Despite today’s disappointing step backward on the reproductive rights of US women, I’m still trying to feel the good vibes of last Sunday, the 19th of June, which was Father’s Day but also Juneteenth, a day that marks the official end of slavery in America. A quarter of a million slaves were freed in 1865 when it became illegal to own another human and force them into unpaid labor. Law in place, it would take another 157 years until the day would become a US federal holiday in 2021. But it was a step forward.
It would be an even greater step forward for humankind if it didn’t take another 157 years to eliminate the racial biases that gave rise to slavery even with the odds against us. Five replicated experiments by psychologists Janine Willis and Alexander Todorov found that humans make judgments about new faces they encounter within 100 milliseconds of exposure, then deepen their judgment the longer the exposure.[i] That damning finding from the Willis/Todorov study goes some way into understanding how old biases die hard. It also makes me recall an event that took place on our doorstep in London a few months after the third UK Lockdown was lifted on the 19th of July 2021. It’s almost time to celebrate a 1-year anniversary since we were set free from the final pandemic lockdown.
For the night in question, the family was coming home from dinner when we found a young woman in her late twenties/early thirties sitting on our doorstep talking on her phone. We live next to a restaurant and a pub that have extended their premises out into the street as compensation for pandemic restrictions. Though the restaurant does a good job of containing its customers for the most part, there is the occasional overspill of customers onto the pavement in front of our house. While this random trespass onto our property is inevitable (our cat does it too) and in most cases, okay, racial insults aren’t. Sadly, our evening that started off as a gleeful restriction-free dinner out ended in harassment, an assault on the restaurant waiter who tried to contain the woman (he wasn’t hurt) and a visit from the police to record the incident.
I thanked my neighbor and owner of the restaurant who called the police, and a few days later, told a couple of friends who I thought wouldn’t disappoint me with a look of I’m-sure-that-didn’t-happen-to-you or at-least-you-didn’t-get-killed. I thanked the young white waiter and as the protocol for many in my generation, let the incident go. Until now, thinking about Juneteenth. Until now, reading about these incidents in my friend and scholar, Dr. Ko Unoki’s book, Racism, Diplomacy and International Relations (2022). In his book, Dr. Ko discusses how academia has traditionally approached international relations using the language of power rather than race – not unlike the way we categorize the kind of incidents that happened to us as hate crime rather than race.
I always thought that to hate someone you have to know them. I’m pretty sure the woman who shouted stuff didn’t know much about me just like the people who voted against choice today have no idea of what it feels like to conceive. Time now to get to know the people we’ve liberated. Time now to get to know the women whose bodies we control. May Juneteenth be celebrated every day so we can all be equally free.
[i] Willis, Janine and Alexander Todorov. 2006. First Impressions: Making up your mind after a 100-ms exposure to a face, 1 July 2006.