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Are We Born to Be Members of Opposing Tribes?

By November 1, 2018May 18th, 2019No Comments

Or do our infant brains learn feeling pre-verbally?

Why do we categorize people and then treat them accordingly? Do dogs care what color another dog’s hair is? Do horses care if another horse is brown or black? Do cats care about these issues? As far as we know, they do not.

For humans our more advanced brains allow us to discriminate. Is this really an evolutionary advantage? It is often said to be tribal, but it is built right into the human brain, which learns pre-verbially to create categories and to see and organize patterns.[1] These are built into the visual cortex of the brain before speech is possible and, therefore, remain unconscious unless we work toward consciousness. I learned this from my years of working with blind people. They cannot discriminate unless a sighted person trains them in the clues.

There have been several recent movies about code-switching, that is, Black people talking on the phone in their “White Voices,” so that the other party does not realize that they are talking to a Black person. Two recent movies focusing on this issue and well worth seeing are Sorry to Bother You and Spike Lee’s Black Klansman. The latter, a true story, involved a Black and Jewish man infiltrating and breaking up a klan group.

Wouldn’t it be an interesting world if we could change our skin like a suit when we felt like being female or male, black or white, young or old? I believe that science may produce this opportunity someday, but for now, we struggle. When the time comes, that will also be a struggle with unintended consequences. It is never that easy. Maybe it will concern where you bought your new skin or how well it fits. It must fit.

This issue is also very relevant to the group known as LGBTQI+. What do all these people have in common? Nothing more than being outsiders to heteronormativity. Why not use the simpler RH, rigidly heterosexual, for a group that is probably smaller once societies allow fluidity without censorship or humiliation? In most other ways, lesbians and gay men and transgender generally have little in common.

This week the focus is on Jews, outsiders to the outsiders. In the U.S. system of racialization, People of Color consider Jews to be White. White supremacists consider them, at best, not to be white and sometimes not even to be human. Even Ashkenazi Jews have never been White. They are passing and trying to assimilate their way out of danger with moderate success. Many look as close to White as possible; many do not. Is anyone really paying attention to the epistemology of these designations?

We are unfortunately seeing a frightening resurgence of racism, anti-semitism, and homophobia. Therapists are seeing a huge increase in anxiety disorders, which do not come from only inside the brain, but from the world we step out into every day, from the violence and the hatred that we see on our devices, that is, the societal context.

I found in working with people who are blind since birth, that their eyes are not windows to the soul. It is very difficult to ascertain what they are feeling. Their facial expressions do not appear as readily as those of the sighted and they could not tell much about me unless I decided to discuss whatever the characteristic was. These biases are learned visually and pre-verbally.

I am not suggesting that we blind ourselves to become better human beings, but that we try to be as mindful and conscious of what messages our eyes are sending to our brains and to interrupt them and question them whenever we can. In many cases, it is the White and heteronormative that create the outsider categories and make sure that they remain the norm.

As a daily and/or therapeutic practice, I have seen nothing that works better than mindfulness practice, which I will discuss in my next blog.


[1] Kaschak, E. (2015), Sight Unseen: Gender and Race through Blind Eyes, Columbia University Press.

This article was originally published in Psychology Today.

Ellyn Kaschak

Ellyn Kaschak

Ellyn Kaschak, Ph.D. is an internationally acclaimed and award-winning psychologist, author and teacher. She is well-known as a speaker, workshop leader, human rights advocate and a public intellectual.