What the Color of the Skin Says about Your Mind
Race is natural, color blindness is not
My five-year-old son was worried about the sun in Puerto Rico.
“The sun is extreme here,” he told me, “Look at that kid’s skin; It turned black.”
My son has been playing for hours with a boy he met on the beach. It was his first encounter with an African American kid. We had just moved from Argentina, where people with black skin are rare (less than 2%).
My son didn’t perceive the other boy as different; his only issue was the sun — it was so harsh in Puerto Rico that it can turn everyone’s skin black.
That’s the great thing about kids: they observe without judging. My son’s observation was simple: having a different skin colors is natural; but our biases are not. The concept of race is not something that comes in our DNA, is something we learn as we grow up.
Your mind is race agnostic until society teaches you to judge others based on their colors.
The Color of our Minds
Kids observations aside, the color of our skins are affected by the sun. I’m not talking about getting tanned. Nature is wise; human skin has adapted over centuries as our early ancestors migrated across our planet.
There’s a direct correlation between skin color and latitude. The closer to the Equator, the darker the skin of those populations — the body creates a shield to protect itself from ultraviolet rays. In areas where winter is more extreme, and sunny days are limited — like in Chicago where I live now — a whiter skin helps produce more vitamin D.
All people alive today are Africans.
The Homo Sapiens species evolved in Africa, as explained in this fascinating National Geographic piece. Modern genetic research has shown that all humans are closely related. We all have the same collection of genes, but slightly different versions of some of them.
The color of our skin has nothing to do with race — it’s a byproduct of an adaptation process.
Science has proven that the different types of skin are a consequence of how our ancestors dealt with sun exposure. However, when we think about race, the first thing that comes to mind is skin color. And, what’s even worse, we apply a hierarchical approach — white skin is seen as more special than the rest.
This hierarchy is artificial though. Someone got the science wrong and certain people conveniently took it as true. Hint: it helped start a war.
Science Debunks Race Myths
“The concept of race has no genetic or scientific basis.”
— Craig Venter, DNA sequencing pioneer
The article mentioned above sheds light on how science created a racial hierarchy.
Studies performed by Dr. Samuel Morton wrongfully concluded, by studying skulls from various ethnic groups, that some races were superior to others.
Back in the 1820–30’s this Philadelphia physician collected and measured hundreds of human skulls to confirm that there were differences among the races — in particular, a difference in brain size.
Morton assigned the highest brain capacity to Europeans — with the English highest of all. Second was the Chinese, third was Southeast Asians and Polynesians, fourth was American Indians. The smallest brain capacity was assigned to Africans and Australian aborigines.
In the decades before the American Civil War, Morton’s ideas were used to justify slavery. Also, his belief that Native Americans could not integrate into modern industrial society was central to Andrew Jackson’s policy of Indian Removal.
Modern science has debunked the myth that certain races have more gifted brains than others. However, many people were wired to accept that belief as true. And we are still suffering the consequences.
One Color Doesn’t Fit All
There are several manifestations of racism.
Internalized racism refers to the feelings of self-hatred among oppressed groups. Their traits have been devalued in Western societies.
Colorism is discrimination based on skin color — darker-skinned groups are treated worse than lighter skin ones by whites or even members of their own race.
Subtle racism is described as a person who has implicit racial or other negative attitudes towards another group. It doesn’t always include acts of bigotry; it also involves everyday acts such as ignoring, ridiculing or treating people as less worthy of respect because of their race.
Most recently, reverse racism has also gotten the media attention. Whites, who have been historically privileged feel left out when society is trying to level the field for minority groups. However, many social activists doubt reverse racism exists.
Shadism and colorism are two phenomenona that have flourished because of social pressure too. People feel insecure about their aspect and want to adapt to social ideals. Like the skin-whitening app on Facebook, that Vaseline launched in India, to allow users to whiten their profile pictures.
The Art of Intolerance
“In this country American means white. Everybody else has to hyphenate.” —Toni Morrison
We have a hard time understanding and accepting those who are different — either on how they look or how they think.
That intolerance is natural, rejecting the unknown is part of a self-mechanism. However, considering the access to education and information, it’s hard to believe that racism continues to be so prominent. Especially how leaders continue to manipulate people by turning a (racial) group into a common enemy — they’ve turned intolerance into an art.
Rather than taking people for who they are; we judge them by the group they belong to.
Professors at San Francisco State University released a study titled “When an Educated Black Man Becomes Lighter in the Mind’s Eye” exploring a concept they call “skin tone memory bias.”
The study provides evidence for the subconscious bias where educated black men are remembered as having lighter skin. The results also imply that successful black people are thought of as exceptions to their race.
Implicit Bias — also referred as Unconscious Bias — include the positions we hold about others. It’s a filter that clouds our conclusions about other groups or races. Past experiences shape this filter — we jump to conclusions without reasoning or thinking.
By the age of six, we start to make unconscious associations. Though scientists link racial bias to the activation of the brain’s amygdala, which governs our fear response, stereotypic images play a more prominent role.
Movies, magazines, the news, to name a few, feed our mind shaping our definition of race.
Color Blinded, not Color Blind
What we don’t know we don’t know, gets us into trouble.
Your biases are not evident to you. However, your blind spots are always visible to others, as I wrote here. Awareness is important but is not enough.
The incident at Starbucks is a perfect example. The Chicago Tribune said the event wasn’t about ‘unconscious bias,’ but about racist behavior in America. It wasn’t that the employees weren’t aware of their biases; they act upon them.
The paradox of racism in the US is that people are more prejudicial than they want to admit.
During the past decades, measures of explicit bias have declined. Take interracial marriages for example — only 11% of respondents said it disapprove it (Gallup, 2013). However, behaviors have not aligned with what people self-report on surveys.
