This is a different, and I hope interesting, topic for an avowedly atheistic blog. I don’t think it really has anything to do with religion although there is a little science in it. I’m also not sure why I chose to write about it. I think perhaps I’ve said enough, for the time being, about the existence of gods, the scientific study of the supernatural, and the sheer lunacy behind most religion. So it’s onto another topic.
It struck me this morning that I’m a racist. Upon reflection, I decided that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.
I was at my bank, making a deposit. When I left, as I was driving away, a well dressed black man got out of his car in the parking lot on his way into the bank, and I noted to myself that he was black. It didn’t bother me, but the recognition was still negative in some vague way. I made a very definitive and conscious mental observation of his race. I realized that if he had been white, I would not do that. Why did I do that? What made by brain react in this visceral, knee-jerk way to someone of a different race?
Thinking back, I realized I’ve done this all my life. Despite my chronological maturity, and my self-professed rationalism, I still react somewhat irrationally to the sight of a black man or woman. If I see two young black men, dressed in baggy clothes, strutting with an aggressive gait, wearing their baseball caps sideways, my brain screams “gang banger!” (Although in fairness, if I saw two white kids dressed and acting the same way, I’d react almost the same, so there must be an element of ageism also.) I’m betting there’s a certain amount of cultural preconditioning going on here, but I like to think I’ve moved beyond that. So what gives?
I realized that it’s an involuntary reaction on my part, because I know that just about every one of the non-whites I have ever met and spent the time becoming familiar with, I’ve come to like, admire, and on many occasions, become friends with. In other words, once I got behind the skin, to the person, their race became irrelevant, replaced by their humanity. I have control over my interaction and eventual feelings towards them, which makes my initial reaction seem somewhat involuntary.
So, I’m thinking this is something inherent in my makeup. Perhaps it’s in my DNA, inherited through the evolutionary process from my deep-dark ancestors (and by dark, I’m being literal – my ancestors were themselves probably as dark as the people I react to). It’s not exactly that they are black, but that they are different, radically different in appearance, from myself. It probably made sense – life or death sense – to my ancestors that whenever they saw someone that did not look like them, that was different in some way (even if they had the same skin color), the normal reaction would be alarm. Relationships tended to be tribal, with an us vs. them mentality. So anyone that didn’t fit the perception of “us” was assumed to be”them, and therefore a threat, until further investigation proved otherwise.
This actually helped perpetuate the species. If someone was naively gregarious and open to people that were different, the odds were pretty good that person would not have the chance to pass on his or her genes, at least in primitive, tribal societies. This became hardwired, to the point that anytime humans see someone that is not like them, their brain shoots out signals that say “threat”, until some reasoning process calms things down. The reasoning process we have developed is one created by experience and education. We now know that we are one big species, albeit different in outward appearances, and that we pose no real threat to each other. Yes, there are exceptions, but for the most part, the initial reaction to a different race is a holdover from our genetic, evolutionary development. We often have to force ourselves, through conditioning and reason, to overcome it, but it’s necessary to do so in this modern, non-tribal society we live in, and ultimately it is beneficial to us.
The irony here is that in recent history, evolution was used to justify racism, on the premise that blacks were inferior, while whites had the ability, indeed the duty, to oppress the “lesser races” and eventually dominate them. In one form or another this was called Social Darwinism. Fortunately, reason prevailed and Social Darwinism has been pretty much discredited, used mainly these days by religionists and anti-evolutionists to try to discredit evolution.
So, in a sense, I’m a racist. But so is everyone else, even members of racial minorities. (I’ll bet blacks have the same knee jerk response when they see a white person.) I don’t hate blacks, or other minorities, simply because of their skin color. But I still react to them as my ancestors did, and they react to me. I can’t help it, but I can do something about it. Fortunately I have the ability, through reason, to resist these genetic impulses and keep from becoming a bigoted racist.
I use my brain.