Racial mixing on the rise

From time to time, the media turns a statistical finding into “news”. This article is one of those times.

More than 340,000 children in Canada are growing up in mixed-race families, a new report from Statistics Canada reveals, and the number of mixed unions is growing much more quickly than that of other partnerships.

I am heartened by the findings, of course. As the product of a mixed union myself (two, technically, after my dad re-married) I am obviously a supporter of marrying whoever you want to. As different groups begin to live together, go to school together, and work together, people become more exposed to other cultures and ethnic groups. As time goes by, they start wanting a bit more exposure (of the boobies kind) with other cultures and ethnic groups. Of course, this has a particular application to Canada.

Of course because I’m a damn addict, I looked at the comments at the bottom of the story. There’s a lot of very vocally (at least behind the anonymity of the internet) racist people who say that the reason people are getting married is because black guys come in and get white women pregnant. I suppose they’re free to think that, but there’s actually something much more interesting (and supported by evidence) at play here.

What’s interesting is that the increase in inter-racial marriages isn’t an issue of simple familiarity (seeing different kinds of people in your day-to-day life), nor is it people becoming particularly philosophically enlightened. There is a phenomenon in social psychology called ‘in-group bias‘. Basically, you are more likely to favour members of your own group to the exclusion of those in other groups. This was tested at a summer camp with boys who were randomly assigned to two different groups. Of course, the groups were made to compete against each other in various activities, which fostered resentment and a strong polarizing of the two camps. Once animosity between the two groups of young boys had been fostered (ah, the 50s… a more innocent time), the researchers went to work trying to tear down the barriers. Simple sports and team activities didn’t seem to work.

“It is predicted that contact in itself will not produce marked decrease in the existing state of tension between [p. 159] groups.”

The only thing that got the kids to work together was when they had to pull for a common goal: unblocking the water cistern, and getting to a movie. Once they were working together to achieve something they both wanted, the bias against the other group diminished almost immediately.

“When groups in a state of friction are brought into contact under conditions embodying superordinate goals, the attainment of which is compelling but which cannot be achieved by the efforts of one group alone, they will tend to cooperate toward the common goal.”

By the end of the camp, the two groups that used to hate each other were playing, eating, and doing regular kid stuff together. This is a pretty powerful phenomenon, and illustrates an important fact: simple co-existence does not foster co-operation. There needs to be a next step – working toward a common goal. What occurs at that point is that the “group” identity dissolves and is replaced by another identity (in this case, the one of the “camp”). Instead of seeing one’s self as being a member in opposition to another group, you see all the people as members of the same group. This is a very powerful effect.

In the same way, we’re going to see more racial mixing as a result of people of different backgrounds not simply sharing the same geographic space, but sharing education, workplaces, etc. This process won’t happen by simple diffusion; if we want to see increase co-operation between groups, the concepts of “us” and “them” need to change. Racial identity shouldn’t be abolished, but the weight with which we use race to identify both ourselves and each other ought to be reduced in favour of something more useful. This already happens with team affiliations (think of Remember the Titans), and will continue to happen in professional groups and educational facilities.

Re-defining our in-groups is the way forward. Taking some of the mystery and sting out of racial issues will help accomplish that.

Colour blindness – not a virtue

I’m sure many of you are familiar with the term “colour blindness” in a racial context. Basically, the philosophy is that it is virtuous to not see a person’s race, and to behave as though race plays no role in the formation of your opinions or actions. On the surface, this seems like an admirable idea – treat all people as though they are one group of human people, regardless of their background.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work:

In a study that examined the associations between responses to racial theme party images on social networking sites and a color-blind racial ideology, Brendesha Tynes, a professor of educational psychology and of African American studies at Illinois, discovered that white students and those who rated highly in color-blind racial attitudes were more likely not to be offended by images from racially themed parties at which attendees dressed and acted as caricatures of racial stereotypes.

The study looked at how students responded to obviously-offensive racist stereotypes depicted by their peers. The first was photos from a “gangsta theme” party in (non-)celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day (a US holiday – we don’t tolerate that kind of foolishness here in the great white north). The second was two students dressed as Hispanic people wearing t-shirts that said “Spic” and “Span” (for those of you who don’t know, “Spic” is a derogatory term for a Hispanic person). The participants were asked to write a comment on the photo as though they were commenting on a friend’s wall. Students were also administered a racial attitudes survey specifically designed to measure “colour blindness”.

The response was as I would have suspected, and that the proponents of the “colour blind” philosophy would find disheartening. Students who tested high on the “colour blindness” scale were more likely to see nothing wrong with overtly racist depictions of different ethnic groups. There was a direct linear relationship between “colour blindness” and reaction – students who were “colour blind” were less likely to see anything wrong with the pictures.  Black students were far more likely to be upset and react negatively to the pictures than white students were (~60% vs. ~20% respectively). Black students were also much less likely to be “colour blind” according to the scale.

