I teach a course called “Social Justice & Human Diversity” for mostly first-year social work master’s students in the Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis. It’s been my contention that in order to understand these broad topics, my students must confront history in ways that complicate common narratives about this nation and the broader world, including contradictions between espoused values and actual outcomes for marginalized individuals and groups.
Two texts have guided us through this historical exploration: Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari and A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America by Ronald Takaki. The first is as comprehensive as its subtitle suggests, taking readers back to the dawn of our species on this planet and bringing us up to the present day. Harari argues that the distinctive characteristic of homo sapiens is our ability to cooperate in massively large groups through the telling of shared stories. He notes that our early human hunter-gatherer ancestors probably couldn’t cooperate in bands of larger than about 150 individuals. It was only after the Cognitive Revolution, during which this special storytelling skill of our species emerged, that we began to see cities and then societies and then entire civilizations take form, all undergirded by a common story allowing thousands and then millions of human beings to cooperate across vast and complex networks. Money, religion, empires, nation-states, hierarchy, and human rights—all are stories that we have told and continue to tell. And in so doing, homo sapiens have come to dominate the world. This can sound triumphant until you recognize that all of this cooperation need not be harmonious or healthy. As Harari notes, “Most cooperation networks have been geared toward oppression and exploitation.” Think of the cooperation behind the Atlantic Slave Trade, Native reservations, Japanese internment, and mass incarceration. In short, think of America.
Thinking about America is precisely what Ronald Takaki does through A Different Mirror. It is not the children’s book version of our history, with pilgrims coming to America’s shores in search of religious freedom and starting a new nation of striving white people who will subdue its wilderness and increase its industry. It is the much fuller rendering of our history that includes the voices and stories of Africans imported as property, Mexicans made strangers in their own land, Chinese searching for better fortunes, and the Irish, Polish, Muslim, Russian Jews, and countless other groups who make up
And at the heart of this tension is not just who gets included in our history, but who gets to be human. Social psychologists Michael Hogg and Dominic Abrams tell us that “intergroup behavior tends to be competitive and ethnocentric.” We categorize ourselves into what social psychologists call ingroups and outgroups. As Harari says, “Sapiens instinctively divide humanity into two parts, ‘we’ and ‘they.’ We are people like you and me, who share our language, religion
And yet, being the master storytellers that we are, we can tell a new story. On this