Our fallible brains are not always wired to implement the moral and ethical blueprints needed forge human progress. Racism has influenced some of the most key elections in the past years—and harms everyoneby Tosin Thompson / August 5, 2020 / Leave a comment
When I was 13, for fear of being bullied, I would often hide in the school library.
One day, I noticed a chequered book: Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman. My older sister wouldn’t shut up about it, but I hadn’t been interested. Begrudgingly, I opened it, and started reading…What?!
Noughts and Crosses is set against a backdrop where Black people rule the world. Callum McGregor, a white member of the underclass—a “nought”—and Sephy Hadley, a Black member of the ruling class—a “Cross”—are friends-turned-lovers pulled apart by prejudice.
Blackman’s simple writing style effectively addresses taboos such as terrorism, teenage pregnancy and suicide. The hardest word in the book is probably “militia,” yet Blackman’s words are felt so viscerally even the subordinate conjunctions feel palpable.
Noughts and Crosses is testament to the importance of having real conversations with young people before suppositions become too entwined in the rigid adult brain.
Ever since I can remember, I’ve been force fed white people’s self-inflated sense of superiority. This would invalidate my humanity and reduce me to mere pigmentation.
I grew up in east London on a baby blue council estate, where many racist incidences took place. I would feel embarrassed when a substitute teacher’s mouth convulsed when trying to pronounce my two-syllable name in front of a sniggering class; I was told the intricately curled fibres which protrude from my scalp were “due” for a relaxer, and informed that I was “pretty for a dark skin girl.” When I was in a theatre troupe, a celebrity, who was then the poster child for inclusivity, once mistook me for a cleaner mere minutes after watching me—the only Black girl in the cast—perform on stage. Once, two white boys in my class gawked at me like some freak of nature and asked why I had “such a big nose.” I’d then wrap it with elastic bands to make it narrower. A white boy threw a brick at my sister’s “N-word face.” I remember noticing the absence of any sense of pre-colonial Africa in my Key Stage 3 history textbooks. Now, as a professional actor I’ve been constantly mistaken for the only other Black girl in the cast—sometimes when I’m not even in the cast—and have had many auditions for peripheral and stereotypical roles for television and film.
As a 13-year-old picking up Blackman’s book, I didn’t understand why white people hated Black people so much. I didn’t understand why the Beckys and Bretts had everything, but the DeShawns and Dejas had nothing. To me, white people were evil.
Blackman, however, suddenly challenged my suppositions about racism by creating an alternative reality where Black people rule the world. I started to think that the propensity to be racist wasn’t an inherently white trait but a dangerous human disposition; I wanted to know how white people got to be so racist that they used it to dominate the world.
Racism isn’t reducible to white supremacy. Yes, white supremacy is racism; you cannot deny the barbaric atrocities of white supremacy, but we can’t wish away the many incidences of racism between non-white people. Racism can occur between minority groups in white-majority countries, as can be seen in screeds about how Black British actors aren’t psychologically scarred enough to play African American roles, as though Black Britons have skin made of crumpets dipped in tea, and come second in the Oppression Olympics. Racism can occur between indigenous groups, or between relatively established or newly arrived migrant groups—the Rwandan genocide, the Biafran War, and the xenophobic attacks against Nigerians in South Africa tell us as much. Racism can even occur between a majority and minority in any non-white-majority country where neither white nor black people are included, such as the mass incarceration of Uyghur Muslims “for their own good” in Xinjiang, and the genocide of Yazidis by ISIL in Iraq.
Racism is a form of prejudice to which all humans are susceptible, despite the entrenched social power imbalances that exacerbate it. Thinking otherwise gives further credence to Eurocentrism: the belief that white people are born racist and the only way to counteract it, rather than hold them accountable for their racism, is to be a “reverse racist.” This both disempowers those who strive for racial equality and absolves those who do not.
Race isn’t a biological fact but a historical phenomenon. Nobody is literally white, black, red or yellow; brown, sure. Race falsely purports the inequalities of human beings, as biologically, there is only one race: the human race. Humans demonstrate shockingly low genetic diversity; humans living on different continents share more genes in common than two groups of chimpanzees in one region. So, in the words of the late Jo Cox, “we are far more united and have far more in common than that which divides us.” Race is about appearances and the meanings we attach to them. We Black people have had the most difficult task of explaining why we, despite the adaptive trait of having the propensity to oxidise the amino acid tyrosine, are human beings, too.
In the alternative world of Noughts and Crosses, “white” is replaced with “Black,” “European” with “sub-Saharan African,” complex and often random factors—such as one’s proximity to domesticable plants and animals conducive to expansive agriculture, or belief in political ideologies inciting freedom and expression—are skewed to the civilisational advantage of Africa. In short, in the book, the Black man has the whip hand over the white man.
Meanwhile, in the long history of our real world, Europeans in the earlier centuries thought slavery would last forever. The unequivocal certainty of Black skin would forever remain entrenched in European consciousness, even when the physical attributes of racial appearance—skin colour, hair texture, nose, eyes, lips and ears—were changed by “race mixing.”
