In 1974, I was learning group therapy during my psychiatric residency at Duke University. My teacher, Bob Phillips, said something complimentary to me about a piece of work I did, which he immediately followed with a surprised “What did I say?!”
Bob had seen a look on my face which, if looks could kill, he would have been dead.
That curious incident was what we in psychiatry call “an old tape,” referring to something traumatic or otherwise eventful from our history that continues to have impact on our present. Bob, being genuinely complimentary, had used a word that had an ancient negative history for me.
That memory came back to me when one of the Democratic candidates for president was asked whether there was only one person of color left in the debate (Andrew Yang) meant that Democrats were already slipping in representing diversity. The candidate responded yes, it was really important that the Democrats had more diversity on their team and needed more people of color.
I thought about how I would have answered the question, and how I probably would have gotten my head handed to me. I would have said, “Yes diversity is great and we have diversity on the stage. I myself am from Africa, as we all are, because that’s where homo sapiens, our species originated about 300,000 years ago. As to color? Color is literally skin deep. Geneticists have proven that the concept of ‘race’ is a fiction.”
I would have gone on to say, “This insistence in thinking about black teams and Asian teams and Hispanic teams just furthers the evils of tribalism, and if we want to solve climate change that threatens all of us, we cannot afford that kind of tribalism.”
So why would I get my head handed to me? Two reasons, both dealing with old tapes.
1) Some people really like their tribes and are either angry or fearful about losing them. 2) Throughout history, evil people have used well-sounding words to demean or destroy, resulting in people really being victimized.
For example, in 1848, Frederick Douglass, was one of the first male supporters of women’s suffrage, and had a close relationship with women’s rights leader, Susan B. Anthony. But in 1869 they had a falling out over the 15th Amendment giving black men the vote. Their falling out occurred because each carried “old tapes” of being victimized – Douglass from slavery, and Anthony from women being treated as second class. Both of their victim positions were justified, but instead of using that commonality to band together, each diminished the other’s cause.
Old tapes from a more modern vintage came out of Richard Nixon’s Southern strategy in 1972. As the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act of the 1960s were already passed, it was no longer OK to appeal to racist instincts through shouts of “N-----!” Instead there was talk of “color blindness,” which sounds great, but played into the usual Jim Crow strategies, for example, “Now that we’re all color blind, we don’t need ‘affirmative action,’ do we?” utterly ignoring the fact of white affirmative action for centuries and the need to do something to partially level the playing field. Thus, a good term like “color blindness” got a bad reputation where even in such a scholarly, wise work like “Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice that Shapes What We See, Think, and Do,” author Jennifer Eberhardt encourages us to avoid the term.
Another recent trope is “globalist.” After the Holocaust, when it was no longer OK for anti-Semites to say “Dirty Jew” or some other epithet, the word “globalist” has been used to refer to Jewish people, implying that Jewish people don’t have any national loyalty to their country, and are tied to global banking systems, etc. Thus, when we have a global problem such as climate change that calls for a global solution, somehow globalist is a bad word. And then tribalism continues that hampers our efforts to act together.
So what to do? Honor or abolish? In my own case back in 1974, Bob Phillips did both. First he honored by questioning and listening to me, then helping me to see that any usefulness I had in my old tape was long gone. Now I feel the same way about people who self-identify as people of color. I honor the trauma, the history, the persecution, the second-class citizenship; I recognize the need for affirmative action and reparations. And then I say, let’s work together to find a way to decide that these feelings of second-class alienation have outlived their usefulness, and “E Pluribus Unum,” – We really are all one people. Let us act together.
Michael A. Kalm, M.D., Salt Lake City, is a psychiatrist in private practice.