Huffpost Canada Living ca
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Diane Weber Bederman Headshot

Is Racism Actually a Fear of the Unknown?

Posted: Updated:

When our ancestors first stepped forth out of the cave to explore and to hunt, they faced many frightening moments, especially when they would come upon a lion, a large and carnivorous animal. Would the hunter be the predator or the prey? We know from neuroscience that our ancestor would have an immediate physiological response: his heart rate would go up; his breathing would become more laboured; his intestines would clench; hormones would be shooting through his body and adrenalin would be flowing. His body would be preparing for fight or flight. He is physically prepared for battle -- for his life and food for his family.

This is the automatic, unconscious physiological response of the body to particular experiences-like fear. Dr. Herbert Benson, cardiologist and Associate Professor of Medicine at Harvard University, author of Timeless Healing, noted that in the brain there is a, "complex system in which patterns of nerve cell activation are created and stored, and in which life experiences mingle with genetics, constantly shifting the cellular pathways and determine all our thoughts, movements, feelings and functions."

Jill Bolte Taylor, neuroanatomist author of My Stroke of Insight explained that the physiological response to an event like walking out of a cave and unexpectedly coming across a lion takes about 90 seconds. "Although there are certain limbic system (emotional) programmes that can be triggered automatically, it takes less than 90 seconds for one of these programmes to be triggered, surge through our body, and then be completely flushed out of our bloodstream." She suggests that we wait those 90 seconds before responding to the fear or anxiety triggered by the event, I suppose, that is, unless it was triggered by a lion at your front door.

You walk into a store and the salesperson is a different colour, a woman wearing a hijab, a young man with piercings and tattoos. You walk into a room and realize that no one looks like you. A sense of anxiety sets in from the fight/flight response to fear. That instinctual response to fear begins because we instinctively fear the unknown -- be it a place, an event, a person. Fear of the other comes from deep within our cells, our DNA. It goes back to the cave when mistaking a foe for a friend could end your gene pool.

How will you respond to the "other, the stranger"? Will it be with fear? Violence? With disdain? These are the harbingers of racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, intolerance of others which come from deep within the brain, the amygdala, the reptilian brain. Or will your response be one of respect?

Our response will be based on how we have been taught to feel about the other. We are able to take a moment to think between the initial, instinctual response and our actions. There are those who have been taught to hate the other for being different. White supremacists teach hate of non-whites; anti-Semites teach hate of Jews, and religious fundamentalists teach hate of homosexuals. And then there are those who learned the Biblical teaching: "Thou shalt love your neighbour as thyself." This person may look different but is no different than me.

As Shakespeare wrote: "If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?"

Love of the other, care for the other was not in vogue before ethical monotheism. The idea of all being equal came from the teaching in the biblical book of Exodus: you will care for "the other, the stranger" because you were once a stranger in a strange land. One does not have to believe in God to believe in that teaching, but that's where it came from. It was revolutionary.

Today, care for the other is thought of as common sense. But it isn't. Not yet. We're still evolving. Look around you. There are many populations, today, who continue to be involved in sectarian fighting-tribal warfare, unable or unwilling to care for the other. They are stuck in the rut of fear of the other for no other reason than it is an "other."

It is our responsibility to teach goodness to our children. Yes, you are your brother's keeper; yes, you must care for the other, the stranger. If this lesson is taught long enough, it will become part of our DNA. Goodness will become the default position.

We can overcome our fear of the other, what I think of as a precursor to all the "isms," with practice. Mingle with the "other" often enough and the fear/anxiety switch won't trigger. One day you'll notice the presence of the absence of that niggling sense of anxiety because the "other" will now be just like you.

Until we all learn that we can and we must repress our ancestral fear of the other, there will not be peace on earth, goodwill toward others.