I’ve been writing about race and politics a lot recently. Now I’m going to reveal the reason: in the relatively recent past I had a very disturbing, novel, and unwelcome educational experience. For the first time in the fifty-five years of my life I found out what it was like to feel racist, from the inside.
I think I now understand the pathology behind racism better than I did before, and have some ideas about what is required to prevent and cure it. And no, my prescription won’t be any of the idiotic nostrums normally peddled by self-described “anti-racists”; in fact what I have to say is likely to offend most of them – which I don’t mind a bit.
I’m going to obscure most of the details for reasons that I think will become clear as I write about this. I will say that the racial minority involved was one not commonly encountered in the U.S., and in particular not descendants of sub-Saharan Africans or any group much related to them. It is relevant that this minority X has facial features and skin tone quite unlike Europeans.
I was near surrounded by these people, for the first time in my life, at a sort of ethnic-pride gathering which I was attending for reasons not relevant to this essay. And found myself experiencing disgust. Not anger, not hatred, but a visceral feeling of revulsion similar to being exposed to sewage or rotten food.
Something in my hindbrain was pushing me hard in a direction perhaps best verbalized as “these people are greasy, filthy monkeys and I despise them and I loathe them”.
But. I’m an experimental mystic. I’ve been accustomed for decades to the knowledge that, often, thoughts and feelings that present themselves in my phenomenological field are generated by what Robert Anton Wilson called “the Robot” – eruptions of the instinct machine that underlies my consciousness. Sometimes I can notice these eruptions happening and not get caught up in them.
That happened this time. I was able to notice that, when paying attention with the top of my brain, I could not notice any rational reason for me to even dislike these people, let alone feel disgusted and revolted by them. I began to analyze my revulsion as though it were a specimen on a laboratory slide – because when you’re an experimental mystic and your exercises include killing the Buddha, that’s what you do in this kind of situation.
So let’s start eliminating hypotheses…
No member of minority X has ever individually done me any harm. Nor are they any sort of social problem in the U.S. – they’re not conspicuously prone to crime or welfare dependency, and they’ve never developed the habit of whining for privileged treatment.
Minority X does have some tendency to hang out in lower socioeconomic strata, and if forced to it I’d guess they’re at a bit of a mean-IQ disadvantage relative to the American average. But there are lots of other minority groups, of which those things could be said far more strongly, that I’ve never felt viscerally revolted by.
Now I’m going to explain my feelings about black people; bear with me, this is analytically relevant. The most important point is that black people in particular have never made me feel repelled in the way minority X does. I’ve had black girlfriends and might not implausibly have ended up married to one of them, whereas I cannot easily imagine circumstances under which I would be sexually attracted to a minority X woman; my “ick” reaction would be too strong.
Scrupulous honesty requires me to report here that there is a small subset of blacks to which I do have a twitchy hindbrain reaction something like “Animal; unsafe; avoid.” But I’ve noticed that blacks outside this subset have that reaction too. so I’m probably not reacting to “race” in this respect. It may be related that I perceive a lot more variety among blacks than I do among minority X.
Now the uncomfortable part: by any objective measure, blacks as a group are a problem of a kind minority X is not. Lower mean IQ, more crime and violence, more welfare dependency, lots of whining for privileges, etcetera etcetera. And I have had the experience of feeling like I was in physical danger when isolated with a group of black people (just once, on a night train in New Jersey, but that once was more than enough).
So, if feelings of racial revulsion are in general driven by some sort of tribal or individual threat perception (I asked myself), why didn’t I have a similar response a lot sooner with respect to blacks? Can’t have been familiarity from childhood exposure; I grew up in places, mostly outside the U.S., were there weren’t any black people. Didn’t meet one until my mid-teens.
OK, so it looks like we can discard sociological theories and rational threat responses. What else could be going on here?
To find that out, I started paying closer attention to my sensory experiences and gut reactions as I dealt with this group. Which individuals bothered me less, which more. And in what specific ways.
