Our class discussions so far, and especially today’s analyzation of Whitman’s “Pioneers,” have called to mind one of the first concepts I learned about in high school psychology class. My textbook pondered the human tendency to associate oneself with a successful group while distancing oneself from a failure. When a local sports team wins a championship, for example, the fans talk about the victory as if they themselves had a hand in it – “We absolutely crushed them!” – but while when facing a loss, the pronouns become very different – “They completely botched it,” “They did so badly in the second half.” This subconscious language switch is internalized in-grouping and out-grouping at the most basic human level. We want to associate ourselves with success.
Creating a “we” and “them” mentality is, in my opinion, the very basis of racism, along with basically all other conflict in the world. Thinking about our tendencies toward association have made me question my entire worldview – which, the further I get in my college career, I am realizing is extremely ethnocentric. As I was discussing with friends over lunch the other day, I never learned about African history in high school; nor did I study South American history or the vast majority of Asian history. Even here at Vanderbilt, learning about these subjects require one to sign up for a specialized class. I was able to take World History in high school, and even this class only really touched upon each region’s own actual history, giving a hastened overview, with the main focus aimed toward the importance of the region in relation to us Westerners (e.g. the amount of time spent discussing Chinese inventions that Marco Polo brought back to Europe dominated the unit far beyond any study of early Chinese culture, dynasties, or warfare).
The danger of seeing our world through this Western lens, comparing all cultures to our own rather than appreciating each as a separate entity, is that we have a narrow-minded idea of success. We see civilizations, technology, and democracy as signs of achievement, which, in turn, forces us to see anything different as signs of failure – and, therefore, otherness which we should not be associated with. While I particularly enjoy the civilization we have built, I am finding it ever important to keep in mind that the still-isolated tribes in Papua New Guinea whom we look upon as “savages,” as well as the hijab-wearing women in Lebanon whom we assume to be “oppressed,” may see us in an undesirable light as well.
It is a utopian dream, but I can’t help but imagine how our society would look today if this ethnocentric worldview never arose to such prominence – if we never had Thomas Jefferson discussing all of the ways in which blacks differ from whites (any difference assuming a failure of the race) and ranking them as above apes but below natives. I question if “whiteness” would exist had our ancestors approached difference with curiosity, and not wariness, judgment, and comparison.