02 December 2014

On Race, Violence, and Social Constructs

C. Loring Brace, an American anthropologist at the University of Michigan, argues that, biologically speaking, there is no such thing as race. What we think of as "race," in humans, is simply the concentration of inherited physical traits in a given population, based on geography and, to a great extent, social isolation.

In other words, people from different parts of the world tend to show different physical traits based on where they live, or, more accurately, where their ancestors lived. For example, people originally from sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Asia and the Americas tend to have darker-toned skin and eyes; people from northern Europe and other parts of Asia tend to have lighter skin and eyes. For millennia, travel to and from those places was limited, so people selected their mates from the local population - the people they were most likely to meet. This meant that their offspring bore the physical characteristics of their parents, and with the passing generations, each population took on a distinctive look specific to its location.

And that distinctive look is the root of our concept of "race."

The second part of the race puzzle is social isolation. For most of human history, the different "races" did not mix extensively because travel to other parts of the world was difficult, and the odds of meeting people who had very different physical characteristics were low. As travel became easier and more efficient, however, two things happened: the more economically powerful northern Europeans began to subjugate people with darker skin, enslaving them and otherwise treating them as inferior to those with lighter skin. For generations, they struggled to fit into a society that rejected them as full members at the most fundamental level. And, perhaps as a result, a social taboo grew up around marrying and reproducing with people whose appearances were different from one's own. The taboo was so strong that it was encoded into law in many places. For example, the interbreeding of people considered to be of different racial types, known as miscegenation, was illegal in parts of the United States until 1967.

Thus, although barriers to meeting people of different national origins have been largely physically eliminated in the developed world, we still have a strong concept of "race" embedded in our consciences. We know the physical differences between black people and white people quite well; we can identify them on sight. And we still, unfortunately, treat these people differently based on the most superficial of criteria.

Because, you see, all human beings are biologically the same. We are of the same genus and species, and our biological functions do not differ significantly. (Oh, sure, there are some populations that are more prone than others to various maladies, or that have certain strengths or immunities that others do not have, but these are small differences that do not, and should not, affect our ability to treat each other equally in the eyes of the law.)

The more I learn about the theory of race being a false construct, the more I like it. The inequality that we, as a society, experience and enforce on a daily basis, is all in our heads. If you remove skin color and feature shape from the equation, all you have left is bare humanity.

If you recognize the entire concept of "race" as the natural extension of an unjust and outdated social construct, the scales fall from your eyes. The young black man killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri in August becomes simply a young man killed by a police officer. The twelve-year-old black boy shot in Cleveland by the white police for playing with a toy gun simply becomes, well, a dead twelve-year-old boy. As the us-and-them dichotomy disappears, the feeling of horror rises. What have we done? And what are we doing?

A Facebook friend attacked me last week for the sin of sending my children to a public school that is apparently not "racially diverse" enough for her tastes. She boasted that she herself had attended an "integrated" school, and that she in turn had sent her children to a school that had a lot of "blacks."

I send my children to the local public schools, which have a sizeable first- and second-generation immigrant population, a high proportion of children for whom English is not a first language, and strong representation of Jewish, Asian, and Muslim cultures. Though I chose the location of my house, I did not choose the ethnicity, religion, or skin color of my neighbors. They are who they are, and I cherish my community for the people in it. When I explained this to my friend, she responded, "Asian people don't count. They tend to excel at integrating into our society. Your school isn't diverse unless it has a lot of black people."

Another of my Facebook friends - someone clearly, by her appearance, of northern European descent - told me that she wished "the black community" worried as much about "black on black violence" as it does about the killing of that young man in Ferguson. In doing so, she revealed to me that she is a true racist, and one of the most insidious kind: the kind that pretends to be concerned about the welfare of "the black community," but still believes, deep inside, that people with darker skin tones are more prone to violence than people with lighter skin tones, and that this tendency toward violence is something they need to solve.

But the people with dark skin are not the ones shooting unarmed teens, under color of law, on the city streets of Ferguson and Cleveland. They are, in overwhelming numbers, the ones being shot, not the ones doing the shooting. The idea that "black" people are inherently more violent than "white" people is not just racism of the most repugnant type: it's scientifically and mathematically unfounded.

