The Meandering Social Worker

wandering : wondering : learning

Archive for the tag “race”

Why your brain hates other people

It’s been a long time since I posted anything – been a bit too occupied with running election campaigns!  Although I try to keep my political activities separate from social work, there is so much that overlap.

Living in an area where racism is rife this one particular subject has been close to the forefront of my mind.  What a treat then to find this rather long article by entitled Why Your Brain Hates Other People, by Robert Sapolsky, on the the root causes of so many different areas of prejudice, whether we call it racism or not, whether we talk of hate crimes or bullying or something else.

Fundamentally, whether we like it or not, our brains are hard-wired to “stick to our own kind”, whether that’s race, religion, politics, or class.  It’s in the amygdala. We won’t, in our lifetimes, overcome our biology, but understanding is the first step in lessening the negative impact in our own lives.

[The article references the Implicit Association Test – a brilliant way of testing your own prejudices.  Much of what Sapolsky talks about here can also be found in the work of the Human Givens Institute.  Both easily found with Google.]

I had a conversation with a political friend the other day.  I was reminiscing about being in Africa and noticing that people kept staring at me.  And then I realised I hadn’t seen another white face in three days.  I was passing through their land, albeit slowly.  I loved Africa and I hated it.  I was travelling on a shoestring, yet by virtue of my race, my colour, I was seen as rich.  And I was rich.  I had food in my belly.  I was travelling in a car.  But I knew that sooner or later I would have to face up to the fact that my travels were being increasingly funded by debt, and I would soon have to return to work to clear those debts.  Could I explain that?  No.  I was rich. I had access to debt I could hope to work to pay off.  My European passport (soon to be lost to Brexit, don’t get me started) gave me a freedom of movement not afforded to others. White privilege.

But as I reflect on Sapolsky’s article I wonder how else ‘they’ saw ‘me’?



I was just four years old, too young to remember Nelson Mandela when he was first imprisoned in 1963.  I remember though the concerns reported in the news when he was released in February 1990: was he still a terrorist behind the words of peace and reconciliation, what would happen, would there be violence and if so who would cause it; and I remember too his wife Winnie Mandela making the British news reports, as the one who seemed to be leading the aggression.

But the fears were unfounded, after 27 years of imprisonment Nelson Mandela was a changed man, and he, Winnie Mandela and South Africa soon faded from front page news elsewhere in the world, and life went on as ‘normal’.  New news became old news and so on.

The first few years after his release were undoubtedly a steep learning curve in adapting to life in modern society.  Much had changed, not least technology.  But after four years of freedom Nelson Mandela became President.  His words of wisdom have since been repeated over and over.

It was strange then to find myself in South Africa when he died on 5th December 2013, just three days after I arrived here.  But it was a white South African pharmacist who commented that it was a privilege for me to be in South Africa when Nelson Mandela died that prompted me to write this blog.

Maybe it is a privilege to have been here on such an occasion.  I’m not sure.  Perhaps because of my nationality and politics it felt a greater privilege to be in Argentina when Margaret Thatcher died.

But I digress.  I am acutely aware of my race, my whiteness, in this country of South Africa.  Apartheid may officially be over but there’s still a disconcerting undercurrent, a legacy.

First, I have to understand that, unlike in England, ‘coloured’ is not a racist term.  In fact, to call a ‘coloured’ person ‘black’ is highly offensive.  I think I understand the difference but I’m certainly not going to try to explain it here.

I’m not used to the deferential mannerisms of, or being called ma’am by black people especially, but also coloured people.  Although deference is not reserved solely for whites it makes me uncomfortable.

Most (but not all) of the service jobs, shop assistants, cleaners, waiters, etc, are carried out by black/coloured people.

The whites don’t live in the townships.  Many more whites than black/coloured people drive cars.

White people strenuously avoid eye contact with strangers in the supermarket and if they mistakenly do catch your eye they quickly break eye contact and never ever smile back at you or acknowledge you with a nod even.  There are exceptions of course, but as far as I can tell they are people like me: the visitors, the holiday makes, the travellers, not the ‘locals’.  Black/coloured people seem at least a little more open.

As a traveller in this country I have been warned to be careful of being robbed, especially by blacks/coloureds, on the grounds that as a white person I will be seen as wealthy even though this is not my own perception of my situation (travelling long term on a very limited budget).

Of course I am wealthy by comparison, just as I was wealthy by comparison throughout much of Central and South America and Central Asia.  What I do know is that in my experience the vast majority of people are kind, generous, curious, interested and not out to cause harm to strangers in their midst.  And I would prefer to see people that way.

I’m White European.  My life has mostly been lived in the Northern Hemisphere.  Regardless of class or education I was born into a kind of privilege no-one can change.  I was born into a society from which it is next to impossible to truly understand what it feels like to be on the receiving end of prejudice, no matter how much I consider it.  But so far my experience of South Africa makes me uncomfortable in my skin.

“Even though we are sad we have to make our own lives follow his work.” Lebong Ntswane, quoted in a South African newspaper following the death of Nelson Mandela.

Who are the non-indigenous?

Modern society is coming to realise that the wisdom of many of the indigenous populations around the world has some profound insights into the damage done to our planet through the processes of industrialisation and subsequent technological developments.

