When someone tells me I’m race-baiting, that signals something worse than racism.
There’s something that runs even deeper than our racist attitudes and feeds those very views, an underlying coiled root that unless exposed and extracted, will continually provoke such overreactions that arrest innocent children suspected of terrorism. It’s not as simple as blaming Texas or “white folk” or buzzwords like micro-aggression and oppression. It is more subtle and sinister than outright violence and just as dangerous as the fanaticism that we claim to be afraid of.
A certain thread of socialized narrative has been bombarding us for a long time:
– That we are each the Main Character of our own particular story,
– with each person around us as plot-resolving props to support our catharsis,
– and that both The Enemy is plotting against us and The Endangered are in need of rescue.
Every act of the Main Character is considered an honorable sacrifice, while The Enemy remains a faceless, disembodied, unpredictable element that only thinks of “my” destruction.
This arc of the Hero-Savior story has silently fueled our approach to politics, religion, gender, race relations, charity, and just about every Hollywood blockbuster – and it perpetuates both a self-idolization and an other-demonization. It is both a megalomania and xenophobia. It’s why we say things like “race-baiting,” because we make someone else’s racial pain about “me.”
The most difficult part is that it acts as genuine benevolence, even believing in its own good motives, but continues to operate on a subconscious superiority of “doing the right thing.” It’s not as obvious as armed warfare but kills us over a lifetime of dehumanizing anyone outside the familiar. No one wants to think they’re the bad guy, and will find every rationalization to uphold their behavior. This runs under racially motivated crime, through power-plays or sexual conquest or the pressure for success. It’s largely our sociological need to be identified with the “victor,” the winning side, and for the “loser” to be morally wrong and the source of our ills, who must be subjugated under our feet and obliterated.
Everyone wants to be the Hero at the expense of making the “other” a Villain. This is the crux of the problem. A Hero must destroy an Enemy and “save” the Endangered. The Main Character falls into a romanticized, fetishized fantasy of being celebrated for their upstanding courage, which not only forfeits the necessary cooperation for real acts of heroism, but also trivializes the very real complexity of criminals and victims and justice, all which require a nuance far greater than our simplistic shorthand impulse.
The language of “the enemy” and “stranger” is not entirely our fault. Our brains have a shorthand schema to recognize patterns, so that we can make quick associations and fill the gaps of perception. It’s often a reflex to jump to conclusions or force-fit a memory or an explanation. This is why a movie will portray a crime-ridden city with “wet streets” and boarded doors and loud rap music, as a point of reference which works as a cheat-sheet for the viewer. Foley artists add sound effects in movies which we’re conditioned to hear, though so often they’re not the sound the thing makes, like rain and bowling balls. A clock can look suspiciously like a bomb because of Cartoon Time Bombs, but would be completely impractical since a modern bomb won’t call attention to itself with giant numbers. It only takes a moment to think through it: but our brains have gone Pavlov. We lock things into a habitual grid that relays consistent information, even when there’s contrary evidence to the schema at work.
These symbols and images and visual cues are more powerful and prevalent than we think. We’re taught that certain clothing, like a du-rag or sweater vest or hijab, conveys the entirety of that person, with moral implications and the “importance” to the plot. An Asian with glasses wearing a tie in a computer lab portrays a very specific range of information, as they’re only good for unlocking an encrypted file or discovering the missing clue in a forensics report. Or they’re used as a “foreigner punchline.” A Middle Eastern man bringing a briefcase on a bus is supposed to be a tense moment of paranoia, instantly engaging the viewer in questions we’ve been trained to ask – but not stopping to ask why we even ask these questions.
When the Boston bombing occurred, the online community at Reddit scoured pictures to find “evidence” for the possible assailants, and misinformation led to a “crowd-sourced witch hunt” of a missing college student. His family received death threats and major news sources ran the story, congratulating Reddit for the find. The student, Sunil Tripathi, an American with Indian parents, had committed suicide before the bombing and was completely unconnected. Reddit users played detective with two other foreign students, both who appeared on the front-page of New York Post and were just as innocent. Reddit tried to clamp down on further mishaps, but the New York Post never apologized.
