Nefertiti, was, by all accounts, a great Queen of Egypt. She and her husband, the Pharaoh, Akhenaten, were shockingly progressive: they co-ruled Egypt; they, heretically, moved the state religion to a single god and they moved the Egyptian capital to Amarna (all of which was erased after Akhenaten’s death, including most physical records of Akhenaten himself).
A number of years ago, a doll was manufactured of Nefertiti. The queen was represented as being relatively light skinned – and it launched a war of vitriol that few if any Egyptologists want any part of still. Some records suggest that Nefertiti was a “Nubian” or perhaps “African” queen. Dark skinned. Therefore, the selling of a doll that was light skinned was viewed as an erasure of black African culture.
If only things were so “black and white.”
The truth is, no one truly knows what color skin Nefertiti had. Part of the reason for that is that the history of her and her husband was very actively erased after Akhenaten died.
But the real reason why no one can be sure of the skin color of Nefertiti, is that no one cared then. History strongly suggests that citizens of ancient Egypt were not stratified by color, so no-one bothered keeping records of what color anyone was. Nor in ancient Greece. Nor in Rome. Sadly, judging people purely by their skin color is a relatively new invention.
This mess, and all the psychological trauma and confusion that goes with it, hit a pinnacle with the Dred Scott case in 1857. Dred Scott was an African American slave who had been relocated to a free state and subsequently attempted to sue for his freedom. The Supreme Court of the United States, comprised of a majority of justices that were prominent slaveholders, ruled against Dred Scott, on the reasoning that Blacks were so inferior to Whites, they had no rights.
Conveniently, if Africans and African Americans had no rights, why would they be owed any debt of guilt, respect, responsibility, or freedom? (And if you think that this is all ancient history, are you aware that the FHA refused to insure mortgages for African Americans in the years after WWII, thus prohibiting them from taking part in much of the post-war economic boom?)**
What is lost in many current conversations is the fact that so many emotions, facts and “how we feel” around race and color in the U.S., are ripples of decisions and reasoning that were made all those years ago, purely to absolve slavery and to advance commerce. But we are unwittingly still controlled by them, in ways large and small. For example, scholars have shown that prejudice against African Americans is absorbed by a majority of Americans at an early age, often unconsciously. Subtle (and unsubtle) societal messages portray African Americans and other marginalized groups as incompetent, aggressive, lazy, and even subhuman. We absorb these messages from those around us and media, and they leak out into various decisions and practices. Overtime, the biased messages we absorb from society lead many of us to unconsciously perpetuate longstanding racial disparities in the U.S. It’s important to note that this mostly happens without any intent or realization.
Did you know that lawns were invented for the King of France, just to vividly demonstrate that, in a land where most of the population were miserably poor agrarian workers, he had so much money and power, he could afford to have a colossal expanse of land wasted growing a plant with no practical use? And yet much of suburban architecture is still controlled by an emotion for which the genesis remains unknown to those feeling the emotion. How many of us admire a big, green lawn as a sign of a great residence? – If so, Louis XIV owns you. ***
These kinds of emotions are important. They are real. They are who we are. Other people have them also. Everybody. They are strong and, perilously, not thought of as emotions. They occupy a place in our brains more reserved for facts. And any time an emotion is labelled a fact, it is an opportunity for conflict. It is an opportunity to see difference instead of similarities. True facts are cold. But emotions, or emotions dressed up as facts, get people, well... emotional.
While social media use can conjure up many of these emotions and subsequent conflict, it can eventually lead to something better. In fact, social media will eventually be known for starting the war for truth. It’s a good thing, although very bumpy right now! So, many “truths” are being challenged. So many “facts” are being shown to not be facts at all (on ALL sides)! It’s going to be messy for quite some time. The fears that exist in all of us will, to differing amounts, take advantage of this epoch to try and advance varying agendas. We naturally want to feel good (the pursuit of happiness!), and the easiest route to feeling good is to believe in things that confirm we’re right. A quick bit of friend-editing on Facebook and, “Wow! Everyone agrees with my worldview!”
People primarily seek their “tribes,” which in the modern interpretation means “people who agree with me”. They do this all while ignoring the fact that real tribes, the tribes that society has looked down upon because they have been viewed as being populated by lesser beings, were also likely to be comprised of genuine individuals who engaged in rich disagreement and respectful, revered discussion with one another.
In the meantime, governments, companies and people are having an ever more difficult time navigating communication paths that aren’t seen as offensive to someone or some group and that can deliver communications that are not seen as partisan in nature. If people cannot “see themselves” in your communications, or if your communications feel “uncomfortable,” then they are quickly ignored. (I call it “Option B” – people always have the option to ignore you, often with just a swipe.) In future writings, I will discuss how Idea Engineering works to create healthy relationships between our clients and their clients, by making “who are we” and “who are you” the first two purposeful steps in crafting communications.
In the meantime, be open to challenging what you “know.” As I often mention in my talks, “the second you admit you are wrong, you get to be right – why would you delay that moment?” Seek truth, not vindication. And know that many of the conflicts that arise in your day, are just you and another person being steered by someone else’s definitions of history and fact. Don’t give in to it. Be wrong. Then be right.
* See The Half Has Never Been Told by Edward E. Baptist
** My current read: The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein (it’s mind blowing)
*** Props to Yuval Noah Harari for this observation in his book, A Brief History of Humankind.
Behavior change can come about from many motivators, including negative ones. However, as motivation wanes, the behavior change will go with it. If you’re interested in true, long-lasting behavior change, the key is in identity.
The way we imagine our personal and national identities makes us liable to act and think in certain ways and, just as importantly, makes us liable to interpret other people’s actions through the prism of our own imagined identity – not through theirs.
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