Recently, many people have been discussing the possibility of the “beginning of the end of racism.” Often this conversation is lumped with a discussion about the origins of racism. The most common explanation I hear is of innocent children being indoctrinated by closed minded adults to think certain minorities are inferior for one reason or another.
On the one hand, I breathe a sigh of relief that I was raised in a multi-cultural environment surrounded by liberated adults who never even hinted that there may deficiencies in other ethnic groups. On the other hand, I can’t help but think of the numerous generalizations and stereotypes I find myself believing about groups of people. When I saw Avenue Q this summer, I had to chuckle at the grains of truth in the song, “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist.” Is it possible that despite my liberal upbringing I too might be a little bit racist?
I have begun to question the common assumption that because racist people “learn” how to be racist from other racists that if we can break that cycle, a new generation of open-minded non-racists will emerge. Earlier this year, I discovered a different cause of racism and it had profound implications on how I live my life.
While cycling the streets of Chicago this year, I have already had three near accidents caused by bad drivers not paying attention. I quickly noticed that all three of the drivers who nearly hit me were all women. After the third close call, I began to think, “Women really are bad drivers!” and was careful to notice the gender of motorists ever since.
This is a stereotype I had rejected for years. What possible genetic trait could logically explain women being worse drivers than men? I could think of none. However, once my life was on the line, it was suddenly natural to form a stereotype that I could never “rationally” believe before.
You see, humans have a natural instinct to seek and recognize patterns everywhere. Even though we may misidentify patterns which can lead to irrational superstitions or unfair stereotypes – this trait helped our ancestors survive and has thus been passed down to us as a useful tool. This instinct is inescapable and it is exactly why we don’t need anyone to teach us to be racist. If we can identify groups, we can teach ourselves to stereotype.
Because stereotyping is part of our survival instinct, it naturally links with fear which paves the way for prejudicial idealizations. While stereotyping isn’t actually racism, it is its natural manure. Therefore, racist behavior can easily grow out of a few bad experiences and never have been directly taught to us. In other words, racism will always be hiding just around the corner.
The “profound implication” was not to be more rational about how I grouped people and to resist the temptation to form unfair stereotypes. The challenge to me is to not become a perpetuator of racism in others about the groups to which I belong. If it is in the nature of other people to draw conclusions about entire groups from just a few representatives, the burden is on me to represent my groups as positively as I can.
I am, among other things a middle-class, white Christian male. My behavior could reinforce negative stereotypes about my groups, or I could create new ones based almost entirely upon something I say or do. This certainly reverses the assumption that racism is something I can help bring to an end by changing my attitudes towards other people. It now becomes my responsibility to help other people change their attitudes about me.
Humans will always categorize and group every aspect of life, especially other humans. We will always seek to find patterns and generalizations to help us understand those groups. This may lead to some very wrong behavior, but the natural mechanism is neither good nor bad: It just is what it is, and has thus far been a useful instinct. The question remains: How will we behave now that we know other people are utilizing this natural mechanism? Will we help stamp out racism by breaking the mold and proving that we are more than just one of many copies within a larger group? Or will we perpetuate racism by finding our identity in the groups to which we belong, behaving just like everyone else in our group, and behave badly not realizing that we are representing so many others?
If racism is really going to come to an end in America, it is entirely upon us to move beyond just self-enlightenment about others, and to start helping others view us as unique individuals and not just members of a group.