Harness Tribalism to Combat Racism (Part 1)

If you’re reading this, you’re prone to tribalism. Everyone is tribal by nature. Familial and ethnic tribes are two of our most commonly identifiable tribes. We have religious, political, and social status tribes. We have workplace tribes, not only between coworkers, but between our place of employment and rival companies. We have academic and athletic tribes, and the two are often linked. We have television viewing, social media following, concert going, designer clothes wearing, and sneaker sporting tribes. We have car tribes, motorcycle tribes, and tool brand tribes. There are tribes within and between each branch of the military. We gravitate towards tribalism constantly, allowing it to permeate most aspects of our lives, because our tribes are important to us and acceptance in our tribe is especially important. Our propensity for tribalism is so great that we often consider ourselves part of multiple tribes, and these tribes can intersect or even conflict with each other. Tribes can have positive, neutral, or negative intentions and results. Being part of a tribe and being attracted by and appealing to others with similar interests, assists our natural need for comfort. We assume that because somebody drives the same style vehicle as us, they might be like us. We believe if somebody appreciates the same music as us, they probably have other similarities to us. This belief translates into them being perceived as less of a threat, because they’re of the same or of a similar tribe. We have a biological need to feel safe, therefore self-preservation is the ultimate reason for our tribalism. Familiarity brings comfort. Unfamiliarity can be uncomfortable. Things we are unfamiliar with could possibly represent a threat, and if there’s that possibility, until we can be certain an unfamiliar entity brings no harm, for our own safety we must proceed with caution. There’s a mental aspect to this, but there’s also an often-overlooked biological aspect of our tendency towards caution. This cautious nature stems partially from our natural defense mechanisms and is part of the foundation of our tribalism.

Our natural defense mechanisms water the seeds of tribalism, which then often sprout the flowers of racism. However, while racism often springs from tribalistic seeds, those seeds also flower into areas unrelated to race. More than anything, tribalism is about “other”. Skin color simply makes it easier to recognize who those “others” are. The Irish and English have been rivals for centuries, and the IRA has bombed London as recently as the 90’s. At last check, they’re both overwhelmingly white. White New Englanders mock the intelligence of white Southerners. White Southerners mock the toughness and question the intentions of those same New Englanders. Both sides often detest the accent of the “other”, even though both are white American tribes. Black on black crime in America is well documented. My block is better than your block. The survival of my tribe is more important than the survival of the “other” tribe. I’ve witnessed fist fights at NASCAR events over whose favorite driver turns left at high speeds with superiority. NASCAR is not known for its ethnic diversity, so the “others” are determined by the color of a sponsor and not the color of one’s skin. There are Chevy guys and there are Ford guys and the tribalism between the groups runs deep. The only time the Chevy and Ford guys agree, is when a Toyota guy pops up. Suddenly, those two tribes unite against the Toyota guy, who is now the opposed “other”. Drug cartels not only share ethnicity with their rivals, they’re often from the same family. It doesn’t matter. That tattoo you have, that gesture you just formed with your hands, that neighborhood you’re from, makes you an “other”, and therefore makes you a threat. We display tribalism when we’re driving and see that opposing team’s bumper sticker and decide it’s not currently that “other” persons time to merge. Television producers play to our tribalistic tendencies by inserting competition and or rival factions on the show so that we pick a side, which clearly creates more incentive to watch. Musicians play into false and petty beefs because it creates interest in their brands when followers inevitably engage in debate and ridicule. Religious sects formed by those with shared ethnicities and Gods but of “other” interpretations of the same scripture, historically and currently participate in some of the fiercest displays of tribalism witnessed. These examples of tribalism, and many more, are not about race. They are about “other”. Little can capture our attention or can initiate our angst, as can a perceived “other” or opposing tribe.

Racism doesn’t discriminate. We are all tribal, therefore we all have the ability to be racist, regardless of our ethnicity, age, social status, education, religion, politics or anything else. Our individual environments determine where on the racism spectrum we reside, but our tribalistic nature makes it likely we reside somewhere on the spectrum, especially if we haven’t consciously attempted not to. While there is no doubt society wittingly and unwittingly enforces racist stereotypes about all tribes among us, and these enforcements foster negative learned behavior, there is still a biological aspect to racism that cannot be ignored. We are doing ourselves a disservice by presuming that if we ignore our animalistic traits, they’ll go away. They’re not going away. We’ve been doing the same terrible things and treating each other in the same terrible ways for thousands of years. Society contributes to the cycle, but we need to finally recognize what it is about us that consistently leads generation after generation, and society after society, into creating an atmosphere conducive to hate, racism, poverty, and war. Teaching our way out of these cycles is the only way to permanently reduce them. Until we admit there’s a biological aspect, often provoking us to be negative and skeptical of “others”, society will continue to be hindered by tribalism and racism and ultimately be unable to move forward. However, if we provide each upcoming generation with the facts and ability to deal with our biological tendencies that were great for nomadic survival but not so great for democracy, humanity will move in a positive direction.

I was born the product of a predominantly Irish, red haired and freckled, cocaine addicted prostitute mother. The second half of that production was composed by an African American heroin addicted pimp father. Those precarious circumstances led to foster care around 6 months old, when my father would be in prison and my mother would abandon me. I was eventually adopted by my foster parents. My adoptive mother grew up in East Providence, Rhode Island. Her father was Italian, and her mother was Portuguese. Both of her parents were on the light-skinned side of these ethnicities, so she shows no remnants of the tan skin these ethnicities can carry. Her father was a business owner and she grew up in a comfortably middle-class neighborhood. In other words, she’s white as heck. My adoptive father carries a Portuguese last name from his father’s side, though he is no more than forty percent Portuguese. He has mixed white European ancestry from both his maternal and paternal lineage. He grew up in Rehoboth, a small country town in southeastern Massachusetts not far from the Rhode Island state line. The two main roads in town were the only two paved roads when he was growing up. After serving in the military, he became a truck driver before opening his own business, building and customizing dump trucks. In sum, he also qualifies as extremely white by most standards society tends to measure whiteness. Or so I thought.

