By Lori Cohen, a Bright Morning Associate and contributing blogger
“[We] see everything fragmentarily…We are being conditioned by society, by the culture in which we live, and that culture is the product of humanity…There is the vast field of the mind, and unless we bring about a radical change in this fragmentation, there can be no revolution at all.”
My Big Fat Middle School Screw-Up
When I was in middle school, I wasn’t aware of my whiteness. At that time in the 80s, I was conditioned by a broad range of stereotypes around all kinds of difference. My friends and I often made jokes at people’s expense, and we’d quickly excuse our bad behavior by saying, “I was just kidding,” or “Don’t be so sensitive.” But when I told my Chinese friend that all Asians were bad drivers and summarily followed up with “But I’m sure you’re an exception,” that was a tipping point. My friend not only was visibly angry, she also ended our friendship.
I can’t say from that day forward I entirely curbed my hurtful language and ignorant behavior, but that moment jolted me into a different way of being. I had never experienced a friend break-up like that before, and it hurt. Knowing I was the reason for the break-up hurt even more. The last thing I wanted was to hurt people; to be a good friend meant broadening my understanding across difference, to repair harm when I caused it, and to change my behavior. It was a necessary learning journey.
Adults Come with Histories
I have been thinking a lot lately about the story of Justin Trudeau, the Canadian Prime Minister who admitted to dressing up in blackface not just one time, but at least three, if not more in the years prior to becoming the leader of his nation. His story comes on the heels of high-level government officials in Virginia and Alabama apologizing for wearing blackface during their time in college and in their graduate studies.
While these intersections of whiteness, power, and ignorance are painful to read about, I’m also not surprised. I have to examine these mess-ups in line with my own experience as a middle schooler. Did these officials lose friends when they dressed up in blackface? Were they aware of the harm they caused back then? What did they need to hear and experience to shift their behavior? What would have jolted them into action prior to ascending to the ranks of privilege and power? Are they jolted now?
When Botswana became independent in 1966, the departing British haphazardly drew a regional map that forced a vast range of ethnic groups in proximity to one another—and they didn’t like each other very much. Among many new policies the government enacted to remedy discord and bring people together under one national identity, one was to transfer civil servants to different parts of the country every five years. This government-sponsored program was designed to help people interact across difference, to build empathy, and to diminish the conflicts that arise from misunderstandings and ignorance. While challenges are abundant in this program and policy changes have been made, the program largely works in achieving its aims (you can learn more by listening here).
In a different vein, the late San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk urged all gay people to come out because he believed if everyone knew someone who was gay, we would minimize the misunderstandings and violence that so frequently happened in LGBTQ communities.
I wonder what would have happened in my younger years if I was taught more explicitly about difference, if I was exposed to more histories, literatures, narratives, and icons from a range of backgrounds, if I was given more counternarratives to counteract the beliefs I held. I wonder if I would have come out sooner if I had gay role models, if I would have confronted my whiteness because I saw adults in my life grappling with theirs, if I would have thought more carefully before speaking harsh words to my friend.
While I can’t change my past and while these white high officials need to examine their own backgrounds, the lesson is clear: we need more meaningful exposure to difference if we want a more just and equitable world. It’s through exposure to difference that we make more skillful choices, derive better understandings about one another and ourselves, and approach the world without fixed notions or absolutes about those around us—which allow us to build deeper, more meaningful relationships. Most of all, bridging across difference prevents us from doing irreparable harm.
The Urgency of the Inner Work
When I think about what it takes to increase our understanding of one another, to act in service of everyone, I’m most interested in the inner work, the long-term invisible shifts we need to make in order to forge and deepen bonds across difference. The following series of reminders have guided me on my learning journey, and I hope they can serve you in some way as well:
- Adopt a beginner’s mindset and be curious. We are conditioned by our prior beliefs and experiences, but those who adopt a beginner’s mindset act if they are meeting every person and experience for the first time. Having this mindset allows a person to begin by asking: what might I learn from this experience/person? This mindset also requires us to be humble as we engage in our own learning, and this humility can lead to greater understanding that allows us to undo prior beliefs we might hold.
- Educate yourself. Our greatest learning comes from when we feel a little stretched and uncomfortable, when we challenge the ways we have been taught and the stories we have been told, when we explore our biases and blindspots. And we need to be responsible for doing our own learning and work. When learning about communities that are different from yours, be careful of reducing one experience to an entire truth; seek counternarratives that broaden your thinking and understanding.
- Pay attention, turn inward. While you want to notice what you’re learning and be curious, you also want to feel what’s coming up for you around difference. How does it feel in your body? What is your breath doing? What stories are you telling yourself? What thoughts arise? Nonjudgmentally noticing what’s happening for you will help you learn about prior stories and experiences, how you’ve been conditioned to think and feel about difference.
- Reflect on your learning and make changes. Keep a journal or something to document what you notice and learn. Having a space to write and reflect will allow you to see patterns over time, to unlearn conditioned behaviors, to notice gaps in your understanding, and eventually, with patience and dedication to the process, shift in your perspectives and outward behaviors.
- Keep fumbling ever forward. As I wrote in a recent blog post, much of what we do in engaging across difference is an act of fumbling. Know you will make messes. But also know that if you deeply care about bridging across difference, you’ll be willing to make the repairs necessary to heal and change. The long-term inner work will have outward benefits that make it possible to bridge and deepen relationships across difference. It’s time to stop doing harm and start healing the hurt that exists in the world.
The views and opinions expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion or position of Bright Morning.