Here's an exchange that I see often:
Proud father: "My perspective on women changed when I had a daughter."
Response: "Imagine not being able to recognize women as human beings until you see yourself in one."
This dialogue always gives me pause. My first reaction is to dismiss the criticism as too extreme. But there's another part of me that recognizes the second comment stings because it's true.
Finding the truth in a painful criticism is an exercise in self-discipline. First you have to overcome your defensive response, then you have to overcome the reflex to reject things you don't understand. Both of these impulses are very powerful, and they can be deployed to derail productive discussions before they even begin.
The key to finding common ground is to explain complex perspectives in a way that's familiar and accessible. This requires compassion, patience, and creativity. Most of all, you have to be steadfast because even when you make progress, it's tempting to slip back into old habits.
Embracing the concept of compassion
I'd be lying if I said having daughters didn't change my perspective on women. It's not my fundamental nature to be hateful and ignorant, but to a large extent that attitude was an inherent part of the white, rural, conservative community where I was raised. Bad habits are hard to unlearn, particularly if those habits are constantly reinforced.
Perhaps I would not have been drawn to the topic of social justice if I hadn't had daughters or married an immigrant. But that would have been a tragedy because embracing a more humanitarian perspective has enormous benefits. I feel my progress on this journey has made me into a better husband and father, and increased my overall life satisfaction.
Today, I feel a responsibility to help other white men be less combative when presented with the idea of social justice activism. I often contemplate how I can make it easier for men without daughters or immigrant wives to give up the toxic beliefs that have such a negative impact on our society.
I have an advantage because I know how they think. I've had those thoughts and I learned how to move on from them.
Anyone who passes through the wilderness has an obligation to clear a path for those who follow. Much of that process simply involves coming up with new ways to help people understand each other.
Framing bigotry in the form of models or thought experiments
There are many aspects of racism and misogyny for which, as a white man, I do not have direct experience. Therefore, in order to better understand these issues, I have to create models that are based on concepts that are familiar to me.
It's very much an effort to "see myself" in those situations.
This process can create tension because whenever you oversimplify an emotional topic, it feels as if you're being dismissive. It's important to remember that your model provides you with a better, but not complete, understanding.
Creating a model is a starting point, but you don't get to pat yourself on the back once you've built one. Once in possession of a model, the real work begins. You have to use your model to create predictions, and then you have to refine your model based on testing those predictions.
This conversation might feel absurd to anyone who has to deal with bigotry on a daily basis. But consider trying to explain the frustration of dealing with airport security to a person who has always flown on a private jet. People who have always enjoyed a level of extreme privilege simply have no context for understanding what the rest of us have to deal with.
It's important to remember that while there is no such thing as honest racism, there is such a thing as honest ignorance.
Teaching 'The Call of the Wild' in Peru
I had an experience of complete cultural disconnect when I tried to explain the concept of winter to my students in Peru. We were reading The Call of the Wild. I'm from Wisconsin, so it simply didn't occur to me that people wouldn't know what it was like to trudge through a couple feet of snow in subfreezing conditions.
"Teacher, what's winter like?" asked a student.
Part of me wanted to respond, "Are you kidding me right now?"
In order to communicate, I had to reset my brain. I had to put aside my irritated assumption that my students were messing with me, and indulge the possibility that they really didn't know.
"You know how you put water in the fridge and it turns into ice?"
"Winter is like that but everywhere, not just in the fridge."
They had a hard time believing this.
"Don't you die? Doesn't the water in your body freeze?"
"No." They didn't believe me, so I said, "Go home and put your hand in a bucket of ice water for five minutes and you'll understand The Call of the Wild."
The lengths we have to go to in order to communicate can sometimes seem absurd, but this is the only path I've discovered that occasionally leads to progress.
Don't settle on your first emotional response
During a discussion regarding my concept of creating models to understand racism, I said, "As a white man, I don't have a direct experience with racism. I only perceive racism indirectly through the negative impact it has on the people I love."
The response I received was something I didn't immediately understand.
"Actually, you do have a direct experience with racism. As a white man, you experience the benefits of racism."
Intellectually, I appreciate insights that are offered to help me better comprehend truly complex concepts. However, I'm not going to lie to you and tell you I jump for joy when I'm confronted with them.