One way to realize how unintelligent tribalism and racism can be is to realize the fluidity of them. Portuguese people are engrained and accepted into white society in southern New England. Many are light-skinned, but even those with darker skin benefit from this acceptance. It wasn’t until my mid-twenties that I first witnessed a Portuguese person have their whiteness questioned. While working in the Gulf of Mexico after the BP Oil spill, a white worker from Louisiana referred to one of the darker skinned Portuguese workers from Massachusetts as Mexican. This did not go over well. I watched as other Portuguese members of the crew whose complexion was more akin to my adoptive parents explained to the Louisianan that they too were Portuguese and that this guy was indeed one of them. He’s part of our tribe, therefore he’s okay, tan skin and all. I took this episode as both extremely amusing and immensely thought provoking. I had never been privy to such a vehement defense of one’s whiteness. I had never entertained the thought that what constitutes being white in one area doesn’t carry over to all areas, or that what passes for whiteness isn’t universal between all white tribes.

This episode reminded me of an argument with my adoptive father when I was in high school. I asked him if he knew what it was like to be looked at differently due to your race and he angrily answered that he did, which at the time caught me off guard. If the previously mentioned Louisianan looked at my adoptive father, there’s little doubt he would label him white. It was only his Portuguese last name that called his whiteness into question. But there was obviously a time where Portuguese people hadn’t established their whiteness in Southern New England and therefore hadn’t been as accepted into white society. There was a transition. My adoptive father constitutes the essence of this transition. He had the correct skin, but his last name gave him away. If he experienced ridicule for his last name as a kid, over half a century later the last name doesn’t matter as much because he’s established himself, as have others with Portuguese ancestry, in his community as strongly white. Still, his Portuguese last name gives him grief from time to time. When a stranger calls and they are simply reading his name off a list or a computer, they usually mispronounce the last name and often replace it with the Hispanic version. I remember there being specific calls, in which after he hung up, he speculated that the other persons attitude was probably only because they read the name and thought he was a “Spic”. If only the person on the other side of the phone could see him, they would never question his whiteness. This is a check on his acceptance and a reminder of something he’d rather not be reminded of. However white he wants to be, he’ll always have that Portuguese last name, and occasionally must answer to it, and therefore he’ll never be white enough. Just as many members of the gay community hide, and in some cases hate their true selves in order to fit in, he did likewise with his Portuguese heritage and last name. This doesn’t have to mean that he truly hated those things, it means he recognized these things as a hinderance to his white acceptance, so it’s simply easiest to not embrace them. He became a victim of the everlasting requisite to not be an “other”, but to be part of the tribe.

I presume I could’ve taken a similar path as my adoptive father. I could’ve suppressed that I’m half black and played to the often-assumed notion that I was Portuguese. It’s ironic the same Portuguese heritage my adoptive father shied away from so he could join the white tribe, I could’ve falsely claimed in an attempt to be part of that same tribe. Progress clearly feels no need to be sensible. Not only did I take my adoptive fathers Portuguese last name, but I’m also about as light skinned as a truly half black person can be. I grew up in the same ninety-eight percent white country town that my adoptive father did. Almost all of what I learned about racism for the first eighteen years of life was learned from being fully inside a relatively conservative white society. I had few influences calling me to be black and many calling me to be white. There was seemingly no incentive within my upbringing for me to take an interest in black society, culture, or history. Basically, I’m fully trained in all things white, including how to dress it and how to speak it. Most of that experience comes ironically from my acceptance by white people, who are often comfortable enough with my whiteness to voice their true racists feelings in front me. This includes members of my own adoptive family as well as my close friends, who clearly know I’m half black, but forget and speak their minds and true feelings. It’s my whiteness that allows me these experiences. If I had darker skin, people wouldn’t be unaware or forget that I’m half black. I would’ve experienced higher amounts of racism targeted at me, but not the hundreds of racist things that have been and continue to be unsuspectingly said in my presence. When I experienced racism growing up that was directly intended at me, it wasn’t because people looked at me and knew I was half black, it was because I announced that I was half black. I learned very young that it was the announcement that initiated the targeting. If I didn’t announce it, I could hide it. So, at a young age, I learned to internally embrace black athletes, musicians, movie stars, and comedians, while also learning how to externally be accepted as a member of white society. I learned how to accommodate conflicting tribes. I’ve been able to experience American racism as a member of the oppressed but with the acceptance of the oppressor, all at once. It’s near impossible for white people to do this. It’s near impossible for black people to do this. Extremely light skin combined with being adopted by white people in a white town, allowed me a perspective on racism which was formed using a unique formula unfamiliar to most. I believe sharing these experiences can help people recognize how easily and how often our tribalism leads towards racism and discrimination. I hope sharing these stories will give people a better understanding that racism doesn’t have to be intentional to be racist, and many times isn’t. It would be great if sharing these stories made some realize that having racist thoughts doesn’t make you an all-around terrible person, it simply means you have faults, as does everyone else. Most of all, I want the sharing of these stories to encourage open and honest dialogue, something there’s not enough of. So, share I will.

Part 2 Now Available

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