An Observation of Ignorance, Racism and Social Divisiveness

Drawing false superiority from fear and isolationism.

Posted Jan 10, 2020

"No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as any manner of thy friends or of thine own were; any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore, never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."

123RF/2491264
Source: 123RF/2491264

John Donne’s meditation on death, an excerpt from his Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, speaks less to death and more to community. It is an admonition against isolationism, framing the human condition in terms of countries and territories, making clear the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

In an era increasingly fractured by race, creed, color, gender politics, personal politics, and social standing, the verse is fair warning, which, 400 years after it was penned, still holds weight and solace for those of us who would see us—all of us—as equals, rather than divided.

The Increasing Social Divide

I rarely write here from a personal viewpoint, but, rather than natter on about the psychology of tribalism and social segregation, I wanted to share a personal story; for it is stories, after all, that bind us more than anything.

Recently, I was at the grocery store. Upon leaving, I went to the self-checkout, which is typical. I was in a rush and, when I reached for the screen, I touched the Spanish, rather than English, prompt. The process of checking out is rote, so the machine talking to me in Spanish wasn’t really a problem. I ignored the prompts and I just walked through it. As I was finishing my purchase, the man who had been checking out next to me—an older, white male—walked past me and said, “Go back to your f*cking country, wetback.”

Let’s add some context, shall we? Along with being an American citizen, I am also second-generation Sicilian, which means I’m a mutt. Historically, Sicily is one of the most conquered and occupied territories in the Mediterranean, because of its strategic value. My mother, Adelina, was delicately petite—barely five feet tall—with skin as fair as any Irishwoman you’ll ever meet, glittering green eyes and curly, auburn hair. My father, Valeris, by contrast, was tall and rawboned. Hard, lean muscle matched with dark skin, piercing blue eyes to rival any Viking and thick, wavy black hair. I land in the middle—small in stature, but broad, with lean, heavy muscle alluding to my North African heritage—olive skin, hazel eyes tending toward gold and thick, chestnut hair. Truth be told, in my middle years, my eyes are rheumy from too much screen time, my hair is thinning, and my goatee is shot through with grey, but that is a tale for another time.

Ethnically, I’ve been mistaken for many things in my lifetime, especially during my many years in New York City—Jewish, Lebanese, Egyptian, Berber (North African), Basque (Spanish/French)—and, now, apparently, Mexican. I have typically met those mischaracterizations with good-natured humor, guilty of more than once falling back on ethnic stereotypes (“Leave the gun, take the cannoli”) to make my point, but this experience was different. It wasn’t a mistake, it was a deliberate attack—unbridled, unprovoked, and unexpected.

My first reaction was, indeed, a reaction. My ego defenses kicked in and I took offense, preparing, within the context of the empathy gap, a "hot moment" response, full of ire and vitriol. Then I stopped myself, for two reasons. First, I asked myself what kind of pain must this man be in—how fearful and disenfranchised must he feel—to pull a passive-aggressive, drive-by tort on a complete stranger? Secondly, and in some ways more importantly, in potentially defending myself against being called a “f*cking…wetback,” I would have been, in my vehement denial of association, no less the culprit in undermining the ethnicity connected to this man’s characterization, no matter how negative.

Even more important was the revelation around how someone who might actually be of Hispanic descent might feel in that moment. Here I am, just a man buying groceries to feed himself or his family, and I am met with an unprovoked public attack. I might be a day laborer, a dentist, a dishwasher in a restaurant or, in the case of my friend Alejandro, a gourmet chef who owns the restaurant but still busses tables, washes dishes, and gets behind the bar. The thing is it should not matter—the playing field is always level. The problem is—in our increasingly divided culture, both here and abroad—it has come to matter.

Fear, Power, and Control

Just about any "-ism" we can come up with—sexism, classism, elitism, ethnism, genderism and, of course, racism—is grounded in two things: fear and power—or, more properly, power and control. The fear side of things is about perceived loss, or the potential that someone will take what we believe we possess. There is a certain amount of legitimacy in this because, at its heart, we’re talking about territoriality, which is instinctive. For example, quite recently, a friend of mine literally had to defend his suburban home against a pack of coyotes, because they perceived his dogs—who were fenced in and no genuine threat—as encroaching on their territory. None of the coyotes were harmed, by the way—just run off.

As humans, we take territoriality and threat response to an entirely different level, literally willing to kill each other over a parking space or the latest trendy toy. Take the notion one step further, and we revisit my grocery store experience. I don’t know this man. I am not taking anything from him. I am not even remotely in his space. Yet, he perceives me as a threat—and there it is: he perceives me as a threat. Circling back to the coyotes, he perceives me as in his space, as he defines it, and, apparently feeling threatened, reacts with misplaced and unwarranted aggression.

Bridging the Divide

That kind of misplaced aggression is about power and control and is at the heart of our current climate of divisiveness. We minimize perceived threats—or, more properly, our fears—by trying to control them, when, in fact, we control nothing—not territory, not possessions, not people, places or things. Our power does not come from holding on to our fears and attempting to wrestle them to the ground. It comes from letting go, accepting, and allowing, not only for ourselves but for others.

The late spiritual teacher, Ram Dass, said: "The most exquisite paradox...as soon as you give it all up, you can have it all. As long as you want power, you can't have it. The minute you don't want power, you'll have more than you ever dreamed possible."

The "it" to which Baba Dass refers is the pain of the man in our story and the perceived threat that ensues for him. The lesson here is that the playing field is always level and we are all just walking each other home. When that ethos, rather than our current climate of tribal divisiveness, prevails, we will have found a place to begin.

© 2020 Michael J. Formica, All Rights Reserved