Scientists have been explaining for years that race, as people think of it, doesn’t exist. What we think of as race is just a single frame from a movie of human traits, determined by locality, conditions, and culture. These are traits that are selected for by a group over time until they share many common points. These traits could be as changeable as a cloud over time. The time required would be generations long but our enormous human genome could supply as much variety as people want (to mate with). The group usually doesn’t change though, and continuity is the default. Why?
It is deep in us to identify down to our very souls with our local people, customs and styles. We prefer them and strive to protect them. It is second nature to jump to their defense. A better name for these defended traits is “culture” but we should recognize this use of “Culture” as a deadly serious “this is me, don’t fuck with it” business.
In fact, culture is a bigger and more elemental thing than we’ve grasped. All of us have two overlapping states of being. The Individual self; The daily us, with our stories, personal history, etc. This is the self we identify with. The other state of being is a “cell” in a cultural body. Human animals are preset to focus constantly on their personal journey and struggles. It’s difficult to wrench our perspective upward and look down on the massive being we are a tiny part of. Our culture is an organism made of members. That organism uses culture as the definition of self. This definition is used to recognize those who belong and don’t. It’s a pheromone for the hive; a membrane of inclusion or exclusion. In other words, it is the foundation of the immune system of our cultural, community organism. When a cultural immune system goes on high alert it sees enemies in all that is other. This is the ugly moment that outsiders are described as vermin, an infection, etc. Cultural “purity” and nativism surge, driven both by hatred of outsiders and fear of being mistaken for one.
Culture creates a matrix of behaviors, styles, and preferences. It describes beauty and what makes a good man or woman. The phenotypes of people in a given culture are not coincidental, they are part of the culture. It’s like studying nature/nurture within a single family, how do you know where one leaves off and the other begins? People initiate the culture, but then the culture generates and maintains a particular style of people…who then maintain the culture! It is a chicken and egg cycle. the people shape the culture but no more than the culture shapes the people.
We all feel stressed when placed in another culture that does things very differently. That culture is not wrong for being different and we are not wrong for feeling stressed. If you’ve been lifted out of your Monopoly game and dropped into a game of “Hey, that’s my fish!” or “Twister”, you won’t be feeling quite yourself…literally. You have stepped outside yourself…you are an isolated molecule of your own culture, drifting in the wind far from home. This is why “travel is broadening” it is basic brain stretching and it can feel good or horrible, depending.
Think about the early 20th century immigrants who entered New York City through Ellis Island from all over Europe. These droplets of different cultures rolled as quickly as possible straight for the “Little [insert country here] Neighborhood”. There they could fuse with a tiny colony of their own people; the people whose cooking smelled right, whose voices sounded normal. An ethnic neighborhood might be as small as a single block and kids had to be careful coming and going because if they got caught on the wrong side of the street they’d be behind enemy lines. Even later when groups were more settled and established there’d still be for example an Italian neighborhood bordered by Polish and German neighborhoods. Finally, second to third-generation kids would identify enough as American to not make a point of staying in the neighborhood.
These European immigrants were obviously more acceptable to the white and European based mainstream culture of America. The borders of difference were relatively permeable from both sides and group after group eventually became “Normal People” to standard America. Who found it harder? People whose features weren’t European. Asians found the borders unyielding and the other side of the border all too often, dangerous. But the virtual walls around the many Chinatowns and Japan towns were well maintained from the inside as well. Ethnic neighborhoods are reality islands created by pressure from inside as much as out.
The people choosing to live in Chinatowns today are mostly recent immigrants, elderly first-generation, and the cultural “hard shells” who wouldn’t live anywhere else.
Gradually mainstream America began to see Asian faces as “normal insiders” as well. I’m thinking in the 1960s through 1980s and even 90s the pressures from inside and out more or less equalized and achieved “not such a big deal” status. All of this varies place by place, I’m averaging it out. As pressure against Asian Americans dissipated, they dispersed throughout the larger culture as members of it.
The only minority neighborhoods that maintain a rigid tension and show no signs of easing off are black neighborhoods.1
American Black culture was forged from hatred, frustration, and fear from inside and out. When I say inside and out I’m not ignoring which side the injustice flowed from, or equivocating about who truly suffered. But the wall of separation was and is maintained from both sides through similar emotions, not similar experiences.
