Thank You, Mr. Darwin. Again.October 8, 2008 1:22 pm Nature, Philosophy
So I was a racist. When you grow up when and where I did, you can’t not be.
By the time I was in high school in the late 60s, racism was passé. It was no longer okay to hate the people who had progressed from being n*****s – also called, among my own relatives, “Negroes” or, given our accents, “niggrahs” – to being “black” people, or “African-Americans.”
But just because society changes, that doesn’t mean you do. I’m afraid the racism was still there in my head. (I like to think I can admit this not because I’m evil, but because I’m honest.)
One of my greatest personal challenges has been timidity. Not long back, I thought that if I ever wrote my autobiography, it would start with the sentence “I was born afraid.” I’ve struggled all my life with being shy, timid and retiring. As I’ve related elsewhere, I was once offered an award at a casual get-together, and rather than walk out in front of people and accept it, I ran (literally) and hid.
So it wasn’t like I was driving down through a black neighborhood, as one of my cousins did late one night, honking my horn and shouting racial epithets. I never deliberately not-hired a black person, I never expected anyone to give me their seat on a bus. I never so much as deliberately frowned at a black person.
But given the new social atmosphere, I worked at being a not-racist. I worked at giving black people an equal place in line, equal consideration. I drove the racist thoughts and attitudes down deep. I honestly wanted them to not be there.
I mean, I saw the point. Intellectually, I knew racism was stupid. I knew it was counterproductive. I was wholly on board with the ideal of equality.
[To tell you the truth, I’ve felt separate from my fellow man more often because of my height, or my intellect and interests, than because of skin color. When you walk into a restroom and the altitude of the urinal on the wall is set for a guy six feet tall and you’re only a little over five – when you have to stand on your toes to take a piss, and when everyone you know would laugh out loud if you complained about it – you know a teeny bit about unconscious discrimination.]
But in that deep part of me, the racism was still there. Because I was trying to be fair to Them. Those people. Those “black” people. I still separated Them out from Us.
But then again, the point of the public campaign against racism often seemed to be that you had to see that some people were different, but not treat the different people any differently. Not let it make an unfair difference in your actions.
Like I said, I worked at it. But I still avoided Them. Any conversation I initiated with a black person would be casual and superficial. More than once, trying too hard to project my not-racism, I suffered embarrassing gaffes. (It was like I was saying “Hey, ha-ha, I like and accept you black people!”) With no handbook, no intelligent advice, I was like a boy at his first dance, stumbling over my own feet trying to be a not-racist.
It went on like that for a couple more decades. Until the day I started to think deeply about an entirely different subject: Evolution. About what it really meant.
One of the lessons I took from evolution was the lesson of similarity, of relatedness. Casting about for a clearer understanding, I started to compare body parts among animals, thinking about the traits we had in common. We share with various animals things like wrists and eyes, hips and ankles and inner ears. In some cases, the physical structures are so similar there’s no appreciable difference.
Squinting back along the branches of our family tree one day, something flipped in my head and I suddenly understood that, mostly, we humans are not really humans.
My wrist is not a human wrist, it’s a beastly wrist, a structure so common it’s shared, with minor variations of shape and function, by squirrels and bears. My eyes are not human eyes, they’re just the late, local expression of structures a half billion years or so old, so common today that even cheetahs and chickens have them. Watching a squirrel or gerbil sit upright and hold a bit of food to nibble on, I see my own fingers, scaled down but undeniably there.
When you look at our human selves, very little of us is distinctly human. We might be out on our own little twig on that Tree of Life, but that short twig is attached to a larger limb that branches off a common trunk and common roots. The point being not that we and animals are distantly related, but that we’re CLOSELY related.
If you look outward from the trunk and focus on the progressive bifurcation, noticing the difference at each branching point, you’ll see us as totally unique. But if you look inward from our twig and notice the progression of connections, the way similar animals flow into us, and we into them, as you get closer to the trunk, and then more distant animals flow into us and we into them, eventually you see our uniqueness vanish into … sameness.
