Another history lesson

“Biologically, there are not different races. Despite our differences, there is only one human race.” Once, when I said that in history class, one of my students asked, “Then why do we call problems between different groups ‘racism’?” My answer, to the best I can recall, was that imagined racial differences reinforce these problems. The core statement remains true: DNA studies confirm what interfertility had already demonstrated—all humans are related. We are all of one common race.

Humans have spread out, though, to inhabit every environmental niche in the planet. Humans live in polar climates where it is nearly always winter, and they live in tropical climates where it is always summer. Humans live in deserts where it never rains and in forests where it rains nearly every day. Humans live high on mountains and along the seashore. Humans live in river valleys and in grasslands far from flowing water. Humans have adapted to every climate and every environment on the planet. We have found food to support us wherever we live. We have developed tools to adapt our environment, making it friendlier and more survivable. In more recent times, we have learned to travel from place to place, to network with other cultures, to communicate across various barriers, and to exchange the raw materials and the created artifacts of our various groups.

Human interaction has not always been pleasant or peaceful. People have fought wars over natural resources. People have fought over land and territory. People have fought over ideas—religious ideas, economic ideas, and political ideas. People have enslaved their neighbors and have captured neighbors to sell into slavery. People have clung to excess food while their neighbors starved. People have used violence and starvation and disease to control other people. People have used our difference in appearance, in language, and in ideas and cultures as excuses to mistreat one another, excuses to treat other groups of people as something less than human.

By any label (racism, bigotry, prejudice, greed, hatred), these problems are not quickly and easily solved. Some claim to be colorblind, to treat all people the same. Others rise above both bigotry and colorblindness to celebrate their own cultural heritage and also to be curious about the cultural heritage of their neighbors. Some people perpetuate stereotypes based on debunked racial theories—either claiming that one group is inherently better than another, or else claiming that past abuses of one group over another are the only reason for present problems and require redistribution of wealth, property, and power.

History, like science, tends to be misused by groups seeking to maintain power over others and by groups seeking to gain power over others. The value of history is that it shows some constant themes that we can resist futilely or that we can observe, planning to adapt productively. People move from place to place. They seek better lives for themselves—freedom from violence, more available food, more opportunities to improve their lives and those of their children, better laws, better governments, more freedom. When migrants are hated, despised, and resisted, they do not go away—they become more stubborn in their attempts to find a better life, while also clinging more strongly to their cultural traditions and beliefs. When migrants are welcomed and incorporated, they do not take over—they become more interested in the traditions and beliefs of the culture to which they have been added.

The Law of Moses required compassion and aid for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger (the outsider, the migrant). Jesus Christ affirmed these values, teaching his followers to love one another, to love their neighbors, to help even the Samaritan, the Roman centurion, the Canaanite woman who begged for crumbs from the Master’s table. When we love our neighbors, we do not tolerate lawlessness, violence, or hatred from those neighbors. But, when we love our neighbors, we learn about their ways and we teach them our ways. With today’s rapid transportation, instant communication, and widely available information about the world’s cultures, we learn easily about others. And we find opportunities to be helpful to those who need our help. Instead of keeping our culture pure by driving away the stranger, we perpetuate our culture by sharing it with the stranger. History teaches that this is the best procedure to follow. J.

6 thoughts on “Another history lesson

  1. “Some claim to be colorblind, to treat all people the same. Others rise above both bigotry and colorblindness to celebrate their own cultural heritage and also to be curious about the cultural heritage of their neighbors.”

    I don’t see why one cannot be colorblind and curious about other cultures at the same time. After all, “race” or skin color has nothing to do with culture.
    I was born to Greek parents in Greece but I grew up outside of Hellas. During my last visit to Athens I met a black guy who played and sang Greek songs. He spoke better Greek than me and in his mentality and behaviour he did not differ one bit from any other Greek. I would say that this guy was more Greek than I ever could be.

    “Race” and skin color are genetically inherited. Culture has to be learned.

    Liked by 1 person

    • In theory, I completely agree. In practice, a lot of people who claim to be “colorblind” overlook cultural features in their well-intended effort to treat all people the same (“since there is only one human race”). Some of those cultural features are valuable, worthy of being celebrated, which is why I take the approach you see in this post. Thank you for your comment. J.

      Like

  2. “When migrants are welcomed and incorporated, they do not take over—they become more interested in the traditions and beliefs of the culture to which they have been added.”
    J, this has been true historically but there are protesting groups who are making me doubt that that is now the goal of many. I do not like to see groups protesting against the USA while waving their mother countries flag. Of course you introduce your statement with “when migrants are welcomed and incorporated;” that does make a difference. I think legal migrants are generally welcomed and do incorporate. Speaking English is a big factor in that procedure.

    Liked by 1 person

    • As always, give and take is needed on both sides. We should not tolerate active opposition to our country and its values on the part of those who say they want to live here. At the same time, we make it easier for them to love the USA when we are good neighbors, caring about them and not only about ourselves. J.

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s