Perhaps not an easy topic to consider, but our simple goal here is to reach a common understanding of racial differences – an understanding that leads to a discussion where all can participate equally – regardless of race. Can we all agree this is and should be a shared and common goal? Unless you’ve spent the pandemic living underground with zero access to media of any variety, you’re likely familiar with recent events and associated terminology. This article is not about that, but let’s mention a few to ensure all are singing from the same hymn sheet. Black Lives Matter, George Floyd, “woke,” cancel culture, 3/5ths compromise, unconscious bias, diversity and inclusion, Critical Race Theory, reparations, and my favorite, “racial reckoning.”
We’re going to look at a much more fundamental level, at the physiology of race, and help provide you with a much simpler approach to a very complex issue. I’m not going to use complicated definitions or expose you to the voluminous available data, but rather show you how to view racial “differences” at a “human” level. Let’s get started.
First, race is about physical characteristics, whereas ethnicity reflects cultural characteristics. This is not a primer on ethnicity, so we’ll leave that for a future study. Let’s agree on how to describe race, at least initially, and this is by “color.” Do you know what “color” you are? Of course, you do. You were born with a specific color, and it’s unlikely to change over your lifetime, although there have been a few well-documented attempts by a few to change theirs. I’m “white” or, if answering a Census question – “Caucasian.” I was born in N. Europe and emigrated with my family to the US as a teenager.
My wife was born in the American territory of Guam and is thus racially described as an “Asian-Pacific Islander.” When it comes to Asians, we generally don’t describe them as having “yellow” skin but instead talk about the shape of their eyes and other facial features. So, in this instance, we didn’t use “color” as the primary observable characteristic but rather facial features. It’s worth noting here my wife has “round” eyes and very dark skin. Racial mixings over time produce generations that are becoming increasingly hard to classify as one race over another. If you asked my wife what color she is, she’d not provide an answer – and considers that an irrelevant question – as perhaps we all should.
Confused yet? How about Hispanics/Latinos/LatinX – they’re brown, right? Well, not always. I’ll not go into the differences or similarities of these three terms. However, the US Census counts these terms as a percentage of the Caucasian race. So – are we simply seeing them as speaking Spanish as their native language – good question. If this group is considered “brown,” do they share the same race as those from the subcontinent – Indians, Pakistanis, etc.? Perhaps color doesn’t work here either.
Well, how about native-Americans, now more properly referred to as “American Indians” or “First Peoples” and, sometimes, “indigenous peoples.” Must they be “red?” I thought you said this was easy – apparently not.
Let’s turn to African Americans or, more appropriately, Americans of African descent. They’re black, right? But, my friends, there are many “shades” of black. If you’ve been privileged to spend any time on the African continent, you know what I’m talking about. Racial (physical) characteristics include color, height, facial features, and a whole boatload of ethnic/linguistic differences.
Let’s conduct a small experiment. For the sake of argument, you are an Asian male, middle-aged, walking down a major street in Seattle. It’s a fairly busy day with lots of pedestrian traffic. As people walk towards you, your brain unconsciously racks and stacks those approaching within your visual path. Your eyes are the initial screener for the brain so, a question for you: what physical characteristic do the eyes see first?
If you answered color (race), you are correct. But, wait a minute – that must be some form of discrimination; my eyes are feeding on a source of “unconscious bias,” and my brain is adjusting accordingly, perhaps to potential “threats.” That’s simply Bovine Scatology (BS)!
Your brain sees colors first – it’s what it does next that supports “categorization;” body (fat/thin/height, etc.), gender (Male/female/other/attractiveness), potential threats (weapons, gestures, etc.), recognition (do I know them?), clothing (area/age-appropriate, job-association, etc.) and, finally, age. All this brain activity occurs simultaneously in a nano-second. If a threat is perceived, your “fight or flight” response is immediately activated. These are, primarily, natural reactions and occur in everyone – although various factors such as age, gender, race, perception of history, etc., may impact how quickly you move between what you see and how you react to it. As you contemplate this, think about the young black American male being pulled over by a police officer – what does he see first?
With me so far? Have you generated any feelings of guilt or racism to this point? Hopefully not. What have we learned? Biological Predetermination dictates (1) you are born into and will remain in a single race, and (2) you will develop ethnic characteristics as you travel through life – in a normal learning process. That’s internal. Externally, environmental currents, i.e., geographic conditions, access to resources, education systems or lack thereof, economic status, family stability, and a host of other external components drive different results, regardless of biological predetermination.
The influence of these “environmental currents” is enormous. You may thrive or perish here, with many factors contributing. Some of these you may be able to control (level of effort, attitude, etc.) and others you likely cannot (family presence, schools, food scarcity, etc.). When these “impacting” factors include a racial component to them, you begin to see the seeds of controversy, potential violence, demonstrations, and a desire for “equality” – now more frequently coded as “equity.”
