Race Matters

Editor’s Note: Race Matters is a new column which provides a nuanced take on race and its impact on the culture of the South Seattle area.

by Sam Louie, M.A., LMHC

Mark Cuban, owner of the NBA team Dallas Mavericks provoked controversy following his interview with Inc. Magazine regarding his views on race and culture.

“I mean, we’re all prejudiced in one way or another. If I see a black kid in a hoodie and it’s late at night, I’m walking to the other side of the street. And if on that side of the street, there’s a guy that has tattoos all over his face — white guy, bald head, tattoos everywhere — I’m walking back to the other side of the street. And the list goes on of stereotypes that we all live up to and are fearful of. So in my businesses, I try not to be hypocritical. I know that I’m not perfect. I know that I live in a glass house, and it’s not appropriate for me to throw stones.”

His comment comes after the NBA’s actions against Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling was caught on audiotape making racially charged comments.  The NBA banned Sterling for life and fined him 2.5 million dollars after he told a female friend, V. Stiviano, not to bring Black people to Clippers games.  Sterling is in the midst of having the NBA force him to sell his team as well.

Some have accused Cuban of being a bigot but I think this misses the point.  In the interview he adds, “While we all have our prejudices and bigotries, we have to learn that it’s an issue that we have to control.”  Control and how we handle our prejudices is the operative word here.  Just because Cuban has prejudices doesn’t make him racist.  Being aware of race, culture, context and the implications it poses to us personally is much more valuable than people ignoring the subject matter by hiding behind the veil of being blind to color when they say, “I don’t see color”.  What these people are implying is that their decisions and how they treat someone aren’t based on another person’s ethnicity, skin tone, or appearance.  I believe for the most part, Americans don’t discriminate in hiring practices, housing, and other significant racial issues, but when it comes to issues of socialization and our own personal comfort zone, we do discriminate and have our prejudices.

Despite our best attempts to not think about race, there will be times and situations where race, culture, image, and stereotypes form our decision-making.  I believe if we deny this part of ourselves, we deny our humanity.  We are at our core, primal creatures.  We make automatic decisions that are unconscious, reflexive, and based on our need for survival.

There’s an almond-shaped part of our brain in the temporal lobe, called the amygdala, that is hard-wired to any threat (real or imagined).  The amygdala, controls autonomic responses associated with fear, arousal, and emotional stimulation.  This is the “fight or flight” portion that we hear about and as much as we may want to turn this part off in the name of cultural sensitivity, the neurons that fire in this region are automatic and can’t be shut down.  Now I believe we can learn and grow in our sensitivity to threats but that takes much effort since what you perceive as a threat is based on your upbringing and as adults hard to change without significant work.

For example, I grew up in South Seattle and graduated from Rainier Beach high school.  I lived, played, and went to school with African-Americans for my formative years.  Consequently, in my adult life I gravitated towards Black journalists when I was working in t.v. news because I felt most comfortable around them.  This didn’t make me a racist but since I never knew or was surrounded by “middle-aged, white men” growing up (except teachers), I had no context of how I would be treated and hence saw white men as more threatening to my sense of security.  I remember at one point, my girlfriend at the time asked me, “Why do you only hang out with Black people from work?”  I got defensive because I wasn’t purposely ignoring White folks but had just gravitated towards African-Americans since I thought had more in common with them.

This same logic applies when I’m in other urban areas around the U.S.  I don’t have fear being in ethnic communities (i.e. Asian, Black, Latino, etc.) because there’s a certain familiarity I’m accustomed to.  However, if this isn’t your upbringing you’re going to feel uncomfortable, wary, and possibly scared or fearful.  The same applies to people who present a certain stereotypical image.  Whether it’s the stereotype of an Asian gang-banger, a White Supremacist, or a Black thug, I know for myself these images create different responses to me depending on the context.  In all the conversations and stories I hear about race, context is often left out.  Context is vital because context is what make the amygdala in the brain is searching for on a real, everyday, moment-by-moment level.

For example, if there’s a group of young White men with tattoos and shaved heads walking around South Seattle, I’d think they were lost and this wouldn’t trigger my amygdala as a source of threat.  Same thing if they were walking around downtown Bellevue.  However, if I’m in Coeur D’Alene, Idaho, a city close to the original headquarters of the Aryan Nations, and saw this same group walking down the street, my fight and flight response would be screaming at me.  I’d be foolish to ignore it.  This same response comes up when I see Asians who dress and look like gang members driving or hanging around South Seattle.  I am vigilant not to look at them in any way that could be misconstrued to provoke them.  Am I being racist?  I don’t think so because based on the context, it’s simply my sympathetic nervous going into autopilot.

I will acknowledge there are times when clients I work with have undergone significant childhood stressors and threats to safety (i.e. consistently getting bullied, beat-up, teased, etc.) that in adulthood they remain in a hyper-aroused state of fight or flight around men of any ethnicity.  Even if the perpetrators were of one race, the level trauma can be so damaging that any man, regardless of race, is seen as a threat.  The same level of trauma happens to women who are raped.  If race was a role then there may be extra sensitivity to the offender’s race but the damage can be so encompassing that the women don’t discriminate on race per se but the entire male gender could be seen as a threat.
Issues of race need to be further explored instead of simply compartmentalized or having people ostracized for their views.  Honest discussion, openness, education, and socialization can break down our preconceived notions of those we know little of or know only through caricatures or stereotypes.  It behooves us all to know where we fall on the continuum of prejudice, racism, and bigotry.

Sam Louie is an Asian-American psychotherapist with a private practice in Seattle and Bellevue.  He focuses on issues of culture, race, and addictions.  He is also an Emmy-Award Winning former t.v. news journalist and can be reached at: www.samlouiemft.com. sam@samlouiemft.com and on Twitter @SamLouieSpeaks  Sam Louie

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