Racism in the 21st Century, old habits die hard

Gingindlovu 1

(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.

About Doug 陀愚

A Buddhist, Father and Japanophile / Koreaphile.
This entry was posted in Buddhism, General, Japan, Korea, Travel. Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Racism in the 21st Century, old habits die hard

  1. Hi Doug,

    I noticed you said the Irish weren’t considered ‘white’ and so it was really only limited to ‘Anglo-Saxon groups’. However, as far as I am aware we Scots were never considered the ‘other’ in the US – and we are not an Anglo-Saxon group. Indeed, we are the same ethnicity as the Irish, in that we are a Celtic group, which as you no doubt know is about as far removed from Anglo-Saxon as you can get, whilst still being a European people! We may share an island and have used the same language for the past 300 years, but ethnically we are as different as the Innuit and the Tatar.

    Kind regards,

  2. TWWK says:

    In regards to your daughter, my experience growing up with a white father and Korean mother has revealed at least three things. First, I feel a little out of place among those who are culturally and/or physically white or Asian, because I’m no “all in.” Likewise, I sometimes feel as if I’m not fully accepted in either setting, if only subconsciously by others, though this is more likely me reading too much into things than it is reality.

    Second, I wouldn’t say I ever had an identity crisis, but I certainly had to do some soul searching when confronted by the full force of one side of my ancestry during college. I grew up with a mixed bag of traditions, and when I started spending more time with Korean Americans, I felt a tugging in the lines of “these are my people.” Even though I grew up with many Korean-American friends and people around my house, I wasn’t 100% into the culture, and when I entered an environment that was close to that 100%, I had to reevaluate who I was and what was important to me, which was a good thing.

    Finally, I enjoy that my background can function as a conversation starter. I know that people want to ask me, “Why is your last name Polish if you’re Asian?” And so, to push away any awkwardness and to start a conversation that’s interesting (well, at least to me), I’ll talk about my background. It’s an easy way to break down walls and engage people.

  3. Hickersonia says:

    LeVar Burton is awesome, and so is this post. I try very hard to not allow myself to sink into a me vs. them attitude because it would serve only to divide my family (with which I do not share spiritual convictions) or divide others. I may go a little further than necessary with it, but I tie divisive speech to false speech (fourth precept) and am trying to take it very seriously.

    Great commentary on the subject, my friend. :)

  4. Doug 陀愚 says:

    Hi AlScotlandi, thanks for the correction. :) You’re right, ‘white’ in the American context did include Scottish people originally, but not Irish. I guess in people’s minds, the difference in religion (Protestant vs. Catholic) or some other specious reason caused them to be considered different.

    Either way, it shows how fluid the concept is, and dubious for that matter. :p

    Having lived in Europe briefly, I was surprised how noticeably different people from different countries. You could just look at someone and know right away they were Irish, or Polish or Spanish, whereas in the US, it’s kind of jumbled now because of so many waves of immigration, intermarriage, etc. I knew plenty of European friends who had ‘mixed’ European ancestry, but the differences between different ethnicities in Europe was more distinct than I would have expected in the US or Canada.

  5. Doug 陀愚 says:

    Hi TWWK,

    Thanks a lot for the insight. It helps to know what’s in store for my daughter. I kind fo figured she’d be straddling both Japanese and American culture, and would have eventually forge her own identity (more so than other people).

    I feel bad though because that phenomena of hypodescension is kind of true. In Japan, her partial American heritage makes her stand out, while in the US, her partial Asian heritage makes her stand out. She has plenty of friends in both countries, but either way, the fact she stands out at all will make life a little difficult for her as she gets into her teen years. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s a challenge to be overcome.

    At the moment, we’re trying to help her understand she is both Japanese and American, not half of each, if you get me. My hope is that she’ll realize that she’s the best of both worlds, not deficient in both.