It only took a few minutes of this for me to identify specific sensory stimuli that were triggering my feelings of revulsion. I’m not going to describe the specific stimuli in detail because I really don’t want anybody to be able to figure out which minority is X. But I can identify three specific triggers.
One was: their skin color looks fecal. The other was: their bone structure doesn’t look human. And they’re just off-reference enough to be much more creepy than if they looked less like people, like bad CGI or shambling undead in a B movie. When I paid close enough attention, these were the three basic data under the revulsion; my hindbrain thought it was surrounded by alien shit zombies.
My forebrain, meanwhile, was all like “What is up with you, hindbrain?” Apparently my human-recognition template needed some updating.
The pressure on me eased a bit when I realized that what I was experiencing was a really severe case of Uncanny Valley reaction, and that more exposure to minority X might well stretch my template to the point where they didn’t seem so creepily repulsive any more.
One of the many, many things I learned from Robert Heinlein is encapsulated in this quite from Assignment In Eternity: “Man is not a rational animal, he is a rationalizing animal.” Most people, most of the time, construct theory to justify their gut feelings rather than actually reasoning from facts. If you do reliably reason from facts – and can continue reasoning even when you are angry, tired, upset, or feel threatened, then you are the homo novus of that story, and it is up to you to save the world for your less able human kin.
That story influenced my thinking a lot as a child and young man. And I am proud to say that this time, at least, I was homo novus. I didn’t let my Robot run me. I kept analyzing until I was able to isolate and identify the glitch in my wetware, and I coped. Thank you, RAH.
But…what if I hadn’t been so self-aware?
If I hadn’t been training myself in applied rationality and experimental mysticism so hard for so long, I might very well have rationalized. That is, unthinkingly accepted that revulsion experience against minority X as part of me and then begun to construct justifications around it. Like, reaching to invent reasons to hate minority X.
I now think this is how racism colonizes peoples’ brains (or one major way it happens, anyhow; I can’t rule out the possibility of other vectors). People fall into the Uncanny Valley reaction, don’t realize they have a wetware glitch, and then accrete layers of rationalization and hatred around that reaction. It’s much like the way primary mystical experiences make people vulnerable to capture by insane religions.
Now we get to the part where I piss off the “anti-racist” crowd.
We actually have an implicit cultural prescription for dealing with circumstances like this. It begins with feeling guilty. What you’re supposed to do, especially if you’re white, is transvaluate that revulsion into a sense of mortal sin, then expiate it with huge amounts of compensatory behavior like canonizing Trayvon Martin and hating anybody who even questions affirmative action, minority set-asides, or any other feature of our government-mandated racial spoils system.
But this is exactly backwards. The last thing you ought to do with feelings of irrational revulsion, whether directed at racial groups or anything else, is emotionally entangle yourself with them and assign extra importance to the memories that involve them. Doing that just invites additional self-damage to no good purpose. It’s what a Buddhist would call akusala, usually translated as “unskillful” or “unwholesome”.
Better to solve the problem by understanding what is really going on. Your brain is a pile of kluges messily wired together by evolutionary selection. As hard as you try to be rational, it’s going to glitch on you sometimes. When it does that, the right thing to do is notice that you are not the Robot and the glitch is not you.
I’m not saying guilt is entirely useless. It can be a valuable form of self-regulation when you make a conscious decision that causes unnecessary harm. But that’s not what we’re talking about here; you don’t decide to experience weird apparently-sourceless revulsions against some minority X, it’s just a thing that happens when the dice come up snake-eyes. You’re responsible – and guilty – only if you let the Robot run you.
For preventing visceral racism, and all the nasty things that flow from it, what we need to do is simple: be sane and be self-aware. I mentioned “akusala” for a reason; this is the kind of problem where guilt doesn’t help, but some grasp on the Buddhist psychology of non-attachment does.