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The Problem with Assumptions

T.O. Molefe started a story recently by recounting an experience of a purchase, where the shopkeeper didn’t want to touch hands during the transaction, either when taking the money, or when handing over the goods. The assumption, suggested by the sibling, is that it was because of skin colour.

I’ve experienced that same thing of shopkeepers not wanting to touch hands most of my life. That is because I lived mostly in cities. Particularly, I grew up in London, a city where 11 million people are present every day and only survive the experience by trying to pretend most of the other people are not there.

I grew up with the understanding that you don’t make eye-contact with strangers lightly. That public transport is a place where children should be neither seen nor heard. That the vast majority of people in such a city don’t want to make friends with everyone else. They want to isolate themselves into a more manageable number of contacts.

It has nothing to do with me at all that most of the shopkeepers I met didn’t want to have to make physical contact with me to take payment or proffer goods. It had to do with simple human psychology in handling groups larger than a family or tribe.

Sadly, T.O. has told us that this very simple, basic assumption, which is incredibly possible to be completely wrong, has gone on to shape (and thus dictate) much of the rest of his life. From that point on, his skin colour was thought to be the cause of so much.

In a way, that is a blessing. Think of the time saved in having a ready ‘reason’ for every bit of poor treatment (real or imagined) henceforth. T.O. never had to agonize about whether something said created a bad atmosphere, because it could always be blamed away on racism.

T.O. never had to worry about whether posture, clothing, or the milion other cues we give people every day might be poor choices because there was always the safe, reassuring notion “Hey, its probably not you at all. They are the problem. They are racist. It’s not your fault and you have no responsibility”.

Because that too is basic human psychology. It is called ‘confirmation bias’. It is powerful, enticing, and addictive.

Perhaps, yes, perhaps they were racist. And perhaps they were not. Most systems we have declare ‘a burden of proof’ is needed, and that unless you can prove, beyond any reasonable doubt, they they are, in fact racist, then you should completely and earnestly assume their innocence. Not in one case. In every single case and instance.

The reason we have, collectively, found this ‘burden of proof’ thing to be important is because attribution bias, and confirmation bias are indeed prevalent, powerful, and oh so deceptive.

T.O. went on to discuss white privilege.

That too I grew up seeing all around me. Except, in my case, it was ‘class privilege’ of course. Poor working class people are still subject to a system built on the fact that some people’s fathers could afford or gather more troops and take more than others could.

It is a universal, and again, has little or nothing to do with race. Britain was conquered and settled by the Romans, by the French, by Vikings, each of whom were outsiders who came in and grabbed some land and power for themselves.

You’ll be hard-pressed to find any corner of the world so remote that the story isn’t repeated there. Regardless of skin colours. If you think only white peoples have done this, you have surely neglected to read any history. Read up on ancient empires such as the Sumerians, the Egyptians, the Moors.

Regardless of how land and power are gained originally, possession is considered to be a significant part of the law of ownership. I can’t go marching off to Buckingham Palace and demand they give back my land just because I dispute the right of their distant ancestors to have taken it. Instead, one must look to the future, negotiating for a fairer future, without constant recriminations over a past that was not theirs personally making them unable to see you as reasonable.