Politics are no different. Psychologists have long spoken of an “ingroup” and an “outgroup,” in which our own group appears diverse to us while an outsider group appears to be a uniformed stereotype. This automatic prejudice has continued to worsen, especially in our polarized, binary discussions by attention-grabbing pundits and bloggers.
A vicious cycle ensues: we see a pundit or blogger spouting off a heated diatribe to attract their own fan-base, while outsiders lump this one voice-box as representative of the entire outgroup. Social media might have made us better informed on many issues, but it has also painted a broad one-dimensional caricature of opposing voices, swirling in a sea of click-bait and hate-watch, while the actual pains of real people are still ignored. There is little consensus within each camp on who fairly represents what’s being said, which means nearly every camp is misrepresented by and reduced to the most sensational, outrageous members, which continues the terrible cycle.
Of course, there are real dangers, from slavery to genocide to hate groups to home invasions, and these must be confronted, with no watering down and no sugarcoating of such evil. There are individuals that really do nothing but use and abuse; there are corporations that rip the fabric of social stability. That, in fact, only furthers the point. Evil is a universal capacity within every one of us, not belonging to any one group, yet possible in all, given the resources and an open door. That shouldn’t make us more paranoid, but rather more rational, so that no absurd preconception would distract us from the real evidence of perpetrators.
Some of “them” may coincidentally fit a stereotype, but so many don’t fit the “face of evil” that has been been inherited by our visual checklist. It’s as apparent as the awful exploitation of the sex slave trade and drug cartels, but also hidden in the most benign everyday interactions in business ventures and profit margins and family relations, with tiny infractions disguised as a “necessity.” You and I are not above these self-serving justifications.
We must drill into the symptoms and circumstances of these destructive behaviors at the systemic level, but also examine how we conduct our own inner-lives. As the Holocaust survivor Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said, “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
It’s difficult to examine ourselves. It’s easy to blame any number of groups for this. It’s been the recent trend to blame “Western Hollywood” or social media or institutionalized racism or “white oppressors,” but even if such blame was justified, it doesn’t solve a thing. That’s still partaking in our psychological instinct to socialize with like-minded applause. There’s a time to point fingers, but there’s also a time to free ourselves from the way we’ve gotten into this mess.
We can gain cultural literacy and unity by a purposeful change of language, symbols, and images, while making a deliberate effort against our own hasty mechanisms to filter others. That’s not merely philosophical musing. Some of this education is just knowing how our brains work, and working against the parts that harm us. Well-researched training has been proven to reduce bias. It’s amazing how much we can change simply by telling ourselves, “I’m on to you. I know what you’re doing.” It’s possible to re-educate ourselves, which in turn will actually save lives – and will actually make us heroes, for each other.
Real heroism is identifying with another’s hurt, but more than that, moving towards who we perceive as “other” not as charity cases, but as multi-dimensional people who matter, whose stories matter, who count in every possible way.
It requires filling in a back-story and considering “the other” as part of our own collective story, each as important as the next.
It requires confessing that we have our own prejudices, handed down by bad experiences and anecdotal bias, and that only by being vulnerable in our self-confrontation can we begin the hard work of killing the false image of the so-called “enemy.”
It requires outrage for the wound but compassion for the wounded, both our voices and our hands at work.
It requires standing up for devalued people without polarizing, partisan rhetoric, but with absolute firm conviction.
It requires acknowledging that evil can exist in a face just like ours, in the mirror, and across the world – but goodness can abide in these very same faces, and that we each have our own fight for such good to conquer the evil inside.
It requires revoking our isolation and initiating a deliberate dialogue with those we deem unfamiliar – but even starting communication with those closest to us, that we have not treated them as secondary characters to our “main story,” and that we build our lives as a tapestry of connected values, my needs and your needs as individually unique, but tracing such separate sunbeams back to the same sun.