Beyond All Prejudice

Photo by Soulsana on Unsplash

I had been writing about how prejudiced people can be healed by focusing on what they have in common with the people they judge. And then I heard the news about George Floyd.

When I saw the video of Mr. Floyd being killed by white people, it was very difficult to even remember human commonality, or to understand how such a horrifying act can be possible for human beings endowed with the capacity for fellow-feeling and compassion. This was the reaction of millions of us. After witnessing that 8 minute 46 second video — hearing the pleading of a dying man, seeing the killers impervious to another’s anguish — millions of minds recoiled in outcry. No amount of theory or understanding can alter the ending of George Floyd’s life.

And yet, over time, our understanding is necessary if we want our society to be different. We can change our society by social means and by personal means. Social change makes personal change easier, and personal change contributes to social change.

On the social level, we should do everything possible to turn the too-slow wheels of social justice, till the vehicle of mutual respect gains momentum in the direction of true equality.

On the personal level, we can learn how to recognize our own unconscious prejudices and how to transcend them! This is what I’m exploring here.

Could everyone gain from doing this? Any of us with prejudice, yes. Given the centuries of racial oppression from white to black, the onus is on white-skinned people to make a change. Speaking of myself, a person who happened to be born with white skin — with all the strangely irrational privilege that goes with this surface difference, with all the centuries-old baggage of cruelty and murder of those with darker skins carried out by those with lighter skins, and with all the covert and overt mistreatments that continue to this day — I believe, as a lighter-skinned person, I need to look at myself and the choices I make.

Ultimately, prejudice is a choice. But since a lot of prejudice is unconscious, the first task is to see how we make this choice.

When we focus on differences — whether these are of race, hairstyle, dress, political party, sexual identity, country, class, education, wealth — judgment and prejudice easily follow. “Comparison,” President Theodore Roosevelt once said, “is the thief of joy.”

When we are focused on differences, we tend to compare ways in which we are better than — or sometimes worse than, but more often better than — the other. This is a slippery slope. As soon as we make this kind of judgment — better than, worse than — we have become divisive. We have divided ourselves from the other. We have otherized them—turned them into the other who is beyond empathy or compassion. We have slipped, often imperceptibly, into the realm of prejudice.

We have made this other into one who is different, who is not quite one-of-us. We perceive this person as somewhat alien. As this process of differentiation goes on, it’s a short road from alien to enemy. And then, automatically and unconsciously, we find we have to protect ourselves against the enemy we have created in our minds. Once we are in protection mode, our bodies begin to secrete adrenalin and cortisol, the natural hormones of fight, flight, anger and fear. This doesn’t feel good. At the same time, our bodies tense to protect ourselves — and this tension, this wariness, does not feel good either. Pleasure and prejudice are inversely proportional.

When we focus on commonality, by contrast, we automatically relax. There is no enemy to defend against, therefore no need to be tense. We can still disagree on a subject while recognizing and experiencing our common humanity — remembering, for example, that we share all the same basic human attributes, like caring about family, wishing to be appreciated, loving to laugh, enjoying good food, and wanting to be heard.

A black person and a white person are genetically at least 99.9 percent identical (or up to 0.1 percent different). The genes involved with external differences in appearance (like skin-color), by which we divide races, are less than one tenth of this genetic maximum of 0.1 percent difference between people. A tenth of 0.1 percent is 0.01 percent, or just one ten-thousandth of all our genetic material.

In the case of these minute external racial differences, our choice seems pretty compelling: shall I focus on this 0 .01 percent of difference between us or shall I focus on our essential similarity?

Caucasian prejudice against African Americans is a strange phenomenon. Not only is it mathematically bizarre to focus so much energy onto one ten-thousandth of another person, it is also strange in terms of our origins.

An African American, as anybody knows, is an American who has family roots in Africa, even if these roots date back many generations. But the truth is, we all have family roots in Africa. No exceptions. There is overwhelming paleontological, archeological, and genetic evidence that the human race started in the heart of Africa. Sometime (or times) in the last hundred thousand years or so — a pretty short stretch of time in geological terms — modern human beings migrated from Africa to the rest of the world. Perhaps we should speak of African Europeans, African Chinese, African Indians, African Australian aboriginals, African Australian colonialists, African Russians, African Inuit, African Native Americans. Without this African origin, none of us would be here. We all come from the same place (Africa) and the same stock (Africans).

