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The inevitability of xenophobia: are we bound by science to be racist?

By Kaila AllisonDecember 13, 2016

Lancaster Bomber Aircraft
Lancaster Bomber Aircraft Getty

When I took Psych 101 in college, I was required to participate in a number of student psychological studies which ranged in topic from attention to memory. The most interesting of the studies was also one of the simplest. After a series of deceivingly unrelated tasks in which I evaluated a test subject of a particular demographic on certain disciplines, a research assistant walked me into a small room with two chairs sitting side by side. She then told me the subject would be joining me in the room in a few minutes. I was instructed to set up two chairs facing each other for us to sit while she went out of the room to get the subject. Without thinking too much, I moved the chairs and waited for her to return, wondering what this was all about.

No matter how many preachers of peace flood our news feeds and rally in our streets, global harmony is far from reach. In the wake of fake news, upended American politics, and continually distressing dispatches from the Middle East, we live in a time and place inundated with negative stimuli, only inciting a riot of egocentrism and xenophobia. We have a society that is troubled by causes near and far, but doing little to enact positive change. 

We want to make a home for Syrian refugees but are scared of letting disguised terrorists through the cracks. We want to uphold our second amendment rights, but also protect our children from gun violence. We’re a nation prone to ethical argument based on a partial, biased picture. But times are changing, and history is showing that we don’t need someone with any prior political experience to be our commander-in-chief. A man who many believe to be a racist and a misogynist has been elected to office, and now the nation waits to see what will happen. It’s already, unsurprisingly, sparking visible and hate-filled reactions. 

While a large population feels deceived by a “new” aberration to the system, it’s important to remember that this isn’t totally new. Our country and others didn’t go sour overnight; the United States has had a long history of race-related violence, starting with colonialism, then the Civil War, the civil rights movement, and today’s increasingly prevalent hate crimes. In a global perspective, it’s only a small notch on the belt of barbarism.

Among other memorable acts of violence in history, World War II was the deadliest, responsible for as high as 85 million deaths, military and civilian. It was a war whose mass genocide burns in the memory of survivors and descendants. The next deadliest genocide occurred in 1992, when Bosnia-Herzegovina declared independence from Yugoslavia, responsible for the deaths of some 100,000. Intolerance and violence based on race, religion, or ethnicity has been stained in the leaves of human history, and many think, is bound to continue on its course. 

The victims of racism are arbitrary, as the renowned teacher Jane Elliot’s famous 1960s Blue-Eyed Brown-Eyed exercise suggested. In response to the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Elliot decided to organize an experiment with her own elementary school students. One day, she divided her class between blue-eyed and brown-eyed students, and gave special privileges to the “superior” blue-eyed people and punishments to the “inferior” brown-eyed people. PBS’s special,  “A Class Divided,” shows the uncanny speed at which prejudice surfaces, driving friends apart, just based upon a physical trait. 

However shocking to see in a controlled experiment, prejudice is not a shocking behavior. According to a 2005 study by Arizona State University, prejudice is hardwired in us in order to help us recognize dangers. Back when human survival was dependent on staying within one’s own group, they developed an evolutionary sense of fear in association with “outsiders.” Though ideally this makes sense, these biological tendencies are often imperfectly aligned with psychosocial context. This leads to a negative bias of a perceived threat that could catalyze more deeply embedded prejudice or racism, without any logical grounds. 

Back in the small room in the psychology building, seated in my chair, I waited for the door to open. In a few minutes, the researcher came back in. There was no subject with her. The experiment was over, I was handed a debriefing notice, and left. In the debrief, I read that the experiment was to measure the average distance I placed my chair away from the other chair, considering the details I knew about the test subject’s demographic. I was possibly demonstrating racism without even realizing it. 

With a history of race- and ethnicity-related violence as our domestic and global predecessors, and with tensions mounting as Inauguration Day approaches, xenophobia is not an issue that is anywhere near from being dissolved. But humans have demonstrated a capacity and will to go beyond their biological givens. The ability to integrate technology into our lives, to question gender theory, and travel in space are just some examples of how humans break the boundaries of nature. Who’s to know if prejudice could one day be broken, too.