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reflections on some lineages of the human condition

A Tale of Two Faces

A Tale of Two Faces

What would have happened if they looked like this?

reverse colors

Imagine if the boy on the left was found dead, incontestably shot and killed by the man on the right. How differently the course of events would have gone!

Racism is, at its deepest core, about the pre-linguistic, pre-behavioral, “in your gut” feelings of (fully human) “people like us” versus “those dangerous others” (who may just be less-than-human, and thus are all the more dangerous, cunning, and animalistically endowed). At a level that does not easily allow for conscious self-examination, there is an unspoken fear of “their” danger to “us” which motivates words, actions, laws, and policies regarding “them”. The use of racial epithets, the creation of behavioral traditions  (e.g. residential segregation) and the enactment of legal tactics (e.g. Jim Crow voting strategies) all stem subsequently from those deep-seated concerns about keeping “those others” (safely) in their place.

It is not easy to root out these elements of racism in ourselves and in our families. All humans like to think of themselves as “good people”, and particularly among people who are educated and tolerant, it may come as quite a shock to come to find out that our assumptions about safety and danger have been, since earliest childhood, shot through with learned, though seldom explicitly articulated, associations connected with skin color and physical appearance.

Furthermore, when white people hear the word “privilege”, we/they fail to understand the real scope of this concept (which goes far, far beyond the economic background of one’s immediate or ancestral family members).

Privilege is first and foremost about not having to worry how the world works (differently) for “people like us” (as opposed to “people who make the rules”). You teach your teenager how to drive, and if you are white, you don’t even think of adding life-or-death instructions (in minute detail) about how to act when a policeman pulls you over. Your kid goes out of the house dressed the way Mark Zuckerberg was dressed on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange and it never occurs to you that somebody with the power to arrest, shoot or even kill your son will defend his actions because “the kid was dressed like a gang-banger”.

Look again and again and again at that Photoshopped reverse-colored picture of two families’ sons. If George Zimmerman’s face were really as dark-skinned as it is in this picture, and if Trayvon’s face were light colored, do you really think that Zimmerman would have been released without charges that night?

But those Photoshopped skin tones are not what the police, and much of America, actually did see. What resonated with people who cheered Zimmerman’s acquittal was the greater “probable danger” coming from the dark-skinned boy. And not because of the chunk of sidewalk.


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