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Racism - What Is It?

What is racism? I can only conclude that I am a glutton for punishment to go down this road. I will try and unpack elements I believe are involved in racism; our distrust or indifference toward people who don't look like or sound like us. To do that, I will use my personal experiences over a very long time, and using myself as an example, try to understand some of what drives racism.

First, and I've discussed this before, is our instinct for tribalism. I'm convinced that at the very core of our issues with other races and cultures is this old-brain instinct to distrust people who don't look and sound like us. I believe when we were more animal than human, and for a very long time after the switch was flipped that made us into our modern homo sapiens, we were competing with other tribes for food, and water and worried about our people, probably our children, being abducted by other tribes; kidnapping and slavery have been a part of our history from the beginning of our existence. Our instinct to distrust different people was critical to our survival as a tribe and a species. If you read a bit about the emergence of homo sapiens as the dominant species of humans (there was more than one human species way back when), that's what I'm referencing.

So, please give me that; we are driven by an instinct to discriminate. We naturally discriminate by race, language, physical attributes, and even what we eat, the music we like, and how we dress. We discriminate based on class, religion, politics, and wealth; we are programmed to discriminate in various ways. We must first admit this, which is now a default if we are to have any chance of overcoming our instincts. I just listed some of the many ways we discriminate in society, and there are probably more; a complete list might be helpful. If we made such a list and admitted to our tendencies, the next question must be, are those discriminators still valid? Do we still need those ways of dividing into tribes to survive, or are we simply using that tendency to avoid working on the issues?

I was born white, and I lived in the whitest world imaginable for the first fifteen years of my life. In that first decade and a half, I saw two or three Black people and two Mexicans on TV, but never in real life. My only personal exposure to people of color was a visit by the Mills Brothers to the boys' home where I lived.

They were a quartet of Black harmony singers back in the day. I remember watching and listening to them. I liked their music, and I recall looking at them the way one might look at an alien that just stepped out of a flying saucer. There was no fear, no preconceptions of who they were, just wonder; because I had never been exposed to the insults of racism, I was fascinated by how they looked and sounded. Today, I can only imagine what it was like for them to be in this sea of white people.

In the years that followed, I was immersed in diversity when we moved to South Omaha. The good news was that without the indoctrination of racism, I made my own decisions about people I met based on who they were and how they treated me, not on careless, hateful, or ignorant comments I'd heard growing up. My immersion in diversity included not only people of color, Black, Latino, and Native Americans, but also East European migrants from WWII. I was exposed to Polish, Bohemian, Lithuanian, Greek, German, and a host of people who were white like me. Many spoke little or heavily accented English, ate strange foods, and liked what we called Oompah music, which involves a lot of tubas and accordions. All of these groups were new and strange to me, but I had the advantage of not being poisoned with stereotypes about people who were different.

I did suffer indoctrination as my new white friends, who had been exposed to racist stereotypes, labeled people based on their nationality or race and used racist names for them, sometimes in jest and other times to denigrate them. Regrettably, I embraced some of that to be accepted into "my new tribe," but at the same time, I rejected the notion. I had personally been stereotyped and didn't like it.

Growing up in what was in many ways an orphanage, though not technically an orphan myself, and going to public schools, all of us were labeled "Home boys" long before that term took on its current meaning. Manufacturers donated our clothes. Companies like OshKosh B'gosh and others, so we all mainly dressed the same, almost like a uniform. We didn't carry lunch and didn't have money, so we were given tokens to buy our lunch at school. All these things identified us as a "tribe" - the Home Boys -and while it was in no way comparable to the racial abuse heaped on people of color, we were still different, closely watched, and in some cases ignored, shunned, and isolated.

My point in telling that little bit of my history is to point out that while I knew people looked at me as different, I knew inside I wasn't, and I wanted them to see and accept me for who I was, not how I looked or dressed or circumstances I didn't control. We all have to find a way to see past the physical differences and see a person, not a tribe member, not just someone of color, or with a disability, or any of the other myriad of reasons we find to categorize people.

Looking past differences doesn't mean ignoring someone, either. I think that sometimes happens when people say things like, "Gee, I don't even notice that he or she is Black or brown." That's not possible and may be an excuse to ignore their existence. If you're white, you can never look at a Black person and not see their blackness, any more than you can look at someone with flaming red hair and not see their red hair; it's part of their identity, but it doesn't define who they are. We must find a way to see a person, not a tribal member. That won't be easy because we are trying to overcome millennia of conditioning.

All sports fans root for their teams. They love the team colors, etc. But, when an athlete takes off their uniform, their team colors, and dress in street clothes, and we see them in a public setting, we see a person, not a uniform. We still know they are athletes and members of our favorite team, but in a gathering of athletes from different teams out of uniform, they are simply people we adore for their skills; it has nothing to do with team colors. We need to see everyone for their skills, attributes, intelligence, sense of humor, etc., and not give a damn about their team colors. We need to embrace the fact they are human, just like us. If we can do that, we will take a considerable step toward erasing racism from society.

I know I've said this before, but the next time you see someone from "another tribe," assume they are a physician, lawyer, cop, fireman, or college professor rather than any indoctrinated stereotype you may hold in your mind. They may well be in one of those professions or work at Costco. It doesn't matter; they are human beings before they are any of those other social identities.

We must understand what drives our discrimination tendencies and fight to overcome them.