group doesn’t just identify some quality they have in common. It makes them different, separate, even alien.  You’re not Bill or Tasheka, but “White” or “Black.” It’s as if you’ve been put on a team and you’re automatically someone’s opponent.

As in a sports or other game, there’s a quality of play about the categorization. You know who the “White” or “Black” really is, but for now the reality of the game takes precedence.  The reality is provisional.  While the game is on, you can love or hate the opponent, but you needn’t take responsibility for really loving or hating them forever.

People with different complexions are all humans. Individually we’re distinctive, but otherwise we’re more or less the same. To say an individual with a particular complexion is “a Black” or “a White” makes it sound as if that’s the important thing about the person. Which is nonsense. Whoever they are, they’re humans first of all, one of us—whoever we are. The idea of calling a person who could be you “a black” or “a white” gives me the creeps.

Since blackness has problematical or negative connotations, then, the label “Black” is a stigma not unlike the yellow star Nazis used to makes Jews targets. Naturally some Blacks have tried to rehabilitate the stigma by insisting “Black is beautiful.” But the slogan still uses the label. It’s the tricky way cognition works. To avoid the problem, should the movement “Black Lives Matter” be renamed “Variously-Pigmented-People-Associated-with-Negative-or-Threatening-Traits-Matter”?

It’s the way we’re built. The brain generates our reality by categorizing its sensory input. Out of a storm of undifferentiated experience, the infant’s brain makes objects. Parents and culture teach names that substantiate the tyke’s reality and a sense of “what is right.” Among the tyke’s first categories are “Us” and “Them.” From the start, self-esteem and paranoia get into the act. Which comes first—which do you prefer—Us or Them? Could They threaten or scare Us? If we choose between them, we imagine we’re supporting what’s right and, acting as judge, superior to both groups.

If we’re surviving, then evolution says we must be doing something right. But as the ancients realized, there’s something ambivalent, even tragic, about how we’re built. Adam and Eve busily started naming everything, using the tree of knowledge to categorize good and evil. So they opened the way to Google and microbiology, but by incurring the curse of labor and death—and worries about wardrobe. And the landlord evicted them from the Garden of Eden.  That’s a pretty ambivalent outcome.

Blackness has disturbing associations for humans because we’ve evolved to depend on sight, and so black night means disorientation, predators, and the ultimate blackness of death.  Likewise, we’ve all evolved from the same primate ancestor, but self-esteem revolts at the idea. We’re made of the same stuff as other animals, and have their body plan. But we fear and despise human features such as noses or hair that remind us of our animal nature. In disgust, we call scapegoats rats, apes, pigs, dogs, and the like. We imagine we’re superior; our lives have heroic purpose, whereas mere animals eat, mate, poop, and die.

It’s the way we’re built. To call people like you or me “blacks” or “whites” is a delusion. As science puts it, “Ashley Montagu demolished the concept of “race” in his book, Man’s Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race (1945). Nevertheless, like many a bad idea, the notion persists that there is some useful purpose in classifying humanity into five, six or a dozen races. . . . Living humans share too recent a common ancestor for there to be many deep-seated biological differences among us. From an evolutionary standpoint, we are all Africans.” [1]

As defining traits go, complexion is as trivial as—I was about to write freckles,but then I remembered that not so long ago you could be lynched as a witch because you had a suspicious freckle indicating that your black arts could kill me. Better to burn you and your freckle as a precaution.

People get lost in the funhouse of race in part because they can’t sort out which influences are cultural and which inherited. They blame “blacks” for crime, unwed mothers, welfare, and so on. Or they congratulate themselves for being above such failings.

In the end, the problem is cognitive and existential, which is also the way we’re built. Nobody is purely white or black or anything else, because everything evolves. Every crop of newborns presents a variety of temperaments and traits.  That makes even more striking the fact that one of our built-in traits is an instinct for fairness.

Meanwhile reality is in motion. With every breath, humans create and recreate. Everything changes and sooner or later everything dies. But since we’re social animals, there’s some comfort in knowing that we’re all in this together.

  1. “Is Race Real”?  http://www.americanscientist.org/issues/pub/2011/4/is-race-real

(Adapted from my essay in Psychology Today, Aug 31, 2016)

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