Does Genetic Memory Play A Role in Modern Day Prejudices?
By Katherine Fry, CEO/President Mediafy Communications Group
When Lisa Halaby married King Hussein of Jordan, she envisioned turning Jordan into a cradle of democracy. A bright-eyed idealist, she used pillow-talk to encourage her husband to launch democratic elections in the kingdom where he held absolute power. She fought hard to embolden women to run for parliament and put behind them her full support. In fact, she indicated, anyone with the desire to better their country could run for office. She encouraged minorities, the poor, anyone with an interest, to step up and make their case for bettering the Hashemite Kingdom. On election day, Lisa Halaby, now known as Queen Noor, waited anxiously for the results of the elections for which she had so dearly campaigned. When the results arrived, she could hardly believe her ears as the courtiers informed her that only approximately 1.5% of the population exercised their right to vote. The polling places remained largely empty throughout the day, with the Jordanian populous almost entirely disinterested in the historic elections occurring. Over the years, this Jordanian statistic has changed very little, to the great disappointment of leaders in Parliament.
Jordan is occupied by clans, encompassed by tribes, who have inhabited the area for millennia. Each clan has a leader, and within those clans are tribes with individual leaders. These leadership positions are largely inherited. There are no elections, as these traditions are intimately intertwined within their culture. The reality is, Jordan is a country created by Great Britain in 1921. For most of the people in Jordan, and for that matter, the entire Middle East, clan and tribal leaders have the largest impact on people’s day to day lives-not a parliamentary leader in a distant city, from a family no one has heard of, and with causes not reflective of their own. The fact of the matter is, the country of Jordan represents a creation for its citizens, but their clan and tribe are very real. The inhabitants of Jordan rely on their tribes for safety, food, and other goods. Real decision making is largely made on the clan and tribal levels, such as business deals, marriages, and alliances. Clan and tribal loyalties comprise the bedrock of one’s existence, and betraying one’s tribe is the most egregious of sins, often resulting in death. Clan leaders arrange marriages within the tribes, allowing for some genetic diversity, but still retaining the familiar culture, religion, and customs. These generational patterns have resulted in different tribes having certain physical characteristics, that indicate their membership without having to say a word. Tribal members have come to expect and to rely on these characteristics when encountering tribal members outside of their safety zones. Members expect safety within their tribes, but on the outside, they expect violence and/or death.
In the Western World, it can be argued that we follow similar patterns of clan and tribal behavior. We all have surnames that denote our clans. Furthermore, many of us belong to churches, that denote our tribes. For those of us who do not attend church, we often ally ourselves with others who share a similar disbelief in God or organized religion, coming together at sci-fi conventions, pot-lucks, and other similar events. New forms of tribalism are coming into play in the form of online meetup groups, focused around similar interests, such as the love of the outdoors.
This way of thinking leads me to ask, has clan loyalty, and its long-term effect on our DNA, contributed to the racism we know of today? Is racism ingrained in our DNA? One can argue, that to a certain extent, it is. We exist today because of the impact clans had on us in the past, including the protections they offered, as well as marital and trade alliances they made. While we may live in a somewhat different world today, elements of this way of life still exist and raise their ugly head in what we now call racism. Put more simply, birds of a feather flock together. We seem inherently more comfortable around people who look like us, talk like us, and believe like us. Nothing is more telling than during the filming of “The Planet of the Apes,” the actors, all dressed in animal costumes, segregated one another according to the breed of animal they portrayed. The film’s producers noted this irony, and it has since been referenced in various anthropological studies. Behind closed doors, people with similar beliefs mock those with other beliefs, as do people with one skin color, sometimes mock those of other skin colors.
“Clan loyalty,” affects social, economic, and marital patterns, similar to those of days past. For example, interracial and interfaith marriages are often considered controversial. A few years ago a family member asked me, in a threatening manner, if I had ever dated a black guy. When I answered, no, he responded with, “Well good, because if I ever caught you with one, I would kill you both.” Similarly, when a member of the Episcopal Church I attended married a person of the Jewish faith, a member of my family stated, “The fact that she did that is symptomatic of the weakness of our church. We just never did enough for our youth.”
What are the solutions for creating a more diverse society? And what are the solutions for overcoming prejudices that are, very possibly, ingrained in our DNA? As a society, we have worked hard to desegregate the schools, eliminate red-lining when offering home-loans, and to rid our language of racist verbiage. Yet still, when we are walking down a city street, encountering people who do not look like us, our reaction is often fear, anger, and distrust. How do we change something that, at times, perhaps contributes to keeping us alive, but then, at other times, hurts people around us for really no reason other than the fact that we have pre-judged them?
One solution for creating a more diverse society is “exposure.” In therapy, “exposure” is known as “therapy to treat anxiety disorders. Exposure therapy involves exposing the target patient to the anxiety source or its context without the intention to cause any danger. Doing so is thought to help them overcome their anxiety or distress.“ (1) Quite simply, by exposing people of different skin colors, religions, and cultures to one another, their distress and/or prejudices they feel toward one another may ultimately lessen and perhaps even disappear. Exposure occurs mostly in the workplace, where employers base their hiring strategies on skill sets and talents, rather than religion, family name, or race. As a result, the American workplace has become, in many cases, a hub for genetic and cultural diversity. Employees eat together, socialize together, and have been known to marry one another. All of this flies in the face of a traditional clan and tribe loyalty, leading to what many are calling a “new America.”
When Queen Noor married King Hussein in 1978, she embraced the history of Jordan, but sought to change its future. What she learned, however, is that the clans and tribes are what rule Jordan, and her husband comprised their tribal head. Jordanians are truly ruled by their clan and their tribe. In many ways, America is the same, but one can argue that the conflicts occurring within our society display that we are trying to change. It can be asserted that the best way to overcome one’s own prejudices is exposure to different types of people and cultures. This exposure is actually occurring in the American workplace. Despite the strides made in overcoming racism in America, we remain a deeply conflicted society. While looking toward the future with idealism, we often are plagued by the genetic memory of our past. While espousing equality and freedom, we often still associate with and marry individuals who look, talk, and believe the same things we do. While many of us continue to evolve into better people, we are often plagued by incidences of the past, which perhaps do not portray the people we are today. For example, the Governor of Virginia is being asked to resign because of a yearbook picture, taken of him in “blackface” in 1984. Is this picture, taken nearly 35 years ago, indicative of who he is today? We are a society on the helm of leaving our clan and tribal past behind, yet still fighting to embrace it. Where will the future lead us? Only time will tell.