Everyday entropy: recognition


How is it possible that black lives matter can be a thing?  Now?  But it is, and it matters. In blackness there is a conspicuous anonymity that has endured despite decades of movements and affirmative actions and really famous black people. Like the president. Of the United States.

And yet… racism is clearly an information problem, and it isn’t just an American problem.  It is a problem in South America, east Asia, South Asia, Africa, Europe, Australia and probably would be a problem in Antarctica if people there weren’t completely covered at all times.  People may be hardwired to be a little racist, but that doesn’t explain why everybody seems to be racist against people with darker skin.  This seems to be a second order information problem that goes beyond the simple notion of “other.”  First, remember that it is easier to read black lines on a white page than white lines on a black page.  You are almost certainly reading the former right now even though, on a computer, it takes more energy than the latter.  Reading a face is no different from reading a page: you are gleaning information from discrete features set into the background.

Light skin has a peculiar social advantage, not just because of european global hegemony, but because of physics.  Light skin reflects and re-radiates more light than dark skin.  It’s just easier to see the shadow features of pale faces: they are distinguishable from minute variations in the creases of the eyes, mouth and nostrils.  Ultimately, lighter skin makes it easier to recognise people from further away and in less light, and facial recognition dominates social interaction.  The cost of pale skin is cancer and deterioration at a much earlier age.  There is a reason why northern europeans cake on the make-up when they hit 30.  Pigment protects.

The reason for pigment loss may well have been vitamin D, but the social advantage of visibility is not insignificant.  In India, caste and colour are correlated in ways that have nothing to do with European bias or vitamin D.  In East Asia, skin bleaching is a real thing.

In bright light, dark skinned people are easier to recognise because their features are not burned out by the sunlight.  But indoors and on television, light skin releases more information.  The importance of information cannot be emphasised enough. It isn’t the momentum or position of things that matters, but the discreteness of their forms. The information means things are distinguishable. Human beings didn’t invent information. Life has been dependent on it since the first reproduction and metabolism. But life didn’t invent it either. It was there. Information has been part of the universe since the beginning, maybe before that. Human beings may use it better than anything before, but we don’t understand it or its full implications. Discreteness. It is so important. When two waveforms become entangled the discreteness is lost, and the important thing is that the information is shared without regard to location. Information isn’t small.  It isn’t lots of small bits that make up quantum particles.  Information is the phenomenon that makes particles quantum.  Even the advantage of light skin, which seems so arbitrary in the abstract, comes down to the quantum or radiation that makes it easier to distinguish the lines on a pale face. Distinction is so important for people that they wear ridiculous fashions and make up to distinguish themselves or make themselves look like distinguished people. Pale people need almost no structural features to be distinguishable, which is why their faces tend to be so flat. Their lines stand out without cheeks or lips or eyes to speak of.

But you can’t blame physics for racism.  English people were racist against very pale-skinned Irish people based on their caste, accent and religion.  Physics doesn’t cause racism, but the information that distinguishes people is just another way that people establish social hierarchies.  More importantly, physics makes it easier to be racist against people with dark skin than against any other people.  This is profoundly sad, but it is important to understand that colour-based racism is spontaneous and entropic because of the importance of recognition.  It isn’t terribly difficult to look at people with darker skin, but you have to remind yourself to do it: to look more intently than you would have had to look at a very pale face whose features jumped off the white background.  The effort is minimal, and it opens up a whole range of human interactions that were precluded by invisibility.

The important thing about racism isn’t prejudice, it’s a lack of empathy for “those people” that comes from the anonymity of unrecognition.  A person may have no preconceived ideas about people from another race, nothing against or for them, no bigotry or supremacist ideology, but still have racist reactions to them just because they don’t feel for them in an empathetic way.  It is the psychopathy of racism that is so broadly destructive because it is so intuitive to be mean when people have no empathy.  Racist psychopathy is almost invisible because it requires no forethought or intent, and it can play out across whole populations with little or no communication, setting off a momentum of meanness that makes cruelty common practice.  Some people are too universally empathetic to take part, and others are vocally supportive of the racist bigotry, but the depth and breadth of racist action seems to come from a lack of empathy rather than racist instructions, and that may be the nexus between racism and psychopathy that plays out in the extraordinary racism of someone like Hitler or the intuitive racism of Donald Trump.

Remember that race, gender and sexuality only matter when entropy is high.  When you run out of ideas, take your foot off the gas, and stop asking questions, you get distracted by trivial distinctions.  That is when entropy matters.  Be patient, let the boundary collapse.  New waves will come; they always come.


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