White supremacy says less about who Africans were, and more about who Europeans thought they were. The mind of a Victorian is the real subject of study, not the Africans they exhibited in zoos. Africans and Europeans may have been products of a single creation, with only environment creating the biological adaptations that distinguish them, but to Europeans, white was the standard and everyone else the deviation.
Racial animosity only intensified after slavery with the introduction of post-Civil War “Black codes” in Southern states, which restricted the freedom of African Americans. Then there were the Jim Crow laws, not to mention countless other measures across the world. Throughout history, racism has become the psychosis of the modern world.
“Noughts and Crosses is a game that no one really plays much past childhood because once you’ve grasped its objective and tactics, it invariably ends in a draw—a no-win situation. At the risk of sounding arty-farty literati, I think that pretty much sums up racism,” says Blackman when asked how she came up with the title.
Where does this no-win thinking come from? American psychologists Martie Haselton and David Buss have developed a theory of cognitive bias, called “error management theory” (EMT). EMT looks at how we have been programmed to make judgments—and even make errors in judgment— based on how costly the outcome of its errors are. Under EMT, the evolutionary forces that shape our cognitive biases are less of a design flaw but more of a design feature.
Most real-world judgments involve some degree of uncertainty, so we favour the bias that is less costly, even if it increases the amount of errors we make. A man would rather approach a woman smiling at him from across the bar as the embarrassment of rejection is less costly for him than letting “the one” slip away. Catherine Howard’s reluctance to commit to a man who’d annulled his fourth marriage on the grounds she wasn’t hot enough—and actually beheaded his second wife—might’ve literally kept her head up.
The fallibility of the brain is evident in 2020’s own pandemic world, gripped by worry about disease-carrying “outsiders.” East Asian students and workers have faced harassment and racial abuse since the outbreak of Covid-19. It’s not just Covid: former Republican congressman Joe Walsh tweeted “If you truly wanted to keep terrible diseases from overtaking our population, you’d secure the border and get a handle on illegal immigration” after the resurgence of measles in the US. This, of course, is bullshit, but, as Haselton and Buss’s research shows, the brain wasn’t designed to be a “truth-seeker” but an “adaptation executor.”
Emotions influence cognitive biases. Tribal psychology is a much researched and the well-documented “us v them” emotion is a biological adaptation that encourages people to work together. Belief in the inherent superiority of one’s “in-group” is rooted in self-esteem. Dominant “in-groups” will mobilise against a disadvantaged “out-group” deemed as threatening, with competition over limited resources justifying stigma and devaluation, even if it diminishes the in-group’s own potential wellbeing. This heightens the salience of ethnic boundaries and further aggravates racial tensions—even if both sides actually have the same values.
Haselton and Buss’s research has much to say about Britain today. Rather than reform an internationally revered forum, Britain has decided to “Take Back Control” from its biggest trading partner. Its ally, the United States, is led by a president who proclaims he will “Make America Great Again,” which is playing into the hands of its rivals—the trade relations the west severs are creating new opportunities for its main competitor, China. Globalisation has seen increased competition among ethnic groups and the uprising of violent insurgent nationalist movements. Ethnic inequalities, whether real or imagined, have caught the eye of politicians with end goals they wish to attain.
Today, we are seeing a clustering of nuanced personal realities into two homogenous camps: the staunch left and right. Social media is lowering the cost to exhibit tribal behaviours but increasing the cost—such as the emotional and financial harm—of an individual maligning their tribe’s values with an unorthodox proposition, thus increasing political polarisation. One badly worded tweet could get you “cancelled” from your tribe, and something you wished wasn’t true is dismissed as “fake news.”
During the Brexit campaign, Michael Gove said Britons “have had enough of experts.” He’s right, but for the wrong reasons. Humans have a tendency to make judgments not by carefully considering the evidence to draw logical conclusions, but by conforming their perceptions and interpretations to the values that define their partisan identities. Unless an expert’s position matches that of an individual’s affinity group, that expert is a loon. So, people will be wrong and stay wrong, despite the facts, if it keeps them in good standing with their cultural peers. The Leave camp exploited Britain’s tribal psychology, using Britain’s beloved NHS as a basis on which to spread misinformation. Despite this, Britons still voted one of the principle offenders of this lie, Boris Johnson, into office.
Our fallible brains are not always wired to implement the moral and ethical blueprints needed forge human progress. So, we all—police, journalists, midwives, teachers, politicians—have a duty of care to actively fight against our implicit biases to protect each of our human rights to racial equality. Stereotypes—mechanisms designed to dumb down the complexities, vulnerabilities and depth that underpin a person’s humanity—change with new information that either broadens, challenges, or disconfirms previously held beliefs. If pro-racism is a choice, anti-racism is also a choice.
In a Q&A about her book, Blackman concluded with a quote from American-Polish rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel “racism is man’s gravest threat to man—the maximum of hatred for a minimum of reason.” Maybe the only way we’ll get peace on our planet is if we all face a greater threat from outside Earth. Maybe.