I think there's value in acknowledging that I respond to criticism just like any other white man. A whole array of potential responses is laid out before me like a stretch of highway with multiple exits. One exit says "rage," another says, "denial," another says "self-pity." In fact, there are nothing but bad options for miles and miles.
The difference between me and most other white men is that I don't take the first exits, instead, I keep driving. I know those exits aren't for me because I've taken them in the past and I know from experience they lead nowhere.
Instead of offering a knee-jerk response, I take a deep breath, go for a walk and work on building a model that puts the idea in a familiar framework that helps me begin to understand.
"You didn't rob the bank, but you spent the money"
What does it mean to say "white people have benefited from racism?" As a white person, I need to be taught this. It's not something I inherently know. I'm ignorant here.
How do you ground that concept in a way that allows you to push past the pain, confusion, and denial in order to perceive the productive truth?
Racism deniers always default to the dishonest argument about how modern people should not be held accountable for the crimes that happened years ago. But it's not difficult to understand that even though those crimes happened a long time ago, the repercussions can still be felt to this day.
So, I created a model that took the form of a bank robbery. I said to myself, "You might not have robbed the bank, but you were the one who spent the money."
It's easy to understand things like money and banks. This is the point of familiarity that enabled me to engage the concept. Once I figured out that model, I was able to build on it by making predictions.
Where did your privilege come from?
It's easy to acknowledge that I've likely been handed stolen money in my life. We don't trace the origins of the money we're given. If somebody's giving it to us, we're inclined to accept it because we want the money. Through this mechanism, we become complicit with unjust mechanisms.
Nobody asks, "Is this money yours? Do you have a right to give it to me?"
Following this line of thought, you start to perceive cracks in the whole model of market labor. After all, a person who pays for labor with stolen money has a distorted sense of fairness. Over time, the class that receives payments from stolen funds begins to feel entitled to a disproportionate level of compensation. Also, there is a class that is conditioned to accept that their labor has no value.
Again, this is an oversimplification and the Black community knows this argument already. But indulging in this dialogue is much more productive that screaming insults or slamming the door on further interaction.
Small progress is better than no progress
One of the reoccurring themes I've seen on the subject of racism is an appeal for white people to demonstrate a true commitment to making progress towards a more equitable society. As a white man, I have to be mindful of speaking out of turn or offering comments that do more harm than good. But it is also inappropriate to hold up my ignorance like a surrender flag and recuse myself from discussions.
I often remind myself, "If I don't say something, then who will?"
When uncertain, my solution is to withhold comment until I've done my due diligence on the issue. Sometimes that requires painful self-reflection. Often it requires understanding things I don't have direct experience with by creating some form of model.
I don't have the answers, but I do have a process
My experience as a white male in the United States has provided me with insight into how my identity group thinks. By explaining and sharing the thought process of various identity groups, we can learn tactics to help us overcome the mechanisms that keep us perpetually divided.
Our society celebrates ignorance, and we're conditioned to react with hostility to new ideas. These two factors combine to create a very powerful rejection response that stops productive conversations before they even get started.
I've found I can make progress with my own thinking as well as help others by reframing important concepts in familiar scenarios that carry a different emotional charge. In one example, I reflected on my experiences helping people struggling with addiction and saw parallels in how racists will steadfastly deny they have a problem. As a result, I began to approach debates on racism with the same mentality that I would use for staging an intervention.
It's always a matter of curiosity to see how members of other communities respond to my models. Because this discussion centers on the model, it's easier to understand that criticisms do not represent a personal attack. Sometimes members of other identity groups build on my models in ways I'd never imagined. That's how I achieve insight. This process circumvents the social roadblocks and encourages the kind of idea sharing that leads to progress.
We have the capacity to understand each other
If scientists are able to conceive the physical laws of nature that determine the behavior of light, then we can certainly work to comprehend the traumas of bigotry inflicted on our fellow human beings.
We are not that different and we all have overlapping experiences that enable us perceive each other with compassion. All it takes is a work ethic and some creativity. We may never achieve complete comprehension, but we can endeavor to halve the chasm of our separation until the distance becomes inconsequential.
The great deception of our society is the assumption that our discordant cultural clashes are a naturally occurring phenomenon. They're not. Our inability to understand each other is the deliberate consequence of a hostility funnel designed to keep us in conflict.
Sometimes a tiny shift in perspective is all it takes to learn how to perceive and embrace the potential for harmony.