A new study correlates racism with reduced creative capacity. Those holding strong prejudices, such as beliefs that inferiority is an essential quality of other races, rely on “rigid, categorical thinking” that “might actually cause people to become unimaginative.”
I could have told them that.
Back in the 80s, I was involved in a consulting project with the South Carolina Arts Commission. The brief was to address “burnout” in small-town arts organizers, who’d tended to lose heart and retreat despite the state agency’s willingness to provide more than a modicum of funding and assistance. But “burnout” turned out to be a euphemism for banging one’s head against entrenched and often unacknowledged racism.
I’d encountered racism before, obviously, intersecting with all kinds of people who held invidious ideas about other races, religions, genders, and so on. I’d felt some of the consequences of prejudice in my own life. But I’d never before spent time in a community founded on deep, legal segregation, one that had resisted a decade or more of integration orders—and when finally forced to integrate public facilities, closed almost all of them down: restaurants, movie theaters, swimming pools, and so on.
The way one engages the residents of a small town in thinking about cultural life is by talking to people one-to-one for awhile, asking each of them whom else to approach, and at a strategic point, bringing people together for a conversation. You ask questions: Who lives here? What’s the best thing about living here? The most challenging? What do people do in their free time? How are the schools?
The communities with the deepest residue of segregation were majority African American, often by a large margin. I knew the numbers from Census figures, but asked about population anyway, just to learn how people saw their immediate reality. Almost always, longtime white residents turned the numbers on their heads, estimating 70 percent white and 30 percent black, when in fact the official figures were reversed. Their prejudice and its consequences for their powers of perception meant they couldn’t open their minds enough to count the many black residents who appeared to them as an undifferentiated mass—a category—rather than individuals.
At community meetings, I’d invite residents to envisage their towns in future. How would they like to see things change? Again, the white residents who had resisted desegration for so long had difficulty summoning any imagination of a future different from the past. Their mental processes were constrained by a series of prohibitions: if you can’t permit yourself to imagine the person sitting next to you as a friend, lover, boss, family member, and so on, your vision narrows.
The people who jumped in with creative ideas were either African American or white newcomers from different cultural climates. I remember one meeting where an older woman, the former principal of the black high school, spoke up for activities that would engage “a-a-a-a-lll the people,” stretching the word to encompass a multitude of meanings. As soon as she paused for breath, a longtime white resident of about the same age replied. “No-o-o-o-body wants that,” he said, attempting to eradicate her words with his own.
Racism damages its targets most of all, limiting liberty, safety, livelihood, and inclusion. But it also harms the racist, shrinking the creativity capacity intrinsic to being human, generating a type of brain-damage.
I’m always glad when scientific research ratifies lived knowledge. Some people don’t believe things that haven’t been lab-tested and quantified. It’s even possible that some who have imbibed racist attitudes will start thinking about what they put into their brains, just as more and more people consider what they eat. That’s why I want truth to be available in as many different modes as possible. But these researchers went to to a lot of trouble to state the obvious. Truly, I could have saved them the effort. And believe me, I’m not the only one.
I’ve been strolling the beach this week listening to old playlists, a delicious pastime. This Alice Russell song came to me today as I was thinking about the knowing that comes from experience. “To Know This.”
Now I know this
I have learnt this
I know this, I am free