Campaigns and advertising have highlighted the plight of those same indigenous populations, whose lands have been raped and their cultures all but annihilated.

But who are the non-indigenous who are getting the blame for the woes of the world and indigenous populations?

Travelling the world and meeting people from different cultures and lifestyles to my own has brought home to me just how much I have taken my country’s history for granted.  I may not have been a star in history classes but I can still rattle off references to Bede’s History of England; the Doomsday Book; and the time when the town of my birth was part of an actual island, the Isle of Thanet, separated from mainland England by the River Wantsum, until the monks of medieval times set about land reclamation, reducing the flow of the river water until what is left today is no more than a ditch in most places.

With Columbus discovery of the Americas in 1492 Europeans became the architects of invasion in the name of progress. From the early 1500’s the Spanish in particular were successful in colonising the Central and South Americas, most famously wiping out the Inca civilisations and leaving behind Catholic colonialism, Catholicism remaining the dominant religion to this day.  In the light of modern thought the methods of the conquistadors, the enforcing of their religion, seem inappropriate and unduly harsh.  Yet, for many, although trade was a part of their goal, what they did was in the sincere belief that the peoples in these countries needed to hear their message, needed the gift of salvation that they brought.  Their descendents can only trace their heritage no more than some five hundred years before they have to go to another culture to follow their ancestry.

The conquest of the North Americas took a little longer but still destroyed many of the native cultures.  The early settlers brought with them their developing knowledge of what would become the industrial revolution, along with guns and gunpowder and a determination to mine the ground for gold, silver and other precious metals.

Modern North Americans have a cultural history that goes back only a few generations in their own homeland.

The pioneers who broadened the early settlement areas to reach the west of the continent faced unknown dangers, crossing barren and hostile territory, carrying few possessions: blankets to sleep under, a few clothes, pots and pans for cooking, and, often, their Bibles.  They demonstrated physical and emotional strengths beyond imagination.  Many died before they reached their destinations, some from the harsh elements of the lands they travelled across, others at the hands of the various tribes of North American Indians (the local indigenous populations) who soon realised that the white man did not have much sympathy for either their lands or their cultures.

2011 02 25 (255) - Death Valley - Queen of Sheba mine

Mechanical relic at the Queen of Sheba Mine in Death Valley

The relics of the “forty-niners” who settled from 1849 to mine in the harsh dry desert of Death Valley still stand as a monument to their achievements: the remains of mine shafts, topped with the rusting hulks of the machines they used to ferry the rocks to the surface and begin the process of extracting the precious metals.

With those who settled on the west coast came new needs: communication with the east coast and Europe: friends and family left behind.  It could take several weeks for a mail coach to cross through the harsh lands of what are now the central states of the USA.  The Pony Express fast mail service, started in 1860, brought down the mail delivery time to just ten days.   But even this was not good enough for the new settlers.  Instead they developed the telegraph and railways, putting the Pony Express out of business in just eighteen months.

In doing so they defended themselves against the local populations who were alarmed at the changes being brought to their homeland, so much so that they all but wiped out the heritage of the indigenous North American Indians.  Their old lands have all but disappeared under the sprawling cities that have sprung up over the years, their old hunting grounds turned over to ‘management’ in the form of national parks.  The stories of their battles became the legends of children playing “Cowboys and Indians” for years to come, the stuff of John Wayne and spaghetti westerns.

Today, the descendents of those pioneers are the non-indigenous population of North America.  They are people who can only trace their history back a few short centuries before they have to look to the history of the cultures of their ancestors.  They are faced with the dilemma of admiring the amazing achievements of their forebears in overcoming tremendous physical difficulties, demonstrating amazing emotional and mental fortitude, against coming to terms with the cultural destruction of the indigenous populations that that involved.

But the North American population of today are not the only non-indigenous in a foreign land.

From the late 1700’s until 1868 those lovely British people decided they were did not have room to look after criminals of all sorts and so shipped them all off to live in another New World: Australia.  Their crimes might have been varied, from petty theft to murder and everything else in between, but these people had nothing to lose.  They may not have made the same choices as the pioneers travelling to North America but they too brought with them the knowledge of the developing industrial revolution and settled in to make the best of what fate had brought them.  Mostly survivors of the poverty wrought by the English industrial revolution they too were fighters and survivors.  Between 1851 and 1871 their numbers were swelled dramatically by the Australian gold rush.  But again, their descents, the non-indigenous of Australia, have only a little over two centuries of history before they too have to look to the cultures of their ancestors in Europe.

Whether by choice or force these were people who found themselves forging new lives in new environments.

But what of the non-indigenous today?  Their identities are rooted in short histories in their lands.  They have to live with the criticisms of their ancestors.  They are denied pride in the strength, determination and suffering endured by their ancestors.  They are left with the shame of the knowledge that their ancestors, despite what they thought were good intentions, caused damage and harm.  Will social workers one day ask questions about the emotional damage caused by current policies to the non-indigenous?!

In asking the question “Who are the non-indigenous?” there is no intention to undermine either the indigenous populations or their beliefs or cultures.  Only to recognise that there is always more than one side to a story, and to recognise the impact on the descendents of the perpetrators of the crimes against the indigenous populations.  It has taken many years but we should now know that everyone loses and suffers when it comes to violence and war, domination and destruction.

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