Wed 9 Jul, 2003 03:07 pm
President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa once commented to the effect that when there is armed violence in Somalia, men and women in Deadman's Creek, Tennessee don't say, "There's violence in Somalia," rather, they say "There's violence in Africa."-when a coup d'etat puts a president illegally into office in Togo, American's don't say, "Oh there's been a coup in Togo," they say "Oh, there's been another coup in Africa."
His point is well taken. I've seen this in my personal experience. When i once worked in a retail outlet, the manager and her trainee made racist comments all of the time-and we were in an area in which about half of our customers were black. When i tried to bring this to the attention of the district manager, i was brushed off. Being the sort of troublemaker i enjoy being, i contacted the local office of the NAACP. This got a reaction-the corporation prided itself on its image in race relations. One result was that i was sent to another store, in an area in which the clientele were almost entirely black. I think i was being punished, although it didn't matter to me who my customers were, and i certainly had no interest in making retail sales in a discount shoe chain a career. The manager there tried to explain the attitude of my former manager by telling me how she had been picked on by black students when she was in high school. Leaving aside the question of why she may have been singled out for that treatment, i pointed out that if white girls had been on her case, she wouldn't have condemned all white folks, but when black girls picked on her, she felt justified in making sweeping condemnations of blacks.
Whether at the level of nations within a continent, or individuals within a community, perceptions are frequently, i might say, usually, considerably altered by, perhaps even formed by, the conceptions we already possess. The woman who hated blacks had already had some form of prejudice or resentment present to have branded an entire race because of the actions of a few (quite apart from the lack of a sense of proportion with regard to the animosities of high school students). President Mbeki's remark also suggests that this operates on a larger scale. The most of the membership here is white, and of European descent. If someone here resents the French because of their refusal to support the war in Iraq, we don't extend that resentment to Poles, or to Danes. Why then, do we perceive those with whom we are familiar as individuals, but we perceive "the other" as an homogenous group, to be so praised or condemned? What are your thoughts on perception, specifically of individuals, groups, races?
Fear, many times, is a dominant feature of our everyday living, unrecognized and unacknowledged as such. Mostly, I think, it's fear of the unknown. If you're white, you fear anything and anybody else, and I think the same thing holds true in all other cases. That expression "birds of a feather flock together" has a lot of meanings.
And our perceptions - most of them - come from early experiences and our reactions to them. Rarely, I think, do most people grow out of the early perception.
You have an earlier thread I keep going back to, although not participating in. Which does relate to this one.
My early years were spent in a wonderful neighborhood. There were more ethnic groups than you could shake a stick at, and enough fear, bias, hatred to go around twice. Generally speaking, it had been a Bundist area during WW II, and at the same time a neighborhood that drew Jewish refugees. There were Poles who went to Parish of Most Precious Blood, who carried bats with them for the after church fights. There were the tough Irish kids who lived down near the tracks from whom you stayed away on Halloween. And in the seventh grade I paid protection money, until my father got the vice squad in to break up the gang.
This was a big city, divided by wards, and that's where we lived because it was politically expedient.
So I don't know how much basic tolerance came into it, so much as a basic knowledge of survival. And with that came a perception of how much we were really all alike. We all lived in the same neighborhood.
Today, my perception of those times is that I had a good childhood. There were loads of kids to play with, ride with, be with. But I was lucky in that my father's perception of people was that they were more similar than not, and while you didn't have to love everybody, most people were interesting. To him, boredom was a sin. His life as a criminal defense trial lawyer in that ward was pretty interesting in itself. We grew up knowing many members of the not so straight and the straight, and all that gave me my view of life.
Going back to what you first phrased, I think the generalities are not so peculiar. After all, how different is that from hearing so many times in Europe - "You're from New Jersey? I have a cousin in Metuchen." I've never been to Metuchen. I've never been to Afrca, either, but my older daughter is familiar with much of it, and even has a card that identifies her as a contributing editor to the African Times. She loves the continent, and sees it in its component parts. I don't, because I have no experience of it.
The following psychological dispositions seem to hold true.
1. Prejudice is endemic. It could perhaps be viewed as an evolutionary trait to reduce "information overload". i.e. Like other primates we form tribal groups in which there is an "us" and "them".
2. Such groups seemed to be defined by a hierarchy of properties starting with (a) physical similarity (b) linguistic similarity (c) religious affinity (f) spatial proximity etc.
3. All these properties are further polarised by the tendency towards ingroup marriage or partnerships.
4. Such polarizations have only relatively recently come into question by virtue of modern media and cheap travel which has brought us into closer intellectual or empathic contact with other groups.
5. The media tend to reflect the polarizations of their origins by their style of reporting and prominence of news items.
Now of course these statements are about statistical norms not necessarily true of any particular individual. It is also the case however that contradictory tendencies exist within the same individual perhaps resulting in a guilt induced positive prejudice.
It is interesting to listen to kindergarten schoolkids describing their peers.
They rarely mention race or religion when describing another child so it seems that the strength of our prejuduces are a direct result of our gradual "socialization".
I realize that I used to have a rather skeptical view of American's relationships to predjudice in general.
I would expect the worst untill proven otherwise, as is frequently the case here for example (the "otherwise", that is).
Yes I would have to say predjudice is an easy suit to put on, if your not careful!
And if only it were as easy to take off!
The manager there tried to explain the attitude of my former manager by telling me how she had been picked on by black students when she was in high school. Leaving aside the question of why she may have been singled out for that treatment, i pointed out that if white girls had been on her case, she wouldn't have condemned all white folks, but when black girls picked on her, she felt justified in making sweeping condemnations of blacks.
A rarely noticed factor when justifying predjudice based upon one's experiences.
And a damned common excuse, as well . . .
Amen. I have heard this one frequently:
"If only you'd lived in South Africa like I did you'd hate the 'kaffirs' too!"
It's usually followed by anecdotal evidence about barbarism perpetrated by blacks.
Been there, heard and seen that.
I have concluded long ago that prejudice is just plain ole ignorance. Perception is in the eye of the beholder. As shared by some in your other forum on bigotry/white previledge, some from backgrounds where their parents were bigots learn that it is wrong-headed. Even those that have experienced discrimination end up as bigots. It's a strange world, indeed! c.i.
It's all ranking. My 'grouping' is superior to yours, and I've got to constantly remind myself of this - that's why there is so much nonsense about race and class. If we get around to forgetting that we might just start treating others as our equals and worthy of some consideration.