Americans care about being perceived as non-prejudicial.
Starbucks recently announced that it will close its stores to train all its employees on what is being called “racial-bias education.” The problem with the implicit-association test (IAT) is deceiving. Most people feel deflated after taking the test; they feel guilty about their associations (i.e., darker skin with violence).
However, the correlation between implicit bias and discriminatory behavior is weaker than we think.
Recent research shows there’s little evidence that modifying Implicit Bias, drives behavior change. Being aware that you are a compulsory eater, won’t make you stop eating in between meals. You get the point.
As David French explains in this piece, the results are also unreliable. The author and many others claim to have taken the test many times and their results varied between ‘woke’ and ‘bigoted.’
The worst part is that blaming prejudices into the Unconscious Bias can remove ownership. Being blinded by other people’s skin color is not one’s fault — is the Implicit Bias who is responsible, not us.
We cannot leave people off the hook.
The notion of equality doesn’t help either. That’s why I prefer inclusion or, even better, acceptance.
Equality is about being color blind — we are all the same. The problem with this is that rather than celebrating our differences, it feels that we are trying to wash them up. We are all unique, not special as I explained here. Being different should be embraced as something positive.
We need to overcome being blinded by our intolerance, not to become blind to our differences. What makes a society more interesting, pluralistic, and prosperous is the diversity of thinking.
We shouldn’t force people to fit in, but to embrace their uniqueness.
Don’t Forget Cultural Biases
Being prejudicial is not socially accepted, that’s why people say they are not.
John Dovidio, a professor at Yale University, estimates that the majority of white Americans — about two thirds to three quarters — have implicit, racial biases.
You may not be aware of how your bias affects your behaviors — but it has an enormous impact in the workplace and your everyday life.
We believe that the way we live is how everyone else should too.
Cultural bias — judging other cultures or groups based on our individual cultural preferences — drives misunderstanding and prejudice too. It limits your ability to learn from people who live differently.
Cultural bias prevents us from seeing other people’s humanity.
Ethnocentrism is the idea that a person’s own culture and experiences are the norm. We believe that our group is at the center of everything. This belief is based one’s sense of superiority. For example, religion-centric constructs claiming a divine association like “God’s Chosen People” or “God’s Promised Land.”
We Have Biases, What Now?
“Hating people because of their color is wrong. And it doesn’t matter which color does the hating. It’s just plain wrong.” — Muhammad Ali
Values are hard to change; so, how can we produce behavior change without asking people to change their values?
Social norms do influence people but don’t change their thinking. Since the 1960s, the civil rights legislation made racism more subtle. Not only because it was immoral, but it became illegal to discriminate.
To solve prejudice, we need to treat it as a habit, according to Patricia Devine — an stereotypes expert.
A habit is ingrained in our way of behaving both consciously and not. It’s influenced both by external and internal factors. The author believes that an effective prejudice habit intervention requires to addressing both Personal Awareness and Societal Awareness.
Devine recommends five strategies:
1. Stereotype replacement:
Let’s say you are meet someone who’s Latino, and your immediate reaction is thinking that the person might be a legal resident. What to do?
First, recognize your automated reaction. Rather than judging yourself, realize it’s driven by a stereotype. Second, label the thought as ‘stereotypical.’ Reflect on what drove your response. This process is meant to undo your automated reaction and challenge the stereotypes in your head.
2. Counter-stereotypic imaging:
Rigid ideas and images that you have about people in your mind. That’s what a stereotype is. To defeat those images, look for examples that debunk the stereotype.
As I mentioned previously, science wrongly determined that African Americans were less smart than whites. Well, think of well educated and successful examples. Barack Obama and Oprah are a powerful demonstration that being black is not an inferior race, as some want us to think.
Prejudice is based on assuming that everyone that is part of a group will behave according to the stereotypical behavior. We evaluate people for the race or group they belong, not for who they are.
Individuating is about evaluating every person for who they are. To assess each individual based on personal skills, merits, and behaviors; not through the lens of group-based attributes.
4. Perspective Taking:
Prejudice is based on misunderstandings but, also, in seeing others through our cultural preferences. Perspective taking is an act of empathy — walk in someone else’s shoes.
Think like an anthropologist. Observe without judging (and without applying your bias). When you imagine yourself to be a member of a stereotyped group, you feel close to that group. Empathy lessens the need for automatic reactions.
5. Increasing opportunities for direct contact:
The anthropologist mindset works here too. Interact with people from other racial groups. Join their festivities or social events. Capture what you see without jumping to conclusions.
Focus on what’s unique about their experience. Live it first hand. Focus on learning new aspects of their culture; avoid rejecting what’s new, unfamiliar or goes against your ‘standards.’ Accept others lifestyles as valid, even if you don’t agree with them.
This might feel uneasy — adapting to other lifestyles always is. Turn it into a learning experience. Not just about others, but also to challenge your own prejudices. Learn to be more accepting and open-minded.
The effort is worthy. It’s much better to recognize one was wrong than continuing to let race biases drive your life.
Putting it all Together
My son was right, the color of our skin is a consequence of the sun.
When you understand that the color of the skin is not correlated to anything else, it’s easier to realize that the world does not revolve around you. It’s not that white people are not superior, no one else is.
Being color blind is wrong; is neither desirable nor possible.
We need to become aware, and embrace, the differences. Let’s celebrate each one’s uniqueness and promote a culture where diversity of thinking (and looks) is valued, rather than censored.
Having open conversations helps. Having biases is natural, just as the color of your skin. However, being blinded by skin colors is a social and artificial thing — modern science has debunked race stereotypes.
The color of our skin says a lot about our minds. I choose to keep mine open. The brain is flexible muscle, don’t let stereotypes rigidify your thoughts. Or your life, for that matter.
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