A professional colleague of mine often startled his audience with a confession, “I am a racist. I was bred and born a racist, …” (I will complete the quote later.)
T. Canby Jones was Professor of Religion at Wilmington College. He was respected as the voice of a weighty Quaker. As a scholarly religious person, who lived “love thy neighbor, no exception”, why would he state such a bold confession?
Canby created a space within those in his audience to ponder the meaning of his assertion.
We have often heard the story of an early human traveling through the silence of the forest jungle when he (or she) hears a twig snap. Looking over the shoulder and surveying the weapon in hand, he immediately reacts with the flight or fight response. If he feels his spear will protect him, he stands ready to fight. If not, he hopes his feet are fast enough for him to reach the tree first.
Instantaneous response to the invading stranger (i.e. danger) and physical prowess saves the day for him. On the other hand, suppose he or she is lackadaisical in response. The human becomes lunch for the saber-toothed tiger, and is thereby eliminated from the gene pool.
Over the millions of years of human evolution, the humans who learned to identify the threat of the outsider and immediately react with fight or flight were survivors who continued to procreate. The slow ones were eliminated.
Thus, we have evolved biologically to recognize and react in order to protect ourselves when a stranger enters our space.
A Hopi Native American lecturer focused another perspective on the topic. Migrants from Asia crossed the Bering Straits to Alaska during the Wisconsin ice age 24,000 to 11,000 years ago.
Water frozen into huge ice sheets on the land dropped the sea level 350 feet lower than today. The drop exposed a land bridge which facilitated Asian migration into North America.
For survival, these hunting and gathering societies depended on a land area of sufficient size to yield animals and vegetation as their food sources. When tribe size exceeded their space availability, a group would break away and move to another area.
Migrating tribes eventually clashed with each other over land area. The Apache from the south and the Navajos from the north squeezed the Hopi tribe. When the twig snap came from the intrusion of another tribe with a different language, appearance, and social structure, their food supply was at stake.
Native American tribes consequently resorted to fighting in order to preserve space for their tribe.
The fight/flight natural instinct, and the conflict over personal space between peoples of different color, different language, different religion, and different social norms continues to play out in our society today — painfully.
Hearken back to Charlottesville. We saw fights between protestors of protestors.
When we understand the evolutionary imprinting of attitude toward “other” people outside our tribe, and the fear of loss of basic needs and wants, maybe we can understand the racial, social, religious, and economic prejudices imprinted in each of us as a human being.
“Wagging more and barking less” will lead us to savor the salad bowl of diversity rather than fighting differences.
The completed Canby statement yields hope: “I am a racist. I was born a racist. But, I’M WORKING ON MINE.”
Donald Chafin is Professor Emeritus, Wilmington College.