Sunday, May 11, 2008

Proverbial Pangea

Yesterday I participated in Pangea Day, which was fabulous. Pangea Day (as one might imagine with such a title) seeks to bring people all over the world together: to allow humanity to supersede borders, religion, race, and politics. This idea of uniting with people of all backgrounds - people whom I have never and probably will never meet - is a powerful one. It suggests that, despite superficial and substantive differences, humanity possesses deeply rooted similarities which bind us together. Robert Kurzban explains that as human beings, "we have the capacity and tendency to separate 'us' from 'them'. Once established, we're more tolerant to those we call 'us' and more brutal toward 'them.'" I have seen this mentality in action many times in my life. We easily identify ourselves with a set of people based on the color of our skin, religion, monetary status, gender, vocation, or political bent. We begin to define ourselves based on those characteristics; people who do not fall within those parameters belong to the "them" category. I saw this dramatically displayed in the DR. There was a strong "us" "them" sentiment between Dominicans and Haitians. As an outsider, it was almost laughable - except for the tragedy - to see how the Dominicans separated themselves from the Haitians because the Haitians were black. I have been thinking specifically about the divisions based on skin color as of late because I just finished reading Black Like Me. John Griffin changes his skin color from white to black to white throughout the book. As a black man, he describes the hate stares he receives from white people that are based solely on his color. He details the woes of being unable to convince white people to give him a job despite his high qualifications. In contrast, he feels an immediate sense of camaraderie with black strangers. He talks about the look blacks exchange with one another, a look that tells all - the suffering, the understanding, the willingness to help one another. When he goes back to being white, he notices the immediate change in the way people treat him. Suddenly a policeman nodds affably; he takes a "seat beside a white man at the counter and the waitress smiles at [him]. It was a miracle. [He] orders food and is served. It was a miracle." However, just as immediately, he loses his solidarity with black people. Black men speak to him obsequiously, and will not carry on conversations with him. He finds himself"back on the other side of the wall. There was no longer communication between [them], no longer the glance that said everything."
This division, this deliberate separation from other humans, fascinates me. We are human, and as such, experience the same emotions: love, hate, fear, hope, sadness, despair, joy. We pass through the majority of the same experiences. So, why is it, then, that we are so predisposed to associate ourselves with an identity that deliberately excludes another? Robert Kurzban gave me hope when he explained the research he has been doing. He talks about how, while we still have a tendency to join ourselves to a group, our definitions of us and them are not impervious. They are constantly changing to include other people, to form larger groups. "Increasingly, science shows there's no limit to who we define as us. Eventually, someday, there might not be any more 'thems'." I think that we all feel a sense of connection to humanity and that we possess capacity beyond our understanding to accept, love, and unite. We just need to exercise that capacity more frequently.

3 comments:

mel said...

Dave was telling me about Pangea day today, it sounds amazing!!! I'll have to watch it online. As for the other... yeah, it makes me sad, well frustrated too. I hearty Amen to all you said! Our shuttle bus driver wont talk to me b/c i'm a whitey.. but i'm trying to crack him in ;)

Brian and chelsea said...

oh man - have i ever seen this first-hand... its a phenomenon i call PROCREATION DISCRIMINATION. Now that we have a baby, people (typically FEMALES) who previously seemed to look down upon us as some childless sub-species, now enthusiastically approach me regularly with unsolicited childcare tips. I am now part of their US, and no longer their THEM. yay....
Thanks for posting this and describing it so eloquently. I

Jecca Lee Ivie Johnson said...

Wow, I thought Michael Jackson was the only man who knew what it felt like to be both black and white! Sorry, I never hear about any of these cool metro holidays! In Oklahoma, we celebrate not getting wiped out by tornado day - well, month actually! Thanks for thinking about us. So far nothing too serious but you never know when it's going to get scary! I would like to be friends with more black people, but I don't really know any to befriend! There is one giant black man in our ward and he is very nice, but I think it hurts his neck to look down at me! I'll work on that relationship by wearing taller shoes to church!