Race is learned.

Three simple words pointing to a chiseled truth, and yet, as hard and set as that simple statement is, the ability to end racism seems so distant, still. Which, for me, is a bit unnerving: logic tells me that if race can be learned then the opposite holds true, race can be unlearned.

But it is the “ism” suffix attached to the word “race” which raises and reinforces the barrier to unlearning. An ism denotes a belief in something, and beliefs are a most deep and powerful repository – even if those beliefs are based on false premises: once believed the falseness becomes truth, and the truth becomes hard to unhinge.

Racism is one of those belief systems that is based on a lie. There is only one race – human. Yet, over the past few hundred years, this species called human has learned to believe in something altogether different: the false concept that humans are divided among several races in so much as believing that each race is a separate species. Further, not only is racism based on these false beliefs, it is precisely because of these beliefs that the concept of race refuses to abate; my only explanation I can give to the nagging persistence of racism.

I write all of this because I teach Early American History. I write all of this because the subject matter I teach demonstrates that racism is indeed learned. The founding of the Americas, the destruction of its natives, and the exportation of Africans that numbered well over 12-million during the slave trade were new. Never before in human history has there been this mixture, new continent, wholesale slaughter, and forced expatriation, – and nowhere in history had this been done to the scale and degree that still boggles my mind. And once humans ventured into, constructed, and maintained these systems of occupation, genocide, and slavery – justifications of them became generational, a constant source of renewal, learned and re-learned, generation after generation reinforcing in an ever reciprocal crescendo of wellsprings, clichés, and twisted truths. Nearly every new advancement in science, in philosophy, in literature over decades and then centuries, re-justified, reinforced, and reclaimed the importance of Western-dom, of Europeans, of Whiteness.

And the larger the numbers, the greater the rationalizations. The more land that loomed before the western view, the more resources to exploit; the more Indians massacred, the more savage they became; the more Africans sent into slave systems in the Americas , the more brutish and ignorant they became. What’s happening within this period of history is fear, fear of the numbers, fear of the sheer scale of these global enterprises. Fear.

In the 5th century BC, Herodotus traveled from Athens into then Phoenicia, on into Persia, down toward the Indian subcontinent – when he came back to Greece he wrote his observations. He described the different peoples, the different cultures, different mannerisms, clothing, hairstyles, and religions. He wrote with authority to his Greek audience, these others, wrote Herodotus, were barbarians.

Recent victims to fear, racism, and headgear; Shaima Alawadi and Treyvon Martin.

Ladies and gentlemen, fear of the others is still with us. Two news items recently spoke of this fear – one of which dominates the news today. Treyvon Martin, African American, male, and wearing a hoodie, daring to walk a public street after the sun went down. The other lesser known news item also involved head gear, the brutal murder and bludgeoning of Shaima Alawadi, a 32-year old stay at home mother of five whose head scarf and religious dedication to Islam earned her death by tire iron in El Cajon, California. What does America have against head gear anyway.

When Barack Obama became the Democratic nominee to run for President, my initial reaction was that Democrats just put John McCain in the White House. America was not ready for a black man to become president, and certainly not with a name like Barack or Obama: too foreign. But America proved me wrong. I don’t think I was ever happier to be so, not because I’m a Democrat or am a practitioner of Republican tendencies – but because I thought America had grown up, had championed the ideals of Winthrop when he preached on a ship in 1630 that here, in North America, we would be that beacon on the hill, the place where humanity got it right. I thought that with Barack Obama as president, racism had finally waned.

I was naïve.

We still have a ways to go before we can unlearn a few hundred years of this belief that we, as humans, are somehow different from one another because of our skin color, our mannerisms, our religions, or yes – even our choices in head gear.

Advertisements