As I said, none of this surprises me in the least. Racism can’t be overcome by pretending it doesn’t exist, and race will continue to divide people until we start talking openly about it without fear of reprisal or social ostricization. Colour blindness only works if everyone is equally blind, including those who are disproportionately on the receiving end of racism (a.k.a. visible minorities, a.k.a. non-white people). It’s all well and good to say “I don’t see race”, but to not see it means to ignore the effect that is still has to this day. It’s akin to saying “we should treat all people the same, so we shouldn’t have welfare programs.” Canceling welfare is certainly one way of demonstrating that you consider poor people to be the same as the fabulously wealthy, but it doesn’t do anything to help those who are impoverished, nor does it help identify and remedy the underlying causes of poverty.

Please note that I don’t think people who say they wish to be “colour blind” (some of whom are close friends) are secret racists or anything of the sort. I think they genuinely believe that ignoring race is a solution to the problem of racial injustice. I used to feel the same way. However, the idea of “colour blindness” is basically the same as sticking your fingers in your ears and screweing your eyes shut until race goes away. In fact, as the above study would suggest, this attitude might actually preserve racist attitudes by blinding people to all aspects of race and race discrimination.

I am reminded of an evening I spent with one of my closest friends. She is an immigrant from a country with a strong racial majority and (at the time she moved to Canada) very little black/white racism in its history – today is quite a different story, but that’s not relevant to this discussion. She was telling me that she was excited to meet her (black) boyfriend’s family at a trip that was to take place that summer (I am just going to call him “Tom” and her “Jane” for the sake of clarity). I asked whether they (Tom and Jane) had talked about the inter-racial issue, considering that while he might be as accepting as all-get-out of her race, his family may not be so tolerant. She looked at me like I had grown a second head and said “Ian, race doesn’t matter, as long as you’re in love.” “Doesn’t matter to whom?” I asked.

In the Caribbean (where Tom is from), race matters a great deal. Most of the countries (if not all) were colonized by white Europeans. It’s only been a handful of decades since the colonial powers granted independence to the countries, most of whom are in a very sorry state. There is a deep economic and social divide between white Caribbeans and black Caribbeans. It doesn’t help at all that there is a stereotype (however true or untrue) that white women come in and “poach” the more successful black men as trophies (or vice versa, that successful black men date white women to gain status). Is this fair? Is this ideal? Certainly not! It would be best to recognize the truth – that these two people are dating each other because they are very much compatible and in love; however, the reality of the situation is that their racial makeup will loom large in the eyes of families on both sides. I asked her to imagine what would happen if she went back to her country of origin and introduced her all-white family to her black boyfriend – she wasn’t sure what the reaction would be.

The other flaw in the philosophy of “colour blindness” is that it ignores the other side of race – racial differences can be a positive thing. There are experiences and insights that a Vietnamese or Pakistani or Congolese person can bring to the table that a European person may not have access to (and, of course, vice versa). If we pretend as though everyone is exactly the same, we miss the opportunity to bring the richness and context of cultural heritage to bear on any number of life’s problems. I’m proud of my racial heritage and I certainly don’t want it to be ignored to serve a patronizing view that all racial differences are inherently bad.

People in the “colour blind” camp and I have the same ultimate goal – to see a world in which a person’s race is no more influential in how they are treated than their height or hair colour or weight (which might not be so great if you ask a fat ginger dwarf). However, we approach that goal from very different sides. The “colour blind” philosophy wants to jump right to the end, where through sheer force of will, hundreds of years of racial socialization can be instantly undone. Mine is, I think, a bit more realistic – I want us to acknowledge and discuss the ways in which race affects us both as individuals and as a society. I want to see us take a hard, uncomfortable look at our behaviours and practices and see where race, despite our best intentions, manages to creep in to the way we do things.

As I’ve said before and will continue to say, ignoring racism does not make the problem go away. The answer is to own up to our mistakes and speak openly about race. Only after we can talk about it in the full light of day will its spectral  influence finally fade into history.

The danger of the downward comparison

A downward comparison is a psychological/philosophical phenomenon in which a person evaluates the goodness of some object by contrasting it with an object he/she deems to be worse (or, in all technicality, “less good”). This is useful in ethics when evaluating “the lesser of two evils” or even in economics when trying to make a decision between different, unwanted, but ultimately necessary outcomes.

It is more dangerous when it occurs in a person’s self-appraisal. A downward comparison does not tell one how good he is, only whether or not there are others worse off. While occasionally useful, downward comparisons must be balanced with their counterpart, upward comparisons to give an idea of where you stand in terms of the things you care about.

