I am beyond lucky. I’ve grown up in a place where people are wealthy, kind, and for the most part, demographically similar. In a town where a person of color sticks out like a sore thumb, I think it’s fair to say that most people do not have much experience with racism. I believe that it is because of this that I feel so drawn to learning about it. I remember being in fourth grade and first learning about the Civil War and how slavery had such a big impact on that time. It of course, at the mere age of eight, seemed like just another thing that we were required to learn about that made everyone in class want to close their eyes and take a nap right then and there on our desks. However, as I grew and matured, it seemed like with each passing year we would go more in depth into the idea of slavery and discrimination; and with each passing year I would become more entranced by the horrors that these people were put through, based only on the way their skin looked.
"Racism is defined as a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race"
Racism is defined as “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race” (Merriam-Webster). Although racism is its own thing, there are different forms of othering that are very similar to racism. For example, colorism is discrimination towards people with darker skin tones. It is common among people of the same race or ethnicity (Oxford Dictionary). I find it so hard to believe that people of the same culture would find it necessary to discriminate against each other when they all know how much it hurts to be discriminated against. In the book I read for this unit, The Skin I’m In by Sharon Flake, the main character is brutally picked on in school because her skin is darker than everyone else's. Reading about how this poor girl was surrounded by African American children, and was still bullied just because her skin was the darkest, made me question the reason we discriminate against people. If people who have first handedly experienced discrimination still have the audacity to discriminate against eachother, is it because other people do it to them so they feel they should do it to others? Or could it be something that people are born with as a natural instinct?
Although we, as people of Westport, are not commonly exposed to true racism or colorism, we do witness othering everyday, and quite often we are also a part of it. Although we may not be conscious of it, we are constantly making judgements about people based on the way they look, act, or think, and as sad as it is, people are probably doing the same to you. It’s not that we don’t like these people or that these people don’t like you, it’s just something that many would argue, naturally happens. For example, in her TED talk, Vernā Myers, an African American diversity advocate, mentions how even she makes biases that she wasn’t even aware she had. I feel confident that if you asked most students at Staples High School if they ever judged people, and then asked them why they do this, almost every single person would say that they “don’t mean to do it, it’s just something that kind of happens” (Sophia Alfero, 9th grader). If all of these people argue that when we other people, we just notice ourselves doing it without meaning to, does that mean that discriminating against people is something that’s natural to us as human beings?
"Studies have found that when whites see black faces there is increased activity in the Amygdala, a brain structure associated with the detection of threats"
Othering is a very broad topic and there is a lot that falls under it. When we zoom in on discriminating against people based solely on the color of their skin, it seems unlikely that we could be born with such cruelty. I do believe that racism would not be the issue it is today if we hadn’t heard the stories told by parents, teachers, people on tv, ect., making people of different races look bad. However, some argue that the reason we are racist is because of a natural protection instinct. According to The Atlantic, “studies have found that when whites see black faces there is increased activity in the Amygdala, a brain structure associated with emotion and, specifically, the detection of threats” (Wright). Whether it is unclear if this is a completely true statement, it could be a valid argument that we discriminate in a way of protecting ourselves, whether that is clear to the person being discriminated against or not. Although this argument does make some sense to me, how could we possibly get the idea that someone could be dangerous, without the influence of other people? Further in this article by Robert Wright, it is stated that, “the racial sensitivity of the Amygdala doesn’t kick in until around age 14… once it kicks in it doesn’t kick in equally for everybody. The more racially diverse your peer group, the less strong the amygdala effect” (Wright). Reading this made me almost completely decide that racism is something that is 100% taught. If the “racist” part of our brain doesn’t become sensitive until we’re fourteen, and is different for everyone based on the racial diversity they are exposed to, how could we possibly be born with the ability to be racist? I think that there is a much stronger argument for racism being something we’re taught, however, when we zoom back out on the whole category of othering, the argument is a little different.
Othering is defined as “the process of perceiving or portraying someone or something as fundamentally different or alien” (yourdictionary). We other people based off of so many aspects that should not determine the way we treat them. From nose shape to intelligence level, we categorize people constantly, whether we mean to or not. At the very beginning of this unit, I read a children's book about othering. It followed the life of a penguin who was being treated unfairly because he acted “different” from all the other penguins. Although this was obviously a fictional story, it got me thinking about if it’s possible for species other than humans, to be discriminatory. After doing some research, I found a study done in 2011 by Yale graduate student, Neha Mahajan and a group of psychologists, later published by Scientific American, that was conducted to determine the evolution of prejudice and where it first came from. The scientists had predicted that it began with monkeys, and created a sort of IAT test for them. They concluded that when a photo of an “outsider” chimp was associated with something good, and a photo of an “insider” chimp was associated with something bad, the monkey pondered over it for longer. “This suggests that monkeys not only distinguish between insiders and outsiders, they associate insiders with good things and outsiders with bad things” (Grewal). Despite being highly intelligent creatures, monkeys still are not able to think the same exact way we do. So, if it is instinctual for a chimpanzee to treat outsiders differently, wouldn’t it make sense that we other because of that same instinct?
After researching all about the topic of racism and othering, I can confidently say that I am much more educated on the issue. Even after all the research conducted however, it still seems hard to find a solid answer to the question of why we other. I certainly have learned a lot through this process but it seems that the evidence keeps going back and forth from our reason to be instinctual or influenced. I do now know that there are multiple forms of othering, and there are different forms of racism as well. From that, I know that all of these types of othering are very different from one another and could therefore, be done for different reasons. It is clear to me that nobody is born evil or filled with hatred. All we know as infants is love. So, it would make sense to me that because of this, all forms of othering are taught. However, it is difficult for me to ignore the fact that, no matter how much we attempt to deny it, we make judgements about people so quickly based off the smallest of things. I would not consider myself to be a racist or discriminating person in any way, and I would actually like to think of myself as a very open and welcoming person, but I still find myself making biases about people for such unnecessary reasons. I do wish that I could put an end to these prejudices I create about people, but for some reason it seems almost impossible. No matter how I truly feel about the person, it seems like a natural instinct to criticize them before getting to really know them. This being said, I’m never reluctant to get to know someone of a different race or personality. All of this brings me to the conclusion that we other people based off natural instinct forming from ancient times when our ancestors first roamed the earth, however it’s the evil in that othering that is taught to us. I do not believe that we come out of the womb thinking, oh that man has dark skin, he must be a criminal, and I certainly do believe that that form of hatred is taught to us, but the idea of othering as a whole is something that everybody, whether they care to admit it or not, does on a daily basis. So if this is the case and we really do other based off natural instinct, why would we be created to do so?