Familiarity, Stereotypes, and Racism

In light of the Donald Sterling and Jeremy Clarkson racism cases, I felt it rather appropriate to approach the topic of stereotypes as a precursor or cause to racism, and to explore a possible scenario to the genesis of racism. The views presented in this post are simply to analyse racism, not justify it. They are solely my opinion, and are heavily influenced by my principles of “live and let live” and “it’s not my business”. I may or may not back up my ideas with actual evidence.

One of my readers, Rebecca requested this piece on 7th March. Today is 3rd May. Sorry. 🙁 😀

In light of the Donald Sterling and Jeremy Clarkson racism cases, I felt it rather appropriate to approach the topic of stereotypes as a precursor or cause to racism, and to explore a possible scenario to the genesis of racism. The views presented in this post are simply to analyse racism, not justify it. They are solely my opinion, and are heavily influenced by my principles of “live and let live” and “it’s not my business”. I may or may not back up my ideas with actual evidence.

Familiarity

Everybody knows that people resist change. We all do it in some form or other. We are hard-wired to resist change through our fight-and-flight mechanism – Anything foreign to our personal environment is greeted by alertness and tensing of the muscles. You’ll know this phenomenon as that feeling you get when you meet someone new – you’re a little quiet, on your best behaviour, making sure that the first impression is good.

Side note: THAT is evolution. Our alertness has evolved from “Don’t get eaten.” to “Don’t make a bad impression.”

So what constitutes change? Anything new in our environment that will mostly stay for a distinct/long period of time can be change. So new people in your life qualifies as change. Now let’s take an example. It’s first day at freshman year. You’re excited but scared all the same, and everyone in your dorm/hostel/classroom is new to you. Hardwiring dictates that you immediately find food and water, then shelter (a place to settle), then a clan or group, then comfort. Assuming you have a full stomach, the first thing you do in class is find a seat – shelter. Classes don’t run all day; there are breaks in between where you need to fill in the awkward silence, which is when you start talking to people. When choosing a seat, you would possibly have already (instinctively) selected someone with whom you share at least a basic level of compatibility, and sat next to them – they will probably be the candidate you talk to and familiarize yourself with. That’s basically how friendships are formed in college.

The point here is that change is brief. We tend to quickly familiarize ourselves with the change in question, either by accepting or rejecting it. It’s a little difficult to imagine an intelligent person having a blanket rejection for a change in their environment by completely ignoring it. By familiarizing ourselves, we know how to react to that change. It’s part of the machine. As Ledger’s joker said, “…nobody panics, because it’s all ‘part of the plan’…”

This concept of familiarization can easily be extended to any interaction, say, when one interacts with a person of another gender, race, sexual orientation, or physical structure. Remember that familiarizing can be either by acceptance or rejection. If a person retreats to his genetic roots, she will perceive any strange body as a threat, i.e. will reject it. It is possible that at a subconscious level, this rejection still happens as a sort of ‘default’ option. It is only by our societal norms of rejecting our baser instincts that we are able to turn off that default and exhibit a modicum of tolerance and respect. (Rejecting our instincts is not as uncommon as one might think. The concepts of vegetarianism and monogamy, among others, are very much societal in origin.)