  6. Doug 陀愚 says:

    Hi Hickersonia,

    Divisive speech may not necessarily be part of the Fourth Precept, but it is one of the Ten Evil Acts, and so among the Ten Good Acts is to avoid divisive speech. Splitting hairs really, but yup it’s in there somewhere. ;)

    Thanks very much.

  7. TWWK says:

    That’s wonderful. I think that, at least if you live in the U.S., your daughter would benefit from the increasingly multicultural society there. She’ll have challenges, but perhaps they’ll be similar the same ones that many of her classmates and friends will face.

  8. Pink Ninjabi says:

    Awesome post! Thank you for bringing out the similarities we all have to one another. And I completely agree with the points made too as I took a course on Social Cultural Anthropology, and you’re right, we need to move past tribalistic instincts into a more positive, open, and peaceful space instead. In addition, this blog made me reflect on my assumptions to be aware of.

    Thank you soooo very much.


  9. darustet says:

    Hi! I’m student from Finland, currently living in Japan as an exchange student.
    I can definitely agree with your article and what are you saying about how racism is build-in mechanism in one’s mind. I moved into another city last summer in an area which has lots of immigrants. Because of that, when I told my friends that I’m moving out, everyone living in the city (no matter how far they lived from that place) were instantly either wishing me good luck about dealing with thieves or telling me how bad idea that was.
    When I started to listen my friends closer, it became clear that the bad talk was because of the immigrants. I found that odd because those friends I talked with didn’t usually make comments like that, but nevertheless at the time I moved into that area I had already become wary and careful about if there would be problem with the locals. After week or two I got my mind cleared from those thoughts and instead started correcting my friends when they brought the subject up.
    Still, during the last year or so I’ve noticed more and more talk about anti-immigration and racism in politics and in daily conversations.
    That and the notion how warily people talk about areas with lots of immigrants have made me wonder that what is it in us that makes us think like that? Experience? Bad experiences with people the same color as us don’t make us racist towards them. Social pressure? With that we might be getting closer. Stories? They might play they part but it most certainly those aren’t the only reason. Lack of experience? More so than the others, because as you said yourself it’s our first hand contact with the other cultures that is often needed to shatter the wall between us and makes us to view each others as equal human beings.
    This I’ve noticed and it has made me uncomfortable about what the future might hold and thus I’ve started to seek answer to that problem and how to correct the racist atmosphere rooted so deeply in to our society. For that I’ve found this post very helpful and I’m glad to know that I’m not the only one facing same problem and seeking answer to it.

  10. Jan says:

    Human brain is still fundamentally the same it was with our caveman ancestors, and despite all the cultural evolution over time, our basic instincts remain the same. All one can do is try to be aware of it and not to fall into caveman thinking when we should know better.

    PS: I recently found this blog and it seems very interesting. Particularly since I’ve developed a fascination for Buddhism recently.

  11. aFrankAngle says:

    I’m a first-time visitor here from the US via Nia. Truly a wonderful and fascinating post full of thought-provoking insight. Many, many thanks for this!

  12. Doug 陀愚 says:

    Hi Everyone!

    TWWK Yeah, that’s one reason why we live here, though we often think about living in Japan too. It’s becoming more and more multicultural there and there’s a lot to offer there we don’t get here.

    Pink Ninjabi It’s amazing what you can learn from anthropology about ourselves and our behavior. :)

    niasunset Thanks again for the mention!

    darustet Welcome to the JKLLR, and you’re right about immigrant vs. native feelings. It’s hard to avoid, but fundamentally is just another example of tribal thinking. People who look different are easy to identify, and it’s hard to resist the feeling they’re different, even though it’s superficial and exaggerated. Like you said, first-hand contact is the only way to overcome this. :)

    Jan Welcome to the JKLLR too! Yeah, I agree that we’re not far removed from our caveman ancestors. Much of our “culture” is just a more refined version of the same thing 10,000 years ago. Not bad really, but it’s important to realize I think.

    aFrankAngle Welcome to the JKLLR as well! (wow 3 people) :)

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