Racial Tension: Beyond the Surface

In my earlier blog post, The Boundary Between Light and Darkness, I commented on the light-dark interplay that Steve Prince’s “Katrina’s Veil: Stand at the Gretna Bridge” and Francisco Goya’s “Third of May 1808” utilize. Namely, in Prince’s piece, I saw the use of only black and white as a commentary on the racial tension present in America, namely New Orleans. The white and black simultaneously blend and separate figures in the print, showing how there was tension between citizens of the same city before, but particularly after, Katrina. Beth commented on this post, mentioning that there might be merit in looking at how surface tension connects with racial tension. After digging up my prior experience in general chemistry and looking at the definition of surface tension, the connection between the two terms was as clear as water.

According to dictionary.com, surface tension is defined as:

“the elastic-like force existing in the surface of a body, especially a liquid, tending to minimize the area of the surface, caused by asymmetries in the intermolecular forces between surface molecules.”


From this definition, two things stood out to me, the first being the word “elastic.” In the context of racial tension, I didn’t really see how elasticity, a word associated with flexibility and movement, fit in. Racial tension involves people with fixed views of others solely based on their surface appearance: skin color. In other words, racial tension relies on people who are inelastic in their personal perspectives, basing their prejudiced views solely on one characteristic and hardening in this view over time. If anything, the idea of elastic surface tension and racial tension seem at odds, considering how static racial tension appears to be.

After bending my own perspective of the word “elastic”, it began to make more sense in terms of racial tension. When you utilize the elastic properties of something, you bend and stretch it, move sides away from each other, and expand the substance. The same goes for racial tension: as people discriminate another group of people for their skin color, it stretches people away from each other until the tension breaks and a new situation arises, violence for example. Taking the word “stretch” literally, people might move out of their own communities, states, countries, etc. to escape this tension, or taking the word figuratively, people might develop requited hatred in response to maltreatment, stretching people further from each other ideologically.

The second important aspect of the definition is how surface tension is caused by “asymmetries in the intermolecular forces between surface molecules.” Liquids, especially water, have a cohesive force caused mainly by hydrogen bonding holding them together while the invading substances also have their own set of intermolecular forces holding them together. Applying this back to racial tension, people who have racist views are reinforced by likeminded people in their communities or governments, like water hydrogen bonding to itself. The more bonds that are formed, the harder it is for that tension to be broken, whether it be water surface tension or racial tension. In order to look beyond skin color and to try and fix the underlying issues that racial tension causes, the surface tension of these societal issues needs to be broken. To accomplish this, people contributing to racial tension must be more aware of the similarities they share with people who look superficially different than them. Once common connections are made, it’s easier for bonds to form, allowing the surface to be broken, and allowing a merging of two superficially different (but similar on every other level) substances.

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