My psychology professor admirably maintained a high level of energy as she projected her question, despite seeing the tired faces of the 200+ students barely keeping awake as the lecture period neared its end. Despite my own exhaustion as I completed my eighth hour of lecture for the day, I thought about the question. The Brief Sensation-Seeking Scale score predicts how likely a person is to seek exciting, new things, and to participate in high-thrill activities. Cultural psychology is the branch studying the ways in which our cultures shape us. As I formulated a potential answer, I heard a soft chuckle and a whisper, that even a week and a half later makes my blood boil: “Muslims are more violent because their religion tells them they should be.”
We are, unfortunately, a society of extremes. Our availability heuristic heavily influences our cognition. For example, when criticizing the opposing political side, Democrats can be quick to include all Republicans under the “alt-right” category, and Republicans are quick to see all liberals as the “alt-left”. The term “moderate” has come to be meaningless.
Similarly, we too easily divide society into two extreme categories: those who are racist, and those who are not. We tend to see the former as individuals who scream racial slurs in public and openly criticize immigrants for the sake of filling media minutes. On the other hand, we perceive those we have deemed “not racists” through idealistic, rose-tinted glasses as people who are accepting of all cultures and see everyone as an equal.
But if not a legitimate answer I could write down in my notes, the horrific words that escaped the lips of the group of young white men sitting in the row behind me gave me perspective. Their insensitivity shone a light on a kind of silent racism, which is only practiced behind closed doors and therefore unknown to anyone else. They introduced me to the racism spectrum, with a middle ground that is characterized by a facade of acceptance that we have been tricked into believing is reality. This is an array of people who perceive themselves as culturally accepting, but in reality foster an attitude arguably as devastating than that of individuals who shout racial slurs in public.
For the sake of simplifying this rather complicated issue and fitting this argument in my page limit, let’s use the analogy of the visible light spectrum to explain racism. If we define outwardly racist people as “violets,” then we can define those who are fully accepting of others as the “reds.” The topic of investigation is the range of blues, greens, yellows and oranges that fall in between the two extremes.
There are the men in my psychology lecture — the blues and greens — who speak ill of the backgrounds and cultures of their “ethnic friend” (as they term them), but parade around with these same friends as if to say, “I’m hanging out with Sanjay and Osamah, I can’t be racist.” And we as a society have fallen into their trap. We applaud their behavior and use this mindset as a basis to label them as members of the latter group.
However, this spectrum contains individuals who are inadvertently racist, passing comments that reveal their almost innocent insensitivity — the yellows and oranges. These are the people who are quick to say, “Well in America, we say ____”, when an international friend uses a different term for an object. For example,
These are also some of the people who jump to the first #DefendDACA rally on campus because they believe President Donald Trump’s decision to end this Obama-administration program will lead to the deportation of their international friends — they fail to differentiate between international students and the individuals protected under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, viewing all of their “ethnic friends” as a homogeneous group (I could launch into a grand explanation of this difference, but to avoid exploring a tangent with no return, I recommend performing a Google search). We see their support for an important cause, and are blindsided to the flaws in their logic.
But one might ask, how are we supposed to distinguish between the violets, blues, yellows and reds? Unfortunately, we can’t. Doing this would inevitably result in yet another trap of abandoning all trust in humanity and automatically assuming that even reds are secretly blues. Not only would this further all the existing unrest around race relations in society, but it could also push us further away from the solution.
Instead, the solution is found within each individual person. We must ask ourselves if we have even unintentionally made a comment with racist undertones. We must ask ourselves when we have asked that an international student change her vocabulary so it is easier for us to comprehend, instead of making the effort to instead understand their terminology.
Not only are these “middle” people unaware of other cultures and facts, but they are also blindsided to their own ignorance. And ignorance of your own ignorance is only a temporary, fragile bliss.
Nithya Rajeev is a sophomore majoring in human biology. Her column,“The Spectrum,” runs every other Monday.