My mother has become legally blind, unable to see the features on the faces of her beloved family members: the shape of our noses that resemble her father’s, the Punjabi cheekbones, and the medium brown color of our skin. Each characteristic is part of who we are, and I am proud that my Indian heritage is visible (even when people start talking Spanish to me or assume I am Native American). It makes me laugh that even racists will envy tanned skin and try to emulate it by burning their own skin in the sun.
I understand and applaud the reasoning behind the politically correct movement that endorses colorblindness: The color of skin shouldn’t matter. The argument against colorblindness is based on the truth that human beings don’t view all races the same just like we don’t treat genders the same. But we don’t need to be colorblind in order to have fairness, equality, and equity. We develop stereotypes as part of our intrinsic need to assess patterns for survival, but then mistake them for knowledge and insight into all beings who could fit that pattern according to our narrow understanding and ignorance. Someone’s skin tone shouldn’t be automatically be associated with their intelligence or particular behavior, yet that doesn’t have to automatically translate into not acknowledging the differences among us.
The word tolerance doesn’t help us much because “to tolerate” means to put up with, to endure, to bear. Those of you who think it’s just semantics have probably never walked into a company on your first day of work to realize you’re the only non-White person there. Perhaps we need tolerance as a first step before acceptance, which means agreeing without protest, without fighting the reality of a situation. What we need to get to is high definition imaging—an appreciation for the diversity of our world so that we can come to understanding (not agreement). Unfamiliarity and fear cause much of our racism and intolerance—and our inaction in the face of unspeakable horrors as Shankar Vedantamdetails in his book about how our hidden biases influence our behavior. We tend to hate what is different when it strikes the chord of fear that this difference has negative implications for our survival. Rush W. Dozier Jr.’s book, Why We Hate, explains how human brains connect higher meaning to our survival instincts, and that we hate because we feel threatened. According to Dozier:
Meaning rather than instinct is so overwhelmingly important to our species—and to our distinctive toolmaking cultures—that our limbic system has evolved a powerful tendency to blindly interpret any meaning system that we deeply believe in as substantially enhancing our survival and reproduction. Someone who wholeheartedly converts to a particular religion or political ideology, for example, is likely to experience strong primal feelings of joy and well being coupled with an exiting new sense of purpose. This is true even if the belief system has elements that are bizarre or self-destructive. Because of this unusual feature of the human brain, strongly held meaning systems are capable of decoupling our behavior from the objective criteria of survival and reproduction. If a particular group’s strongly held meaning system calls on it’s members to be celibate and suicidal, their primitive brain areas will tend to presume that this is the best way to ensure their survival and reproduction, even though rationally, of course, it is not…
The immense significance of meaning to human beings and its distinctive link in our species to the primitive emotional centers of the brain lay the groundwork for a primary source of hatred: fanaticism and intolerance. Lacking specific instincts, humans have no innate identity. It is meaning systems that provide us with our personal sense of meaning and purpose. The tremendous emotional commitment we tend to make to these systems leaves us vulnerable to interpreting differences in meaning as threats to our survival and reproduction. Many of the most savage conflicts in history have involved quarrels over religious, political and cultural systems of meaning. (2003, p. 12)
Societies are built on identities that unify, so deviations from the norm are labeled evil to preserve the status quo. It becomes personal responsibility to conform in order to protect our culture, thus our very own existence. But ignorance isn’t “not knowing.” Ignorance is clinging to an idea out of desperation for survival like a “desert wanderer clings to a mirage” (Morgan, 2001, p. 62).
As we say in therapy, if you talked your way into a belief then you can usually talk your way out of it. For example, developmental trauma survivors tend to blame themselves for the abuse they suffered as children instead of their perpetrators (usually a caregiver) because unconsciously they know they cannot survive without that adult. It becomes primal, but survivors can and do work to change that self-blaming message through work that involves both brain and heart. It is not an easy process, and it typically requires both changing how our neurons connect with one another and developing self-love.
Similarly, we can change how we react to differences. We don’t have to see them as threats to our survival since it’s not about instinct. In fact, I believe that in order for us to change our world for the better, we need to see differences as essential criteria for the best collaboration. Solutions for our mutual problems will not come in isolation, but in celebration of diversity. The proof is out there: Companies with more diverse employees have higher revenues. In my family, many couples have married outside the Indian community, and we have admired how beautiful their children are and considered whether mixing gene pools is beneficial overall for humanity (see hybrid vigor). It becomes a fun guessing game to see if they will “brown up” or be light-skinned, but we just enjoy who they become. They show us that we don’t need to ignore color to be good.
(This post is about only one type of diversity and inclusiveness. We have many differences that separate us in addition to skin color such as sexual orientation, gender, and SES level. Click here for a recent blog on how income disparities are harming the American family.)
Here is an exercise from Eastern philosophy to develop appreciation and to de-couple your ingrained meaning system from an object.
Go outside, close your eyes, and breathe in the fresh air. Pretend that you have just arrived on a different planet, and that nothing you see will be familiar. Open your eyes and look around you, pretending that you have never seen the landscape before. Go to an object and describe it—what stands out for you? What do you think this object does? Can you appreciate it without trying to connect it back to yourself?
Journal what you see and feel, then relate it back to what you “know” about the object from socialization and your cultural upbringing. How hard was it to view the object as if you had never seen it before? Can your view of the object be changed? Does it now appear differently to you?
Like most Eastern healing techniques, this “un-knowing” is a practice that you can improve at through time and effort. You can do this at home with your body or your shoes! Have fun imagining the new possibilities available to you through not clinging to snap judgments and assumptions. Try it with your students, esp. those who may suffer from stereotype threat, and see how differently they may react to your class and your teaching in general. It’s a whole new world, and it’s not black and white.