KAMPALA – I wonder how inevitable grouping according to race is. In the Netflix series Orange is the New Black (2013), the female prison finds itself divided along lines that are racial and ageist, described by red lip-sticked lady with a lovely Brooklyn accent as “tribal” (and absolutely not racist): there are whites, blacks, hispanics or latinos, and elderly, and although people mix, there is a certain sense of home and familiarity within these tribes.
The theory of homophily states that birds of the same feather flock together. Essentially, this theory argues that one is more likely to like another if the other is in some way similar. Appearance is a quick and rather easy way of gauging similarity. It is a mental short cut people use, especially if they are under stress.
But of course, the tribes in Orange is the New Black are not merely appearance-based. There are language differences between said tribes, and perhaps one could even argue there are culture differences between them, too. The white Christian hillbillies, all with terrible, terrible teeth, also flock together.
Now, over time (I just binge watched the second season) people mix. But, the default and almost intuititive social structure is based on race. This sense of familiarity might be the same outside of prison. After all, cultural entities used to be relatively racially homogenuous, especially in Europe. During the nation-building in Europe in the Late Middle Ages, there was immigration and interaction across what are now borders, however, actual immigration on a massive scale never took place.
In the U.S., on the other hand, massive immigration did take place. And those groups of immigrants also stuck together: the Asians/Chinese, the Irish, the Italians, the Greek, the Mexicans. All of these groups were themselves relatively racially and culturally homogenuous (as in, they looked alike and they probably spoke the same or a similar language and had a similar cultural background) and became the new “tribes” in America.
Usually, over time, another effect kicks in. In Orange is the New Black, over time, our main character becomes good friends with Hispanics and Blacks, outside of her own white tribe. Interaction breeds understanding, and understanding makes people realise similarities between them and the Other who you used to be classified as non-similar. In addition, proximity is another major force in who you like. The people you have frequent interactions with, you like more. You obviously understand them better so you think you are more similar to them than you are to other people, you start being able to predict their behaviour making interactions with these people seem secure.
We have seen this in the cases of some immigrant/racial groups; the ones who “integrated”. Some never really did. In the case of Black people in the U.S., the divide became larger over time, with socio-economic class gaps drawn on the lines of race. The issue of proximity leading to increased interaction leading to understanding leading to increased perceived similarity becomes problematic when the presence of proximity is being reduced due to segregation, lawful (like in the 60s) and unlawful or social (as in segregated neighborhoods).
The famed Robbers cave experiment indicated that even when there are no differences, pretending that there are goes a long way. Arbitrarily grouped young boys, brought to Robbers Cave State Park created a collective identity out of nothing more than a team name. Two groups were created: the Eagles and the Rattlers. They fought with the each other over scarce resources and engaged in the in- versus outgroup thinking wherein you ascribe positive characteristics to your own group and negative to the other group. We are courageous, and brave, and honest, and trustworthy. They are cowards, idiots, and dishonest liars.
Towards the end of the experiment, the researchers succesfully unified the two groups again by creating a scenario in which teamwork and forced interaction took place. The interaction did not really help. The boys watched a movie together, and ate together, but always ended up fighting. Clearly, proximity and interaction was not going to create understanding. Intergroup interaction involving superordinate goals did, however. If the group were confronted with a challenge they could only solve by working together, they would do so.
Sherif, who ran the experiment, concluded that:
cooperation between groups necessitated by series of situations embodying superordinate goals will have a cumulative effect in the diretion of reducation of existing tension between groups
In Orange is the New Black, a sense of shared fate brought people closer together, outside of their tribes. In fact, the female prison is really like a social experiment, just a very violent one. They discovered that the projected negative characteristics they cast over the other tribes was not as accurate as they thought.
Thing is, we cannot create superordinate goals in society out of thin air. We can point out the existing problems that demand superordinate collective action, and take it from there. I wonder what it will do for racism if people were forced out of their tribe because the means of their small world were inadequate.