The massively complex human cerebral cortex — the most significant differentiator between human beings and other creatures — was also created and developed in Africa. Our capacity for higher intelligence is an African product.

With regard to skin color, some of us are purer African, perhaps, while others of us have become more discolored. When human beings migrated from Africa into the north of the Northern Hemisphere, it became advantageous to lose the natural pigmentation in our skin. In regions with a lot of sunlight, the skin needs pigmentation to protect the body from damage from ultra-violet light. It is our natural sunblock. But when Africans spread to northern areas where there was much less sunlight, a problem arose because of our vital need for Vitamin D, which is manufactured in the skin in response to sunlight. In lower sunlight areas, the skin must be less pigmented in order to be able to let in extra sunlight for the synthesis of vitamin D. And so, through a series of genetic mutations, human skin began to get lighter in northern climes.

Today, we can ingest vitamin D through our choice of diet and supplementation, so the old advantage of lighter skin in lower sunlight areas is no longer so relevant. Today dark skin carries the original advantage of protection against ultra-violet light — which is why dark-skinned people age less visibly and are less prone to skin cancer — whereas light skin carries no known physical advantages.

So why then — if prejudice based on skin color is so strangely irrational — does it occur at all? Here are three reasons that make some kinds of prejudiced thinking (but that does not mean prejudiced action) inevitable in pretty much everyone:

1. Our sense organs are primed to notice contrasts

We tend to notice whatever is different from what we are used to. If there is one red sheep in a field of a hundred white sheep, which will you look at? We have an ancient protective mechanism that is geared to seek out differences. Walking in the wild, we see hundreds of plants, yet we notice the one plant in which the branches are moving — perhaps there is danger lurking in there? The more afraid we are, the more hyper-alert we become to the slightest difference, to anything that is out of the ordinary. As soon as we fear something that is different, we tend to otherize it. We turn it into the other, something alien to us, something to be avoided or even destroyed.

Fortunately, we human being also inherit a massive cerebral cortex, created in Africa, which gives us the power to observe our own reactions and make different choices.

2. We tend to otherize those who are different

Observations of mice and chimpanzees show that these animals are kinder to those considered to be kin. Chimpanzees, for example, may be very considerate of their own group but vicious to other groups; they may attack members of alien clans, sometimes even killing them. Experiments on mice have shown that they too have tribal empathy, demonstrating empathy for cage-mates in pain but not for strangers in pain.

In the same way, we human beings can be kind to those we think of as our own but uncaring and unkind to those we deem to be different. Most of us have some empathy for people we consider to be our kin. But when we otherize those we consider to be different from us, we switch off our capacity for compassion. When we make a group other, the enemy so created by our minds invokes our fight/flight, anger/fear response. It is actually impossible to experience the anger/fear response and compassion at the same time. Anger/fear is an aversive response against the other; compassion literally means feeling with. Com = “with.” Passion = “feeling.” Anger/fear excludes; compassion includes.

Once we have this otherizing reaction, even if it is never spoken and only shows in our body language, the one we have deemed other tends to have an otherizing counter-reaction. Prejudice fosters counter-prejudice.

The good news is that we do not have to go this way. Yes, we have an inbuilt tendency to otherize those we consider different, but a biological tendency is not a biological imperative. We have also inherited a capacity for profound empathy for anyone we choose, and we are blessed with the amazing complexity of our cerebral cortex, which offers us a vast choice in understanding and reaction.

3. We respond to the pressure of a thousand cultural cues

Our tendencies to otherize may be supported by ingrained cultural biases. In the U.S., a dominant white culture supplies cues, mostly unconsciously, that associates white with more than and black with less than. These cues come from the people we meet; from books, movies, TV, the news, etc. When the author Malcolm Gladwell took a test called the Implicit Association Test (IAT) that measured unconscious bias, he experienced what he described as “a growing sense of mortification.” Though he, like most of us, consciously thought of the various races as being equal, his results showed some “automatic preference for whites.” Since Malcolm Gladwell has a white father and black mother, this result was especially surprising to him. Some 80 percent of those who take these unconscious bias tests in the U.S. have pro-white associations, even though the vast majority would never consider themselves even slightly racist. The test shows that our unconscious attitudes are often at variance with our stated values. It seems we just can’t help imbibing norms of our culture.

