What We Are Taught

Perhaps the best quote ever on racism and how it is perpetuated comes from Denis Leary:

“Racism isn’t born, folks. It’s taught. I have a 2 yr old son. Know what he hates? Naps. End of list.” – Me, 1992. True now as it was then.

Certainly, none of us are conscious or cognizant of the moment we learned to distinguish ‘difference’ between us and whatever ‘other’ there is. But, taught we were. As an anthropologist, this makes sense to me. As an individual, it annoys the hell out of me.

The many, many, many reactions to the unfortunate death of Trayvon Martin as well as the outcome of the trial which attempted to exact justice for his killing have reinforced the notion that we have a serious racism issue which persists in the United States. It isn’t just that George Zimmerman walked free and a young, black man died entirely too young. It’s more that a) I’m not surprised that Trayvon was shot and killed; b) I’m not that surprised by the outcome of the trial; and c) I’m not surprised that so many utterly hateful comments, posts, analyses and rants have appeared since the jury reached its verdict.

Incredibly saddened, yes. Surprised, no. And, that just makes me angry.

And, then, there is Jane Elliott. A third-grade teacher from an all-white town in Iowa in 1968 struggling to process the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. also struggled with what she viewed as racially charged coverage of a national tragedy. In attempting to deal with her own grief and confusion over those events in 1968, she designed an experiment to teach her students the meaning of discrimination and bigotry.

What happened over the next two days surprised her and also provided a valuable lesson her students would carry with them throughout their lives.

As documented by Frontline in a special 14 years after her students were subjected to the blue-eyed/brown-eyed experiment, the lessons learned and the feelings each student felt when they were a part of the ‘inferior’ group have stayed with them into adulthood. That is, Mrs. Elliott was able to capture the feelings of helplessness those who are discriminated against feel on a daily basis. And, in turn, her students learned to empathise with that and learn to not discriminate in the process.

For anyone who hasn’t watched the programme, watch it. Now. Share it. And, repeat. The lessons from 1968 are still very much needed today.

What’s perhaps further important to note about that experiment is discussed in the full-length programme. Results of tests taken before, during and after the experiment document ever-so-eloquently just how profound an impact discrimination can have on individuals. Those who are part of the ‘privileged’ group perform better on tests whilst those who are discriminated against perform poorly.

Imagine waking up every single day of your life and knowing that you are looked down upon, expected to perform poorly or somehow viewed as ‘different’ (and most definitely not equal nor entitled to the same opportunities) by others around you. And, imagine having that view reinforced again and again and again throughout your life from the time you are born until you die.

The heartbreaking fact of life in the US today is that we do not imagine. If we did, things would be very different. Whether it be based on race, class, sex, religion, sexual orientation or whatever, we look at members of ‘the other’ differently and make assumptions about those individuals based on what we think we know about them and how we expect them to behave. In many aspects, this inventory of characteristics now includes political leaning. (I recognise my own prejudice here and I am trying to work on it.) And, largely, we support our own prejudices with whatever spurious evidence we can. Rather than ask ourselves the difficult questions, we continue to make assumptions we are comfortable with and life continues in much the same fashion. Discrimination and bigotry persist.

Perhaps the most eloquent and gut-wrenching reminder of just how far we have yet to go in removing discrimination and prejudice from our own society came from a piece posted to New York Magazine’s website by Questlove. It’s a powerful essay on just what it means to be a black man in America today. Even one who has ‘made it’ is not entirely accepted or exempted from the painful stigma of discrimination, and as you read his piece, you know that he understands this all too well. The entire piece is well worth a read, but he ends with this, talking with a friend after just hearing the verdict in the Zimmerman trial:

It hurts to hear it, and I say, “I’m not surprised, but who wants to be reminded?” What fat person wants to hear that they aren’t pleasing to the eye? Or what addict wants to hear they are a constant F-up? Who wants to be reminded that — shrug — that’s just the way it is?

I guess I’m struggling to get at least 1 percent of this feeling back, from all this protective numbness I’ve built around me, to keep me from feeling. Because, at the end of the day, I’m still human.


Imagine what it takes for an individual to even ask if they are ‘human’.

We are all ‘humans’. Whatever outward characteristics we are pigeon-holed into, whatever consequences of our individual genetic make-up have created that uniqueness that is ‘me’, we are all humans. But, we are taught how to interpret those visible signals. And, yes, we are taught that there are less worthy humans.

Here’s hoping that we can all one day enjoy interpreting those signals as positive and worthy and equally valuable in their uniqueness. Or, at the very least, perhaps we can simply teach that to those around us and to future generations.

Maybe, then, we’ll all just hate naps.

2 thoughts on “What We Are Taught

  1. Wow. I wonder what kind of IRB/ethics committee(s) clearance such an experiment would require today. The affluent families kids in my daughter’s school won’t be able to survive the blue eye-brown eye experiment.

    How’s the Cuban being treated in the country of blonds? I read that at the current rate of the human phenotype mixing, the last blonde in the world will be born in 2150s in Lapland.

    • I think it’s a training / workshop rather than an experiment, Stas. Check out Jane Elliot’s website for details. http://www.janeelliott.com/.

      The Cuban fares well enough here. People pretty much keep to themselves unless under the influence or otherwise ‘disturbed. Neither one of us are fair-haired, but we are both fair-skinned. I suspect that is probably a plus in our favour. Interesting about the last blonde, though.

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