1970s:

“Oyibo pepe, chuku chuku pepe. if you eat i pepe, you go yellow ma ma”. I can still hear this song from my childhood in Nigeria…. No matter where you would go in any corner of Nigeria you were serenaded with this song by children singing – sometimes shyly, nudged by their parents, or else boldly, accompanied by dancing, jumping or hysterical laughter. Oyibo means ‘white man (or woman).’ Pepe refers to the color of a white person’s skin after tasting the stomach scalding heat of Nigerian pepper (pepe in Pidgin). …and back then through my 6-year old eyes, we were all just having fun… colour did not matter…

2017

Due to whatever reasons (security, BREXIT, etc.) there are increased informal passport controls around Europe. In other words, even if a country is part of the EU, you may come our of the aluminum tube AKA as aircraft, and there will be 2-3 policemen waiting before you even touch the airport building and will check your passport.

In one of my recent trips to Greece, waiting at the gate to board the plane (and travel to a country which IS part of the EU) there is a security lady going around, checking passports and sticking one of those annoying little stickers which no matter how hard you try to take it off, it ALWAYS leaves a mark on your passport.

I was observing her… Unfortunately, whenever the person was non-white, she would ask much more questions… There was this lady sitting next to me, she had a Greek ID card and spoke perfect Greek without an accent. I found out much later that she was 37 years in Greece (in her 60s), married to a Greek whom she met in Ghana in the 1960s, same period like when my father went to Nigeria and many other Greeks who left the country for a better future. Her husband had a sweets factory over there but they lost everything in one night due to the political situation.

The security lady, DESPITE the fact that this woman had a Greek ID card like many of the passengers, made her stand up (I have no idea why – checking her height?), made her sign her name on a piece of paper to see if it matches the signature on the ID card and also disappeared for a few minutes to establish that this lady had a return ticket. I did NOT have a return ticket by the way….because I don’t live in Greece anymore…yet she did not bother asking me the same questions only because there was one obvious difference… the colour of our skin…

I got mad with myself that I did not stand up for this woman, and started chatting to the lady from Ghana our of guilt and embarrassment… I found out about her story and how she has many brothers and sisters who have all left Ghana for a better future and are scattered all over Europe. She was telling how she LOVES Greece, which made me feel even more terrible and ashamed… And interestingly enough, she did not make anything of the security controls… the only thing she had to say was she’s glad they are doing this because the world is a dangerous place.

So, what does science have to say yet again about the brain of this ‘intelligent’ (not) species… the ‘human’ race…

Apparently, we are hardwired to be ‘racist’ or to spot the people who are not the same as we are. There are many parts of the brain involved, one of which is the amygdala, which is the most primitive part of our brain, and acts like the alarm of a house. Whether someone breaks in, or the wind shakes the windows, or a cat accidentally jumps on your balcony, the alarm goes off. It does NOT have the capacity to go into rational thinking mode and say ‘oh, that’s only a cat’. That’s exactly what happens in the brain. It’s the mechanism that answers the fundamental question to our survival ‘am I safe or not?’. Many neuroscientists have been able to show these movements in our brain in relation to spotting ‘outgroup’ (people that are NOT like us) versus ‘ingroup’ (individuals that ARE us) faces in fMRI (one of them is Dr. Elizabeth Phelps, NY University). This automatic activity may not represent inbuilt racism, instead it may simply reflect heightened awareness and deeper thought when assessing faces from another racial group. However, one thing it does highlight is the obvious differences in processing of ‘outgroup’ faces.

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