But how do we reconcile these differentiating cultural biases with our common African origins? Shouldn’t we be grateful to Africa and Africans for endowing us with intelligence and imagination? Well, yes, if we use the cerebral cortex that Africa gave us.

This gift from Africa is tens of thousands of years old. But superimposed on this ancient gift is a recent cultural history that stirs emotional memories. The fact that Africans were forcibly stolen from their countries and then enslaved by white people in the U.S. till only a few generations ago (up to 1865 when slavery was banned); the fact that various racial prejudices were written into U.S. law within living memory of tens of millions of U.S. citizens (until the Voting Rights Act of 1965); and the fact that prejudices have continued economically, culturally and interpersonally ever since, has created a culture imbued with assumptions — tacit or voiced — of some people being “less than” and others being “more than.” Are we going to let this go on till 2065?

“No!” resounds in the hearts of more and more people.

These assumptions of more than, less than are both unfortunate and untrue. With regard to specific tasks, some people may of course perform “better” than others, but this has nothing to do with the value of the person.

No one is “less than.” No one is “more than.” The reason it may be difficult to believe this is that most of us have been brought up in a make-believe world in which there are imaginary clubs of superior and inferior people. Most of us have been taught that we are in one of these clubs or, sometimes in both of them — depending on whom we compare ourselves with. These assumptions tend to cascade down the generations, often unconsciously, until they are brought into the light and challenged with kindness.

Recognizing our tendencies toward bias and prejudice is immensely useful. Once we admit to these tendencies, we can more easily make the choice of unprejudiced action! And unprejudiced actions have a beneficial feedback effect: they reduce prejudiced thoughts and feelings.

But here there is a common problem: it’s called the human ego. The ego, which doesn’t like to admit to weaknesses, genuinely believes: I’m not prejudiced. The ego usually likes to be seen as good and so cannot easily admit to favoring one side unfairly, or even to being unconsciously influenced by society’s norms. This perhaps goes some distance toward explaining why so much racist action is unconscious. It might, for example, be one of the reasons why in the U.S. a black man is thirteen times more likely to be sent to prison on drug charges than a white man, even though the sentencing judges would not admit to (or probably have any recognition of) being prejudiced.

Admitting our own tendencies to discriminate differences is, therefore, enormously helpful, because then we can do something about it. On the other hand, when the ego denies prejudice because it looks bad, then it is almost impossible to correct — the ego has convinced us that we don’t have anything to correct.

A Solution to All Prejudice

From a psychological perspective, all prejudices follow the same common (but by no means inevitable) pathways:

1. We otherize those we consider different (even though the differences we focus on are such a tiny aspect of the total person).

2. As soon as we otherize, we produce adrenalin and cortisol — the hormones of fight/flight, anger/fear — in reaction to the enemy we have created in our minds.

3. Once we are in the adrenalized state of fight/flight, we are unable to feel empathy or compassion.

4. We take pride in our differences, thinking we are better (or more special) than the other.

5. We often attempt to disguise our pride because it is not socially acceptable. This disguise may be so effective that we are completely unaware of being prejudiced.

All our prejudices also share the same key solution: that is, to shift our thinking from concentration on our differences to a focus on our common ground.

This is not a new thought, of course, and has been put forward by spiritual teachers (seeing the divine within another), by humanitarians (seeing the humanity within another), and by scientists (knowing that our similarities massively outweigh our differences).

This shift of focus from differences to commonality might seem at first sight to be way too simple, and, perhaps, one of those things that’s easy to say but not so easy to do. But actually, it’s not difficult at all. I say this because of the results of the following new, five-minute, prejudice-clearing exercise, which has the added bonus of increasing happiness. You are welcome to try it.