The ultimate injustice about black culture in America is that culture is SELF and everyone needs it, everyone needs to feel connected to their roots but black culture has so much ancient, tragic toxic baggage that it’s like your family home is made of radioactive waste. It’s home, but it’s poisoning you. Inside black communities, there’s observable hatred for white culture. I used to hear “Wrong neighborhood, motherfucker” a lot when I lived in a mostly black neighborhood, and I was hassled, threatened and mocked regularly. There’s no moral high ground inside black neighborhoods, there’s just a permanent infected, sanctified wound. A poisoned legacy is locked in place. People have the culture they have even if it’s ugly and heartbreaking. Their relationship to that culture is exactly like all other humans to theirs, passionate, personal and resistant to any change from outside. The European and Asian immigrant communities eventually relaxed their borders because they were merely an isolated extension of a whole and healthy culture elsewhere. The traumatic roots of Black American culture don’t have a safe and respected homeland. It is a culture defined by being stripped of all the things that usually go into making a culture, such as home, safety, tradition, belonging. The foundation of black American culture is a rootless, comfortless diaspora hounded by enemies. And yet it is no less home and self. It is to be protected and cherished because it is an essential inevitable human thing.
Black culture is now like a series of islands across America. Throughout history, there has never been a minority culture angrily sealed off inside a larger culture that was not a focus of distrust and dislike. Black culture has its own unique justifications in America, but any minority community that purposefully chooses to be different from and hostile to the dominant surrounding culture is treated as an infection by that culture. It parallels the experiences of Jewish communities in many places and times and the Gypsies in Eastern Europe as well as others. To the surrounding culture, an internal “alienness” needs to be broken down and absorbed or rejected.
As we know from many psychological studies, people will actively look for things that feel like”otherness” as an excuse to behave badly. It’s this innate behavior that was making those black guys in my old neighborhood shout at me that I didn’t belong there. The social politics of Racism bog down on moral issues by setting rules about who gets to act badly and who doesn’t. But the hatred outside the community, directed in, and the hatred inside, directed out are the same behavior. The clumping with “your own kind” inside the community and out are the same behaviors. We aren’t acting this way because we are terrible, we act this way because we are humans. This is a core human behavior related to survival. It’s on the first floor of Maslow’s hierarchy. It’s negative, harsh and potentially deadly but it is to us as barking is to dogs, and no easier to change.
Humans are touchy, suspicious, and negative about differences AS A BASELINE. And these back brain impulses can get jacked up into terrifying high gear with certain pressures and manipulations. “Normal people” in “Normal places” can go into genocide mode. They actually can. We can. We’d better know it.
We need to know it and recognize the triggers and the onset. We need to develop some coping strategies because these vulnerabilities are a universal human behavior, everywhere and always. It’s not pretty but I’m certainly not here to justify it. I’m saying that if the story of “racism” in America today doesn’t even recognize the real issue that drives hostility then this conversation is a wrong-headed waste of everyone’s time.
The word “racism” isn’t getting us anywhere because it fails to accurately reflect reality. Admitting that it’s really culture and fear of being “dissolved in otherness” leaves us no closer to an obvious solution but it does mean we recognize the correct mechanics of the problem. A correct answer to the wrong question is not a correct answer. What is clear is that more sophistication on this subject would help us talk about it and work on it.
Other issues float into view: If I’m smart enough not to hate all other cultures, am I then obligated to love other cultures? If so, why? Would that even be possible? And what if that love is unrequited? If you’ve read my “Tension Force” stuff about the necessity of political opposition for a healthy balance, this territory overlaps. A healthy society expresses a range of openness to outsiders. It isn’t nasty or indiscriminate. In this, it mirrors a healthy personality, welcoming good friends, peacefully accepting differences but not being a pushover or a victim. Other cultures are like other people: They might be admirable or appalling. The political Right too often practices kneejerk rejection of outsiders for virtually cosmetic differences, and the Left too often practices kneejerk acceptance of cultures that violate every other standard of left-wing and humanistic values.
The moral high ground here isn’t found in a social justice model. Defend the oppressed by all means, but don’t mistake the current teams for objective good and evil. Hatred is evoked by group selfhood vs group “Not-Self-hood”. Naivety about this is the likeliest path to another blood-soaked nightmare in the future.
1 Let me explain me my baseline attitude: There is nothing about the experience of fear, anger, and hurt multiplied over and over that went into the formation of black culture in America this isn’t understandable and justifiable to me. I know they aren’t looking for my approval, I’m just saying.