We’re all part of the trunk, all springing from the same roots, and everything we see around us is related. Everything alive is US.
Rather than some unique creature separated by a distinct wall from everything else alive, we’re a foggy smidgen of a single cloud of life. There is no wall, because you can’t build a wall out of fog. Chimpanzees are US. Dogs are US.
And just as we share toes and elbows and noses, we share feelings. Not just the capacity to have feelings, but some or most of the exact same feelings. I’m not saying it’s likely, based on the available evidence, I’m saying it IS. Because the available evidence of sameness, of physiology and function and genetics and brain structure, implies that there’s no reason to think it can be any different.
If your dog acts lonely or bored, it’s because he feels lonely and bored, the same loneliness or boredom you feel. If he acts angry or aggressive or afraid or hungry, it’s because he feels the same anger or aggression or fear or hunger you feel. The maternal love and protectiveness that human mothers lavish on their offspring, that same maternal love exists in chimpanzees, and dogs, and even horses. I’ve seen it. Maybe it’s expressed differently, but it is there.
Yes, yes, yes, there’s difference. Plenty of it. And we focus on it, always, in an attempt to define ourselves, to find within us our own value and individuality.
But there’s even more sameness, vast amounts of it. Like young people at a party, displaying their tattoos and piercings in order to show how unique they are, yet missing the fact that they’re all displaying … well, tattoos and piercings, all applied from identical motivations, we all too often miss the sameness we share with the world of critters that enfolds and includes us.
After the lesson of evolutionary connectedness sank home, I one day discovered that something interesting had happened to my racism. It had apparently drained away while I wasn’t looking.
I had worked hard at outwardly manifesting the intent of anti-racism — of treating people the same. I did the best I could at it, because it was the right thing to do.
But I suffered the murky continuation of racism on deeper levels, because I seemed unable to find a way to dig down and root it out. There were no lessons in how to do it, no handbook you could read, no group therapy you could attend. I was still afraid of Them, still had Them mentally walled off from me as different.
You’d expect – hey, I would expect – that a bright guy like me would be able to wrestle his own mind into shape. But I was just another hapless idiot on the subject, stumbling and fumbling my way through it as best I could.
But one day when I looked at Them, I saw US.
I was standing in line at a grocery store on that day, and there was a “black” man standing next to me. I reached down into myself, as I often do, inspecting my feelings, and I was surprised to notice that the fear was gone. This was just some guy, a neighbor, a fellow human thrown into my company by accident in a supermarket checkout line. His eyes met mine momentarily, brown eyes to blue, human eyes, and we both smiled easily.
Son of a bitch. I don’t know if I can even describe how … different … it felt. It felt comfortable, free, even sort of fun.
But, as I realized later, it was also counterpoint to a deep annoyance, a lament, that I had to have this other stupid, stupid thing in my head for so many years. The thing you’d feel if you were suddenly released from chains after a lifetime of wearing them – you’d rejoice in being free, but you’d also say “Why the hell did I have to be in chains all those years??”
My slow-coming understanding of the relatedness of life had compressed my racial awareness, my sense of racial difference, into nothing. Without my even noticing it. I didn’t have to fight anymore to be a not-racist.
All those “races” we see around us, they’re not Them. They’re Us. I’m them. We’re all the same – all just kids in one small neighborhood of a larger town, a larger world, of life.
There are no such things as races. We humans are humans, upright mammals with a shared ocean of genetic attributes and absolutely identical feelings and senses of self. In the light of an acceptance and understanding that encompasses horses and dogs and bears and rats, the differences between us humans are squashed down to trivial-verging-on-nonexistent.
Man, it feels good to know this. It’s a pisser that it took me almost 50 years to get here, but on the other hand I really look forward to seeing where it leads.
And I hope more of us Southerners, and the rest of us, can make the trip.