I'm not finished thinking about this issue. I may never be. And neither should you be. We, all of us, have a long way to go in changing our mindsets about skin color. But we absolutely must work at it, as hard as we can. If we challenge ourselves to think of race, as Dr. Brace does, as a false construct - to measure ourselves and each other simply as people, without regard to the varied physical traits our ancestors handed down to us, we might make some progress in no longer associating skin color with tendency toward crime. We might begin to eliminate the socioeconomic injustices that have created a permanent underclass in American society - a group of people we urge to play by the rules, but then repeatedly deny full participation in our democracy. We might stop assigning a value to someone's company, in the classroom or at the dinner table, based on their blackness, their whiteness, or their Asian-ness. And we might, God willing, stop the senseless fear-fed violence that tears our society apart on a daily basis.

26 November 2014

Thanksgiving, and Everyday Kindness

I got my hair cut yesterday at a local salon. When I arrived, I had to take off my sweater and put on a little smock; they provide a tiny little one-person dressing room stocked with smocks for this purpose. There was someone in the dressing room when I arrived, but she had the door open and was just standing there, texting someone on her phone. I waited politely just outside the door.

The hair-washing lady saw me standing there. She looked at the lady texting on her phone, and then she looked at me. She watched me with interest.

After a few minutes, when it became apparent that the texting session was not going to be over quickly, I poked my head into the dressing room and asked, "May I just grab a smock please?"

"Of course," the lady said, not looking up.

I took a smock and went to the ladies' room to change into it.

When I emerged and sat down to have my hair washed, the washing lady said, "That was really smart, what you did there."

"Thanks. There's always a better solution than yelling at someone to hurry up, don't you think?"

"You're a better person than I am," she said. "I would have told her to move along."

I'll admit, I thought about asking her to step outside to finish her texting. But I thought, this is just a small moment, a small inconvenience. I had no idea what was going on. Maybe she had a sick kid, or a crisis at home. Elderly parents. A car in the shop. Maybe she was arguing with her husband or her boss. Who knows? Who am I to judge someone I have never seen before? And she probably didn't even know I was standing there. There was nothing to gain by being rude. I saw that the bathroom was unoccupied, and that would work just as well for me.

A few minutes later, a freshly-coiffed woman approached the hair-washing lady with a small wad of cash. "Thanks for washing my hair," she said. "This is for you."

"I didn't wash your hair," she responded. "That was Lisa. She's in the break room. I'll give this to her."

"No, I'm pretty sure it was you - wasn't it?"

"Nope. But no worries. I'll go give this to her." The washing lady took the money and, leaving me for a moment, went to find Lisa.

When she returned, I said, "Don't ever tell me again that I'm a better person than you."

"What do you mean?"

"You could have said 'thank you' and put that money in your pocket, and no one would have been the wiser."

"Yeah, but that wouldn't have accomplished anything." She shrugged. "What goes around comes around."

She was right. I thought about it later, when I was stalled in traffic in the grocery aisles, and then later, when my son texted me that he absolutely needed a black t-shirt for school by tomorrow morning and would I possibly mind running to the store to find one for him? This involved a trip to K-Mart at 6 P.M., with the full load of groceries still in my car.

There are opportunities to be kind and helpful, or at least not rude and judgmental, lurking in every small moment of every day. I'm going to try to start taking those opportunities as often as I can.

(Yes, I am aware of what is going on in Ferguson, MO and in other cities all around the country. I will write about that soon. I'm still thinking. I like to think before I write, if I possibly can.)

Happy Thanksgiving to my readers in the U.S.!

27 October 2014

Fairies Teenagers Can Believe In

Several friends have children younger than mine - grade schoolers, mostly - and are currently confronting, for the first time, the fact that their children no longer believe in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, or the Tooth Fairy. This is a difficult time for parents, as it heralds the end of a period of magical innocence. They lament the loss of the fantasy that magical creatures live among us and make miraculous things happen, seemingly without effort.

