A former coworker once told me that in France, in all of Europe, there “is no skin color.”
“Like, no racism,” he said.
A number of things gave me great pause while I hesitated to respond. (We were on the floor at work; said coworker had never so much as set a foot in Europe.) It took a great deal of concentration to keep my poker face on. We didn’t have the time, nor was it the place, to continue the conversation, but I found the very statement to speak volumes about where a majority of the United States is in cultural identity formation. That is to say, most of us Americans are “unexamined,” and have only scratched the surface in who we are, where we came from (everyone=immigrant), and how we fit in current American society.
If it wasn’t implied well enough in between the lines, I don’t believe that a country can have “no skin color” and “no racism.” That’s bogus. Even if a country’s history completely lacked waves of immigration, it probably has a class system that is tied to literal skin color (not just varying natural origins being taken as different races). See The hierarchies of color. It should go without saying that France is not a place devoid of race issues. No place can be this way, because a nation’s people is constantly progressing through cultural identitification with the individuals advancing at different rates. There is no homogenous cultural identity per nation, and thus no country will ever be remiss of intercultural conflict.
I was reminded of this conversation during an NPR author interview that played this morning. So glad it did.
To be clear, The Hidden Brain by science writer Shankar Vedantam reveals nothing new in the way of cultural politics. His book doesn’t seem to be entirely focused on race issues at all; it comes off as more of a Tipping Point tell-all of just one aspect of human nature. In this case, Vedantam almost presents the prequel to Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink in his book’s discussion about everyone’s inner “autopilot.”
Unsurprisingly, the “sexiest,” most salesworthy, and most enticing case study from the book is about individuals’ budding awareness of ethnic identity. It definitely makes for a catchy 30-second teaser: Vedantam posits that by the age of three, we are conditioned enough by our cultures and upbringings that we begin to make judgments based on race. As toddlers!
It’s about how we’re brought up, obviously, because for the first couple years of our lives, we’re just observing (and figuring out the most basic fundamentals). Before we can put profound thoughts together, we see how our parents react to grocery cashiers, their bosses, and basketball games on TV. We’d have to be pretty dense to be unable to recall something-something slurs muttered under our elders’ breaths.
“We tend to think of the conscious messages that we give children as being the most powerful education that we can give them,” Vedantam says — but the unconscious messages are actually far more influential.
He says that for every 50 times a year a teacher talks about tolerance, there are many hundreds of implicit messages of racial bias that children absorb through culture — whether it’s television, books or the attitudes of the adults and kids around them.
“And it’s these hidden associations that essentially determine what happens in the unconscious minds of these children,” Vedantam says.
– How “The Hidden Brain” Does the Thinking for Us, Morning Edition
There will always be a segment of parents who try to prevent The Whole Race Issue in the only erroneous way they know how – to avoid it. The effects are more deeply seeded than that of abstinence education (or lack of abstinence education), and it backfires. Parents don’t discuss race with their young kids, which sounds all wholesome and safe and warm. But the result is that these kids have no dialogue for the differences that they see and should be able to celebrate. Instead, as they grow older and eventually develop a basic vocabulary for connecting the race dots, they learn about race in a reactionary way. They’ll see race riots on TV and have thoughts that imitate the affection or repulsion displayed by their parents at the grocery store, at work, and in the living room. They get shoved into diversity training and Ethnic Studies classes and develop distaste toward the simple fact that the programs are compulsory.
Of course there will also always be a camp of parents who truly don’t know what to do in regards to teaching race relations, but again, this is because it probably wasn’t brought up to them when they were young. I’ve always been of the opinion that the two things you’re not supposed to discuss with strangers, religion and politics, are only “hot topics” because we make them so. To call them taboo talking points is to perpetuate a self-fulfilling prophecy. Of course religion and politics are going to be hot topics to discuss. Because we’ve trained ourselves that we shouldn’t, so we don’t, and in the end we aren’t equipped with the maturity and reason to discuss them in calm and levelheaded ways. How pro-education of us. I’m definitely not saying that race, religion, and politics are lighthearted discussions. I’m just saying they’re not the ticking time bombs we make them to be.
If we don’t give children – and yes, even at the age of toddlers – a more open and proactive context in which to discuss race, it may very well be that they will never come to know it. Plenty of people get to college and beyond without any sort of bearings on What is Culture?, and by the “Wisdom Years,” it’s very likely that they never will.
Editor’s Note: Hey! Remember when I actually wrote stuff instead of just reblogging work-related fashion research? Heh. Yeah. Maybe we can reignite this habit.