Sunday, August 21, 2016

Thoughts on prejudice, tribalism, and racism

Looking back at the experiences of my 70+ years, one theme seems to come up again and again:  the people I have known stubbornly resist conforming to my stereotypes.  A stereotype can be defined as a preconceived notion, especially about a group of people.  Like everyone else, I'm associated with many different groupings of people and my life has shown me repeatedly that if I see a person who can be grouped within a particular association, membership in that association actually says very little about what sort of person any individual member of that group is.  One group to which I belong is the "tribe" of white male heterosexuals.  These are essentially accidents of birth - not choices I made.  I am also a meteorologist, a military veteran, a person who has used marijuana, an atheist, a citizen of the USA, a fan of drag racing, an artist, overweight, tall, bald, and so on and on. These other associations include both more accidents of birth and many specific choices I've made over the course of my life.

If you only know me as a member of the "white people" association, for example, what stereotypes of that particular grouping do you think apply to me?  All of them?  If not, which ones?  What does it say about you if you automatically believe those stereotypes of my "white people" tribe apply to me?  When I was a boy in the Chicago suburbs of Dupage County, most of the people I knew were WASPs - White Anglo-Saxon Protestants, and I learned about a widely-held but rarely vocally expressed view of racial and cultural superiority associated with my "tribe" of WASPs.  Other tribes were looked down upon by many members of my WASP tribal association.  I knew a few Catholics, even fewer Jews, and essentially no African- or Mexican-Americans.  Interestingly, my best friend in high school was a Catholic and yet somehow that friendship apparently was tolerated by the members of my WASP tribe.  I was not vilified for being friends with a white male Catholic, and if anyone felt I was betraying my Protestant tribe, they never said it to my face.  Later, of course, I became an atheist - a group that many Americans despise and which is subject to discrimination.

As time went by, I became aware of the discrimination that existed in my town against non-white Americans.  At some point, I heard that an African-American had tried to buy a house in my neighborhood and the neighbors (not including my parents) had banded together to threaten to buy the home rather than let a black family move into our tribe's territory!  I was not raised to be a racist, even though racism was rampant around me, so this discovery came as something shocking.  I was ashamed of my tribe's racism.  It seemed that my tribe was prejudiced against other tribes and would go to extreme lengths to avoid having to associate with those belonging to a different racial tribe.  If I chose to be close friends with an African-American (remember, there were none about!), how would my WASP tribe have reacted?  What if I chose to date a black woman?  I'll never know, but I think I know a likely response to such behavior.  I've learned that some members of my own family were/are notably prejudiced against other racial tribes, so I think I know what their response would have been had I been dating a black or Latino woman.

Having been drafted into the Army - an organization that one typically does not consider to be socially advanced - I was thrown into the company of a widely diverse group of people, including blacks, Latinos, farm boys, southern "rednecks", etc.  One of my lasting memories is meeting an 18 year-old African-American man serving with me in Vietnam who seemed very innocent and naive to me.  But it turned out he had some amazing strength of character.  He resisted what I felt was good-natured badgering from me and some of my friends about his innocence.  For instance, he would pray before eating in the mess hall.  He didn't curse, or drink, or smoke pot.  Some of the blacks in our company called him an "Uncle Tom" because he declined to be called "brother" by people to whom he was not related.  This was not the stereotype of an angry, "militant" young black male - he was comfortable with whom he felt himself to be and literally didn't care what anyone else thought.  I often wonder what has happened to him - I regret not taking more time to get to know him.  I was still learning back then, I suppose.

After my time in the Army, I returned to the mostly white world of my professional life, but in the course of that career, I became acquainted with a group of Mexican-American meteorologists who included some of the smartest people I've ever had the good fortune to meet.  Bam!  There went another stereotype.  I also met some amazing women who had become scientists, and some of them were at the very top of my profession.  Thud!  Another stereotype falls.  I have met and known outstanding African-American meteorologists.  Crash!  So much for that stereotype.  Despite all the barriers put in their way, these professionals have achieved much and have earned their professional standing, so don't tell me it can't be done!!  I was discovering that stereotypes and default assumptions based on tribal associations were phantoms that had no basis in reality.  I was going to have to abandon my notions of who people are based in the heuristic approach I had been using:  belong to group X, you're a good person, whereas if you belong to group Y, you're not a good person.  That simply didn't give reliable results and as a science professional, that meant it had to be rejected.

If you take some time to get to know someone, rather than assuming that their membership in some tribe tells you who they are and what to expect from them, you'll find inevitably they're simply human beings whose attitudes and behavior may or may not fit your expectations.   Perhaps some of them will be a good match for a specific stereotype you have, but not some others.  You just can't know that until you know them personally!

The evidence is around you if you take the time to abandon your default assumptions about other humans and learn about them as individuals, not members of some association.  Make the effort rather than pre-judging someone without any real evidence.  Learning how things look to other people is an excellent path to a deeper understanding of your own beliefs and behaviors.  Savor the rich diversity of humanity instead of seeing other tribes as lesser human beings.