Fear not. I have gone through this period and come out in one piece on the other side, and I have a solution for you. It is my pleasure to introduce your older offspring to a solution that works for them. It is a continuation, if you will, of the active fantasy life so essential to their healthy development.

Fairies, elves, and fictional creatures they can continue to believe in.

Please meet:

1. The Laundry Fairy

To prepare for her arrival, cover the floor of your bedroom with damp used towels, dirty underwear, mismatched socks, and other sundry items that need to be washed. If you have nothing dirty to offer her, that's okay; just throw clean clothing and bedding haphazardly on the floor. She'll be unable to distinguish it from things that genuinely need to be washed.

Then simply go to school, or work, or your sports practice, or whatever it is you do all day that requires you to take six showers, using a clean towel each time.

When you return - wonder of wonders - all the dirty stuff is washed, dried, folded, and placed neatly back in your room! And you barely lifted a finger!

2. The Toilet Paper Elf

This one is my favorite. He lives in the basement, wearing a cute little tissue paper hat, and waits for you to use the last of the toilet paper on the roll. Then, just in time for the family's return from the lunch rush at Chipotle, he dashes upstairs to the bathroom, bearing rolls of toilet paper to replace the ones you left empty. He installs them neatly on the dispensers for your use.

Sometimes he brings extra rolls from the storage closet and puts them in the bathroom cabinet, so they're handy if you run out and find yourself in an awkward situation. But don't feel obligated to replace the empty rolls, even if doing so would take minimal effort. Believe in the Elf, and he will continue to serve your needs!

3. The Dish Bunny

We've all been there. You have just finished making yourself a midnight snack of microwaved something-or-other that you found in the refrigerator while your mom was sleeping. Or maybe you have made a big bowl of popcorn in that popper with the hand-washable-only plastic lid. Or maybe you made yourself a healthy breakfast before dashing out the door to school in the morning.

You would have put the dirty dishes in the dishwasher, but the dishwasher was full - of clean dishes. Who has time to deal with that? Or with the annoying reality that some things need to be washed by hand?

Never fear! The Dish Bunny will do it! After you leave the house, or before you rise in the morning, she hops on into the kitchen and cleans up the mess. She unloads the clean dishes and puts them away, reloads the dishwasher and turns it on, washes the popcorn popper, scrapes the melted cheese off the inside of the microwave, and wipes the splattered gunk from the counter. You don't even need to share your food or leave her a snack, the way you do for Santa or the Easter Bunny. That stuff makes her fat anyway. She'd much prefer to clean up after a meal she hasn't had the pleasure of eating - wouldn't you?

4. The Light Bulb Pixie

You flip the switch, and the light bulb gives a sad little buzz and a flash, and then it goes dark. You know where the illumination comes from: a box of replacement bulbs in a nearby cabinet. But don't waste your energy to fetch a bulb or climb up on a stepladder. That's the Light Bulb Pixie's job!

She comes along when no one else is home, usually late at night, equipped with magic sparkly dust that allows her to avoid tripping over the shoes, books, and sports equipment you left on the hallway floor. She works her miracles silently, installing environmentally-friendly CFL bulbs all over the house and disposing properly of the burned-out ones.

No one else in the house needs to risk breaking his neck in the darkness if he believes in the Light Bulb Pixie!

5. The Cash Leprechaun

This handy little guy comes up with money (presumably from an unlimited pot of gold stored somewhere near the horizon) whenever your earnest little teenaged heart desires it. School fundraiser? No problem! Feel free to order several hundred frozen cheesecakes - the Cash Leprechaun will just throw the money into an envelope on the date it's due! No questions asked!

What about all those iTunes songs you need to buy? The last-minute check needed for a school field trip, prom tickets, lunch or ice cream with the friends, gas for the car? No problem. The Cash Leprechaun has you covered. One hundred per cent. Face it, you deserve it because of your steadfast faith in miracles.

I have never actually seen the Cash Leprechaun. He seems to work his magic only for teenagers and college students. Just about everyone else has to work to support their material whims and fundraising goals. But if you happen to see an extra Leprechaun floating around your house, could you send him my way?

I believe, I swear. I really, truly do.