Fighting our reptilian racist instincts

We learn to be racist, therefore we can learn not to be racist. Racism is not genetical. It has everything to do with power. – Jane Elliot

It’s scary to disagree with a feminist icon of our times, but whilst I have huge respect for Jane Elliot, I disagree. Oh not about the genetic part. About the inference that we can learn some other way. Because I believe the way our minds develop predisposes us to bias. In the beginning it’s less about power, in the sense that we think about it, than it is about ensuring our survival. That’s a kind of power, I’ll grant you. The distrust for differences is strong in us. But I can only speak about my experience, so here are just a few examples of why I–an English white cis woman living in a predominantly white area in Sweden think so–and I’ll leave the extrapolation for your lives, your cultures, and your countries to you.

Combine an experience dependent mind…

My white daughter is well on her way to becoming racist and I have unwittingly been a part of the process. She’s six. One of her first best friends was a boy of colour, when they were both three years old. The family were also friends of ours. Living in a rather white homogenous society, I was delighted to discover that his mother was German and his father French/Guadaloupean. I’d pop round to speak my much missed French and it was great because my daughter and his son were best friends, so we hung out a lot until she started to come home from daycare with bite marks on her body. The little boy’s communication skills were a little delayed because whilst he was bilingual in french and german, he had very little Swedish. I truly believe that by biting her, he only wanted to communicate how much he liked her. Yet as a feminist my teaching was clear. When someone inflicts violence on you, you are not obliged to keep that person as a friend and I supported and encouraged her choice to spend less time with him.

This being an isolated island in Sweden, he was the only black kid in her class and there have been none since. For my daughter, that means that 100% of her experience with people of colour has been negative. Her experience is not an absolute truth, but it is her truth and later she expressed her prejudiced preference (to my horror)1.

But it could have been any kid, I hear you say. And I agree.

Yet contrast this with what happened to her younger brother two years later.  He was bullied at school by a white boy for other reasons. My son is in a class of ten kids, all of whom are white. My son knows through his own experience that most white kids are not bullies. In fact, according to his mind–and also my daughter’s since she knows of the issue–only 10% are.

So the narrative, unless changed becomes, ‘A few white kids bully, but all black kids do.’

Minds formulate narratives to make sense of the world. Kids learn mostly through actions not words, because they don’t yet have the brain to understand nuanced language. So I can–and have–told my daughter that there are many other ethnically diverse kids who wouldn’t bite her, yet until her mind builds models to prove it, my words are less powerful than her own lived experience.

With Social inclusion theory…

Our minds are responsible for devising the best way to survive and one of the best chances to survive is by social inclusion. When going through a process of identity formation, the social identity ‘is the portion of an individual’s self-concept derived from perceived membership in a relevant social group.’ [Wikipedia] Social groups are created through similarity on factors like tastes, race, class, religion, gender and status. Essentially, when we perceive familiarity, we feel safe which is–terrifyingly–why abused children are disproportionately susceptible to perpetuate intergenerational abuse cycles. It feels familiar and paradoxically, safer. One of the reasons I supported my daughter’s choice was because I didn’t want her to associate loving relationships with abusive behaviours. Ever.

Yet the consequence of in-group psychology, at least here in this homogenous pocket of Sweden where those with a darker skin are in the minority, means that the most visible and prevalent ingroup-outgroup formation may be based on skin colour as opposed to any other factor. After all, Sweden is mostly middle class and more accepting of non-binary gender thinking; there is little obvious gender discrimination. My son happily goes to school in a skirt for example. These factors do not make you stick out here. In fact homogeneity is so ingrained into Swedish identity, that the majority highly disapprove of any action–positive or negative–that might make you ‘stick out’ (going so far as to ignore eccentricities in the vain hope that they might just disappear). There’s even a law about it.

Jante’s law: Generally used colloquially in Denmark and the rest of the Nordic countries as a sociological term to describe a condescending attitude towards individuality and success, the term refers to a mentality that de-emphasises individual effort and places all emphasis on the collective, while discouraging those who stand out as achievers.

What might be the consequence of a mentality such as this (which is similar to English thinking, but for different reasons… one must be self deprecate or die a slow death of social exclusion in England)? In-groups are formed by what we consider to be ‘relevant’ familiarity. Children, and even adults, process most of our information visually which means that varying skin tones might be not only the first but also the only indicators for who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’.

And our Love of Polarity…

As might be evident from the previous example, the mind itself works out it’s best way to survive in binary terms. Successful survival strategies are designated ‘right’ and the ones which don’t appear to work are designated ‘wrong’ until we grow older and are able to fully comprehend shades of grey. The reason it’s difficult to persuade someone that they might be ‘wrong’ because the mind has associated wrongness with unsuccessful survival strategies. Being wrong, the mind believes, is a kind of death (and who wants that?).

Taking the example above therefore, in-groups, are ‘right’ and out-groups are ‘wrong’. Confirmation bias, i.e. our tendency to try to fit new information into our already formulated ‘right’ mental models will seek data to support our existing mental models. It so happens, that the latest wave of immigrants in Sweden include many muslims whose religion makes them ‘stick out’. Sweden is one of the most secular countries in the world, where only one in ten swedes think that religion is important in daily life [Wikipedia]. For the dwindling number of Christians, religion takes place discreetly and generally behind closed doors.  Overt religious display becomes something that ‘wrong’ people do.

And Islam is far less hidden than other religions. It includes regular praying, for example and hijabs. In an environment where sticking out, for a Swede is ‘wrong’, rude, unfamiliar and unsettling. Along with xenophobia which could apply to any foreign born national, but is more likely to apply to those who ‘look foreign’, Sweden is seeing a wave of Islamophobia and according to several reports2 in Swedish paper ‘The Local’, it’s getting worse. I believe, in large part because it sticks out as obviously different. A threat to Swedish beliefs of how one should act. 

What do you get? Racism

The origins of racism–when defined as prejudice and bias against people of colour–are highly personal. But as with all personal acts which are consistent and repeatable by millions, it becomes systemic. Political. It becomes about power, even if it didn’t start off that way. So what can I–as a parent–do about it? Until now I’ve focused on buying and reading intersectional literature; The Invisible Princess is on this year’s Christmas list. I look for teaching moments constantly for example, one parent wrote about an example with different coloured eggs and how they were all the same on the inside. I’ve taught the lesson of co-existing beliefs through a jolly red bloke called Santa Claus. Some believe, some don’t, and that’s okay. We greet homeless folk properly, with joy and money… because as I said to my little girl, ‘this man has one of the hardest jobs in the world. His best way to survive is to stand in the cold and beg. Imagine if that were you.’ His unasked for, and unwanted task is in part because he was born with a beautiful skin colour in a world that discriminates against him for it. This is Sweden. It’s freezing. No one would choose begging as a life if they had a better choice. And my daughter was sad. Because whilst she may have been born with a mind which loves to discriminate, she was also born with mirror neurons which may well be the basis for the empathy we desperately need to overcome our own racism and bigotry. Helping her cultivate them is one of my most important jobs.

“The greatest deception men suffer is from their own opinions.” – Leonardo da Vinci

This post has been reviewed for minority sensitivity by Michon Neal

1.Since writing this, my daughter has moved into a class with Syrian teaching assistants which I believe has led her to develop a more tolerant outlook. I am very thankful for their presence and their constant smiles, even though I have no words to express how sorry I am at what they’ve been through to get here.
2. http://www.thelocal.se/20161201/heres-how-swedes-would-vote-if-an-election-were-held-today