These issues are not only American concerns and exist throughout most of the planet – with possible exceptions at the extreme edges (polar regions, etc.). When one group, regardless of color, is seen to dominate or be in the majority, those in other groups (racial, religious, or other minorities) will be legitimately seeking to improve their overall lot in life. Historically, and rather obviously, the Western world has largely seen dominance associated primarily with the Caucasian race – we will look no further here at that dynamic.
Where do you fit in? After you’ve established your color (hopefully not too hard to do), take a critical look at your environment. Does the area in which you live, work, go to school, etc., have a “dominant” race? What races share this same space with you? What racial problems (i.e., inequities) already exist? Has anything been done about it? Do you agree with it? Are you willing to support minority issues even if you’re in the majority? Essentially – are you able to effectively “listen” to others from a different race, potentially less fortunate than you? Do you agree with the minority view and, if not, are you part of the problem? Then, the analysis turns inward – introspective.
Thoughts flow this way: if I get involved, will that potentially impact my current way of life or, in some way, threaten my family. Am I a hypocrite if I exist within the status quo and don’t seek to improve conditions for others? Yet, you may feel you “got here on your own,” and others can do the same! But equal environmental opportunities for anyone to “get there on their own” varies in the community. From there, you can extrapolate to your city, county, state, and, ultimately, your country.
If you are part of the “majority” race, are you saddled with “guilt” over how your race may have perpetuated supremacy of those less fortunate – of a different race? Are you suffering from “white privilege?” If you answer yes – you might find yourself seeking additional information and, possibly, considering activism to try and “balance” the books. “Most” major American firms find themselves working this “balancing act” through in 2021 as Diversity and Inclusion programs expand in both size and depth and become as important as company bottom-lines. Again, this supports “woke” initiatives, but specific goals are complicated to formulate. More challenging is determining specific results; distinct outcomes linked to achieving those goals. Measuring “woke” outcomes are often harder to learn if reached or not.
The opposite approach – perhaps benign recognition of racial issues or even dismissal of them would put you on the opposing side – and may lead you to be “canceled.” These are not intellectual decisions but rather emotional ones – and we see them across social media daily. To have an honest, open, and positive discussion should be the goal – yet we’ve fallen way short of that to this point.
In conclusion, let’s summarize the basics presented here and, hopefully, give you useful, practical insights into moving the discussion forward in a positive manner.
Race/color is pre-determined – you’re born with it. You don’t “learn” a race – you acquire cultural (ethnic) characteristics as you develop over time. You can be black, brought up in Finland, and you’ll be as culturally equivalent to other (white) Finns; thus, your environment is a major factor in your cultural development.
I recently watched a young African American professor proudly state he was black first, American second, and everything after that third, and so on. I doubt most white professors would claim the same. So, if you are white and someone asked you if you could, would you change your race/color? This was an experiment that gained some traction under Oprah Winfrey’s banner. No white person asked said they would change race/color. However, many non-whites said their lives would be better (mainly in the way of opportunities) if they were white.
Many similar, non-scientific experiments have been attempted within racial groupings. For whites, it was determined that taller, younger men with lots of hair got job preferences over those shorter, older, or bald. It appeared more youthful, attractive, and “fit” women appeared to be more successful in initial job interviews among white working women. Surface-level job screenings seemed quite biased and much more focused on the “desires” of the interviewer. Significant progress has been made in this field, especially with expanded rights and equities among and between races and those with different sexual orientations. Opposition to such advancements continues to exist at many levels, but, as above, positive conversations about how to move forward are ongoing.
By now, you realize your eyes are the window into your brain – at least at the visual level. They will see what’s open to being seen – don’t blame them – they’re working as intended. Go with it then. If a conversation ensues, you can have as much “characterization” as you deem necessary to advance a discussion or conduct a transaction – we call that “normal” human behavior.
Human interactions are critical to advancing racial equities. If you exist in a racial-cultural “silo,” you’re unlikely to understand another’s point of view. Many of you recognize the most difficult skill the communicator must master is that of listening – it ain’t easy! As your parents may have told you during your childhood – “you’ve got two ears and one mouth,” meaning, talk less and listen more (twice as much). If you’re like me, you’ll have to practice that one.
Race is basic, but conversations about it are not. Start slow, listen critically (don’t look to “challenge”), and try to put yourself in the “color” of another. Many folks much brighter than me have and continue to make this their life’s work – research what they’ve produced – you may disagree with it, but you’ll perhaps gain an understanding of the other side of an argument upon which you hold strong views. If you’ve gained at least an awareness of racial challenges you’re headed in a positive direction. Good luck.
We here at Interlink would love to get your views on this topic and welcome a discussion of what efforts you’ve tried to improve your racial knowledge base. Thanks for spending some time with us.
R. L. Holbrook, Dr. Culture, May 2021
Interlink Consulting, Inc