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Getting Past Tribalism

The Road to Resilience

We have come to a time when those with racial, ethnic, and sexual biases think that their views have achieved some level of legitimacy.   The only way we can counter that opinion is by showing by sheer numbers how small—hopefully—a minority they really are.  Before we can do that, we should all spend some time confronting our own biases.  Are we really as progressive and tolerant as we would like to think we are?  It took us a while to accept the fact that we still live in a racist society.  Many of our preconceptions are so ingrained that we never really considered that there was any bias lurking there.

Now and again, I think we have all thought that if we had one world culture and everybody was a similar light brown color with similar features, we might finally get past at least the racial and ethnic aspects.  I’ve actually seen a number of commercial TV ads with biracial couples and at least one depicting the marriage of two women.  Clearly someone on Madison Avenue sees this as a positive trait that will sell product.   That, at least, is encouraging.

On meditating on this for some time, I’ve decided that, even if the melting pot could achieve its end, it would not solve the problem.  We have an innate drive to see differences between ourselves.  Even if those differences are actually small and fairly subtle, we will find them.  The white European society that so many long for will not give its members the automatic stature and respect they are looking for.  I grew up in the 1950’s, when we had a predominant white culture.  Dark-skinned people and immigrants were automatically second-class citizens.  The idea of LGBTQ people was so abhorrent there were only whispered inferences about them, and even these were quickly put out of mind.  So, were all of us white people comfortable and secure in our European whiteness?  Not exactly.  The mind abhors a vacuum.  It wasn’t good enough to just be white.  For men, having hair that was too long or wearing a beard, were grounds for suspicion (well before the Hippy culture).  Likewise, women who wore men’s clothes in public instead of a dress or didn’t have the proper hat for the occasion were talked about.   There has always been people that were considered to be “white trash” and other cultural and class subtypes.  Even if everybody was the same color and professed the same cultural values, I am fairly confident that we would always find someone to look down upon, i.e.,  “I really like that guy Jack; it’s too bad he’s a Presbyterian!”

So, now we have the other side of it:  to accept and revel in the diversity.  In order to be able to do that, we have to give up depending on our tribal identity for self-worth, and thinking we are better than people who are not in our tribe.  In our more philosophical moments, most of us can see a basic recognizable and loveable humanity behind all the different appearances and expressions that people are capable of.  Now, more than ever, we have to maintain our awareness of that front and center.  This won’t be easy to do; it seems we are hard-wired for tribalism.

I had an epiphany of sorts when I was in the Peace Corps, where I was exposed to, and more exacting, expected to live and work with people that had a different language, customs, housing, habits, etc.  My first experience was a sort of trial-by-fire during training.  We were all shipped down to Mexico and given instructions to find a Mexican family to stay with for a couple days.  The prospect of this was so frightening to me that I was physically sick before the bus left our training center.  Once in the town I was assigned to, my sheer ineptitude was enough to attract the attention of a young man who took me to his home, where I was permitted to stay a few days.  Except for the front parlor, the home of this family had a dirt floor.  They were by no means prosperous but were making ends meet.  The language was strictly Spanish, but the hospitality and common experience was universal.  Our Peace Corps trainers, in their wisdom, saw that this experience was essential if we were to be successful in our mission.  

We have to give up striving to be like others or fretting over people who are not like us.  There’s nobody better at being you than you are, so you can feel good about that for starters.  On the other hand, there is so much to be appreciated in the talents and qualities of everyone else, we might consider feeling enriched rather than threatened.  Maybe we’ve been unconsciously stumbling over tribalism for thousands of years, but that doesn’t mean we’re necessarily stuck with it.  Time for us to get out of our comfort zone and immerse ourselves in somebody else’s world.