(Another sad example in history when two tribes have clashed and caused needless loss of life)
I am a happy follower of actor LeVar Burton on Twitter,1 and recently he posted an interesting article about the movie Hunger Games. Not about the movie itself, but the unusually angry reaction by people because the main characters were black, not white. This is odd considering the characters in the book were described as having “darker skin” and such.
Reading this article was really depressing, but somehow not surprising. I have this theory that people have strong “tribal” instincts, and racism is a malevolent expression of tribal thinking. We do this all the time at work (our team vs. other teams fighting for budget), in sports (our teams is better than your team), in politics (we cheer when our Party wins, and the other loses), in religion and of course in terms of race. This is not always a bad thing, because it creates a kind of social-bonding. Anthropologists even think it might have been a useful survival instinct in the pre-historic days (e.g. survival in numbers). However, when our “tribe” is somehow threatened, defensive instincts kick in and we get hostile.
We might be attracted to women from other cultures because they’re exotic and beautiful, but if we’re told that men from other ethnic groups are dating our women, we get tense and defensive. If someone from another ethnic group or religion makes fun of us, we get upset, but when we make fun of another group, we say “hey lighten up” or “you brought this upon yourself”. I truly believe that most people aren’t even aware they’re doing or thinking this way. It’s not 10,000 B.C. anymore, and yet I believe we still acting out the same instincts as our ancestors did, but on a more “refined” level.
Interestingly, I once saw a TV show about how the notion of “whiteness” in America has changed over the years. Two centuries ago, Irish and Italians weren’t considered white, and certainly not “Slavic” people. It was really limited to Anglo-Saxon ethnic groups, but later expand over the generations since so many people in the US have Irish, Slavic and/or Italian ancestry. Instead, it’s a kind of “mutual consent” that says people with light skin are “white” and people who don’t have light skin aren’t white.
But if you look at all this tribal thinking, what is the result? It creates an ‘us vs. them’ attitude. It divides people into groups. If you’re a Sox fan, you’re not a Yankees fan. If you’re a Buddhist, you’re not a Christian.2 If you’re black, you’re not white.3 And so on and so forth. If aliens attacked the Earth and tried to wipe out the human race, suddenly we’d forget our differences and fight as Humans vs. Aliens.
I can tell myself of course that it’s not healthy, and that it divides society into groups, castes and cliques, and that it’s wrong, but the instinct is still there. I remember a sobering quote from Frank Herbert’s book God Emperor of Dune:
Liberal bigots are the ones who trouble me most. I distrust the extremes. Scratch a conservative and you find someone who prefers the past over any future. Scratch a liberal and find a closet aristocrat. It’s true!
I have a confession to make. I used to consider myself a progressive and open-minded person in my younger years, and even then I loved Asian culture. But sometimes I had incidents where my lack of Asian-ness made me feel excluded or as an outsider. I would get bitter over it too and criticize them for being close-minded, even “racist”. But later, when I visited places like Japan or Vietnam, and looked very different from everyone else, it was so sobering for me to see what it was like to be a “minority” for a change. I used to believe I was somehow smarter and more liberal than others, but then I realized I was just fooling myself.
And, it’s really important to realize how deeply rooted tribal-thinking, and by extension racism, is. It’s not something you can just rationalize away because it operates at a deeper, more fundamental level, even by mutual agreement. At the root of racism is ignorance. We have an image in our minds about other people, and regardless of whether it’s true or not, we filter our reality based on what’s in our minds. The only way to uproot this kind of ignorance is a change in perspective.
Once I got to know people of other ethnic groups, as lifelong friends, people I could sit down and break bread with, I could see that they are the same as me. They have the same fears and desires as I do. About 8 years ago, I briefly explored Islam, and got to know a lot of Muslim people, and it was the same wonderful experience. I was no longer afraid of Muslims because we could hang out at the local Thai restaurant together and talk politics and family like anyone else. Seriously, once you got to know someone past the labels and “tribal affiliations”, it shatters so many wrongful assumptions.
But even if you accomplish that much, you’re not “cured”. It requires a lifetime of careful vigilance toward oneself and self-reflection. Complacency in oneself is just another example of ignorance. Not a small task, but if you want to become fully “human” and not just someone who has a human form, but always gives in to animal instincts, it’s the only way forward.
You cannot defeat an evil until you can properly identify it. Racism is evil, but why is it evil? Because it’s deeply rooted, and capable of manifesting anytime we feel threatened. It’s evil because it divides people along illusory lines, and leads to unnecessary strife, even tragic loss of life!
Namu Shaka Nyorai
P.S. I’ve slowly writing a science fiction book on the subject for a long while now. Hopefully one of these days I’ll actually finish it.
1 Between “Roots”, “Reading Rainbow” and “Star Trek”, I’ve pretty much grown up to LeVar. LeVar, if you read this, you rock!
2 Ecumencial people notwithstanding. 😉
3 Ever notice how we consider President Obama “black”, and not “white” even though he’s both? Socialogists call this “hypodescension“. Given that my daughter is bi-racial, I fear the same will happen to her regardless of whether she lives in Japan or the US.