For example, it might be very important to me that I am an ethical person. I put great personal value on making the right decision in ethically tempting situations (I wouldn’t, for example, steal money from a blind person not because I can’t but because I feel that I shouldn’t). I put such great value on this trait, in fact, that it is central to my self-concept – it’s very important that I see myself as an ethical person. I maintain my sense of self but constantly comparing myself to infamous historical dictators. After all, I am much more ethical than Idi Amin, or Stalin, or Pol Pot… the list can go on. Since, my reasoning goes, I have not committed the wholesale slaughter of thousands of innocent people (nor could I imagine myself doing so if given the opportunity), I must be an ethical person.

It doesn’t take a lot of brain power to see how quickly my reasoning can be picked apart – being better than Stalin simply means that I’m not one of the most brutal despots in the history of the world. This fact says absolutely nothing about my absolute standing as an ethical person. I could be cheating on my wife, victimizing my employees, or voting for the Conservative party. All of these are clearly unethical acts that are not in any way comparable to mass murder, but still pretty heartless. However, because I am relying on downward comparisons to inform my self-image, I don’t ever have to consider whether or not my self-opinion is justified (or at least not until I’ve murdered a few hundred people). All I have to do is make sure I am not the worst, and I can continue to believe anything I want about myself.

The same argument can be made about entirely upward comparisons – that you’d feel terrible about yourself for not being the best. I would argue that it is unlikely that someone would completely despair of ever being good enough when compared to the best, but that’s simply a belief statement, not a rational argument. The fact is that without making both upward and downward comparisons, it is not possible to have an accurate self-assessment.

Why am I talking about this? Two words:

Jersey Shore

Who watches this crap? Why on Earth would anyone want to give up valuable time watching orange monkeys parade around with behavior that is only matched in its ridiculousness by their haircuts? What possible benefit could one gain from viewing this show?

Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for the entertainment value of television. Not every show needs to educate its audience or deal with heavy, hard-hitting issues, but you should at the very least walk away having learned some sort of lesson – whether it be the resolution of some ethical situation or a new way of dealing with your friends more positively… even the Naked Man had some value!

When I asked this question to friends, the response I got was invariably “it’s just harmless fun” or “they’re so stupid it’s funny”, but what I heard most of all was “they are more stupid than I am, and that makes me feel better.” You want to know how I know this? Because I do it too. I used to watch Maury Povitch on days when I didn’t feel like going into the office on time. Almost without an exception, there would be an unemployed, illiterate, lazy moron who had, against all laws of nature, managed to spawn a child with some equally repulsive woman who now was “900% sure” that this particular waste of skin, and not the 4-5 other wastes of skin she’d slept with that month, was the sperm donor. Why did I watch this show? Aside from my deep-seated fear of accidentally fathering a child and cheering when DNA proved that the dude is not the father, it made me feel better about myself. Even though I was sitting on the couch in my bathrobe at 10:00 am on a weekday, surely I was better off than these throwbacks!

Again, it doesn’t take a lot of work to pick apart the gigantic holes in my logic. So what if I was better than they? So what if I wasn’t scraping the bottom of the barrel of humanity? I saw my smug self-satisfaction reflected on the faces of the audience members, whose lives were so incomplete as to attend a taping of the Maury Povitch show (unless they went for lulz). I switched my perspective, and realized that I was exactly the same as the audience, and there were a lot of people who were doing much more with their lives. So I got my ass off the couch, showered, and went to get some work done.

“Well that’s great”, you might be saying, “but it’s just a harmless television show”. I disagree with your use of the term “harmless”. There is harm in watching these kinds of shows, insofar as it encourages us to think of ourselves as superior. We become complacent in our search for excellence. We allow opportunities to improve slip through our fingers because ‘at least we’re not as bad as _____.’ My reply: so what?

There’s a much more drastic example of the dangers of downward comparisons – Canada’s health care system. Compared to other OECD countries, health care in Canada costs far more per capita and delivers, at best, equal-quality care. However, instead of taking dramatic steps to improve the state of our system, we sit back on our laurels and say “at least we’re not as bad as the USA.” The American system sucks; nobody’s denying that. But to compare ourselves to the worst and think that somehow that justifies our near-total inaction for wholesale change is the same logic that kept me unshowered and on the couch.

Here’s my point. While it’s important to feel good about yourself, that kind of reassurance is best for all when it comes from positive identification with those we wish to emulate, not from distancing ourselves from those we hate. Simple downward comparison will never move us out of the status quo of mediocrity. While not everyone can be the best, that’s not an excuse for not trying our best. The more positive examples we surround ourselves with, the more motivation we have to improve (and the more models of improvement we have at our disposal). The more we soothe ourselves by allowing ourselves to be lulled by downward comparisons, the more likely we are to stay exactly where we are, and the less likely we are to make life better for ourselves or for others.