About a week ago my son was watching TV and I happened to glance at the TV. Dora the Explorer (episode: We’re a Team) was on and I heard Dora ask, “who is the best at vine swinging?” As she repeated this question three times, you see her monkey friend popping up in the background trying to get noticed. Then she said, “yes, Boots the monkey is the best vine swinger.” So! What does this anecdote have to do with racism? Everything.
While this isn’t an indictment of the Dora franchise, it is indicative of the way we teach our children. We teach our children to look for differences and make associations. Think about it for a moment. Dora is asking the child watching to make an association between monkeys and being good at swinging on a vine. This got me thinking about the things we teach our children and the educational programs or techniques parents use to teach their children.
What are the early teaching techniques that we, as parents, have seen and use to teach our children? We teach our children to differentiate shapes by using color, or vise versa. We’ll put several squares in front of the child and ask them to point at the blue one. Or, we’ll put several shapes in front of them and ask them to point to the square. Learning to differentiate and associate – to see things based on color and shape – is not cerebral, they are instinctual. We can use the same associative techniques to teach mice to navigate a maze or, more simply, to teach a Pavlovian response. It is instinctual because association is used to survive. If it killed you, don’t repeat!
We are taught from an early age and have an instinct to discern differences in our environment, naturally associating with those things that are most similar with our identity. We’ve conditioned our children: “don’t talk to strangers;” “don’t ride beyond the end of the block.” Thus, a connection between associative thinking and race relations can be extrapolated. Looking at the history of American immigration and urban center development, you will invariably see that the newest immigrants went through rites of initiation, if you will, prior to cultural assimilation. Even now, urban centers still show the remnants of immigration with racial or cultural districts (China Towns, Little Italy’s, Cabbage Towns, etc.). If associative thinking is ingrained from an early age, I would postulate that its affect is present on both sides of the racial divide.
The story of Dora the Explorer and preceding discussion is relevant to race relations in light of the George Zimmerman trial. The media and race merchants simply want the layperson to believe that white people are racist and think that black people are criminals. However, it is more complicated than that and must include view points from inside and outside the black community. The reason we need to understand both perspectives is because, at the heart of the matter, the Zimmerman-Martin altercation centers on the symbolism of the hoodie. Within the black community, the response was a glorification of the hoodie as a symbol of cultural identity. From outside the black community, the hoodie is a symbol of gangs, criminals, and thugs. Those selling racial animosity do not want both perspectives because it undermines the notion that the black community is above self evaluation. Contrary to this, there are those in the black community that understand that their culture is being hijacked by the glorification of a criminal element via rap music’s “thug life” persona.
When dealing with race relations, we have to understand that there will be a degree of tension among different people based on a psychology of associative thinking. Both parties will have their own perceptions that they bring to the table and we can’t address the grievances of one party by ignoring the other party. To move the needle on race relations, we need an honest and open dialogue that acknowledges the psychology of association. Using race to impugn the adversary and shut down the dialogue will never be productive.
That’s where I stand. If I haven’t offended you, then I haven’t tried hard enough.