The Pleasure of Finding Common Ground

This simple and fun exercise involves nothing more than shifting focus from differences between us to what we have in common. You will need to choose a person to work with, though this person does not need to know anything about what you are doing. In other words, this exercise is completely private: it is your own exploration. The person you work with could be someone of a different race, different religion, or different political position. Or it could be someone who dresses differently from you or someone who just seems to irk you for no obvious reason. There are always differences that we can choose to focus on, or not.

The exercise works in any public space in which it is safe for you to give your undivided attention — sitting on a bus and observing someone sitting opposite you would be an example. It also works at home with a family member, a friend, or even someone on TV. You can also do this exercise entirely in your imagination, focusing on and visualizing a person you know—or know of. Whomever you choose, in whatever scenario, it’s best if they are sitting or standing rather than being in motion, so that you can see them well.

Please do not attempt this exercise while driving! It is easier to do the exercise with your eyes closed, in which case you won’t be able to read the instructions below. You can memorize the instructions in advance, or, if you’d prefer to do the exercise with audio instructions, you can listen to them free of charge on my website at doctorgillett.com/free-freakin-exercises

Here is the written version of the steps:

1. Look at the person sitting or standing. If the person is physically present, don’t stare — you can look away and then look back after a while. Focus on how he/she is different from you. Make some mental judgments about this person — you can use the ones you usually use or make some new ones. For about a minute, allow yourself to really get into this silent judging.

2. Note how you feel when you make such silent judgments, using a happiness scale of one to ten, ten being happiest. Write down the number. This is your differences score on happiness (DS).

3. Now shift your focus deliberately onto what you have in common. Remember that you are genetically almost identical with every other single human being on this earth, and that you share the same basic human wishes, needs and values, like, for instance, the wish for acceptance by others; the wish for affection; the need for self-respect; the need for safety and shelter. You very likely share a similar desire for trust, for warmth, for having fun, for making a contribution, for self-expression, for purpose, for independence. Choose any one or a few of these universal human values that stand out as important for you. And then imagine that these same human values are just as strong in, just as important to the person you are thinking about.

4. How do you feel — on the same happiness scale of one to ten — when you experience your commonality? This is your commonality score on happiness (CS).

Most people, I’ve discovered, find that their commonality score on happiness is considerably higher than their differences score. As I’ve mentioned, we are all the inheritors of a massive cerebral cortex — courtesy of Africa — which has the power to choose its focus. We have the power to fix our gaze on tiny differences if we want. We also have the power, whenever we would like to do so, to change our focus onto commonality. Many people who have done this exercise are surprised at how thinking of a wish or need that they value in themselves, and then imagining this same wish or need as being equally important in the other, creates almost instant empathy and compassion.

What were your DS and CS scores? I’m collecting preliminary research figures on this. If you’d like to take part, please submit your anonymous results by entering two numbers on my website: doctorgillett.com/commonality-survey

Shifting from focus on differences to focus on that which we have in common is both easy to do and powerful in effect. And the more you do this, the easier it is to make the shift.

The reason it is so pleasurable is based both on what you are relinquishing and what you are moving toward. You are relinquishing prejudice or judgment in which you have created an enemy in your mind, an enemy who is inevitably associated with protective tension in your body and therefore with a feeling of contraction. In moving toward commonality, you experience empathy and compassion and these are relaxed, warm and pleasurable feelings.

When we recognize the humanity in the other, there are two other sources of enjoyment that help dispel the old prejudice: one is the pleasure in diversity — seeing the amazing differences in looks and in the ways in which we human beings approach life and interpret the world; the second is the joy in the recognition of how we all, in fundamental matters, are very much the same.

Excerpted—with a few adaptations—from the newly released, #1 bestseller IT’S A FREAKIN’ MESS: How to Thrive in Divisive Times, by Dr. Richard Gillett. Used by permission of Kingston Bridge Press.

Available for purchase via itsafreakinmess.com or from Amazon.

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Richardgillett

Richardgillett

Physician, psychiatrist, keynote speaker, and author of #1 bestseller: IT’S A FREAKIN’ MESS: How to Thrive in Divisive Times — itsafreakinmess.com