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Sunday, March 05, 2017

What Biracial People Know - The New York Times





"After the nation’s first black president, we now have a white president with the whitest and malest cabinet since Ronald Reagan’s. His administration immediately made it a priority to deport undocumented immigrants and to deny people from certain Muslim-majority nations entry into the United States, decisions that caused tremendous blowback.



What President Trump doesn’t seem to have considered is that diversity doesn’t just sound nice, it has tangible value. Social scientists find that homogeneous groups like his cabinet can be less creative and insightful than diverse ones. They are more prone to groupthink and less likely to question faulty assumptions.



What’s true of groups is also true for individuals. A small but growing body of research suggests that multiracial people are more open-minded and creative. Here, it’s worth remembering that Barack Obama, son of a Kenyan father and a white Kansan mother, wasn’t only the nation’s first black president, he was also its first biracial president. His multitudinous self was, I like to think, part of what made him great — part of what inspired him when he proclaimed that there wasn’t a red or blue America, but a United States of America.



As a multiethnic person myself — the son of a Jewish dad of Eastern European descent and a Puerto Rican mom — I can attest that being mixed makes it harder to fall back on the tribal identities that have guided so much of human history, and that are now resurgent. Your background pushes you to construct a worldview that transcends the tribal.



You’re also accustomed to the idea of having several selves, and of trying to forge them into something whole. That task of self-creation isn’t unique to biracial people; it’s a defining experience of modernity. Once the old stories about God and tribe — the framing that historically gave our lives context — become inadequate, on what do we base our identities? How do we give our lives meaning and purpose?



President Trump has answered this challenge by reaching backward — vowing to wall off America and invoking a whiter, more homogeneous country. This approach is likely to fail for the simple reason that much of the strength and creativity of America, and modernity generally, stems from diversity. And the answers to a host of problems we face may lie in more mixing, not less.



Consider this: By 3 months of age, biracial infants recognize faces more quickly than their monoracial peers, suggesting that their facial perception abilities are more developed. Kristin Pauker, a psychologist at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and one of the researchers who performed this study, likens this flexibility to bilingualism.



Early on, infants who hear only Japanese, say, will lose the ability to distinguish L’s from R’s. But if they also hear English, they’ll continue to hear the sounds as separate. So it is with recognizing faces, Dr. Pauker says. Kids naturally learn to recognize kin from non-kin, in-group from out-group. But because they’re exposed to more human variation, the in-group for multiracial children seems to be larger.



This may pay off in important ways later. In a 2015 study, Sarah Gaither, an assistant professor at Duke, found that when she reminded multiracial participants of their mixed heritage, they scored higher in a series of word association games and other tests that measure creative problem solving. When she reminded monoracial people about their heritage, however, their performance didn’t improve. Somehow, having multiple selves enhanced mental flexibility.



But here’s where it gets interesting: When Dr. Gaither reminded participants of a single racial background that they, too, had multiple selves, by asking about their various identities in life, their scores also improved. “For biracial people, these racial identities are very salient,” she told me. “That said, we all have multiple social identities.” And focusing on these identities seems to impart mental flexibility irrespective of race.



It may be possible to deliberately cultivate this kind of limber mind-set by, for example, living abroad. Various studies find that business people who live in other countries are more successful than those who stay put; that artists who’ve lived abroad create more valuable art; that scientists working abroad produce studies that are more highly cited. Living in another culture exercises the mind, researchers reason, forcing one to think more deeply about the world.



Another path to intellectual rigor is to gather a diverse group of people together and have them attack problems, which is arguably exactly what the American experiment is. In mock trials, the Tufts University researcher Samuel Sommers has found, racially diverse juries appraise evidence more accurately than all-white juries, which translates to more lenient treatment of minority defendants. That’s not because minority jurors are biased in favor of minority defendants, but because whites on mixed juries more carefully consider the evidence.



The point is that diversity — of one’s own makeup, one’s experience, of groups of people solving problems, of cities and nations — is linked to economic prosperity, greater scientific prowess and a fairer judicial process. If human groups represent a series of brains networked together, the more dissimilar these brains are in terms of life experience, the better the “hivemind” may be at thinking around any given problem."



What Biracial People Know - The New York Times

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