Our differences now shout at us daily. Society has diversified at a pace and reality never before experienced. Whether in politics, culture, economics, or ethnography, we are becoming ever more different. Coming from a place of majority mono-culturalism, it is easy for me to see how this has driven us further and further apart. But this divide is not pre-ordained. Each of us can individually embrace diversity as the only logical solution to this divide as we intentionally reach across our differences and actively, deliberately build connection where connection has not been.
I grew up in a hyper mono-cultural environment. Just when I think about my high school education, I was the same racially, socio-economically, ethnically, racially, and religiously as 95% of my teachers. I was the norm—and the norm understood me. Being in such the majority brings a privilege I never had to recognize: the privilege of understanding. People understood me and I understood them. I had to exercise little effort to bridge a gap of understanding. When I spoke, or when others spoke, we understood each other. The path for me was made smoother since others quickly got me and what I was about. This doesn’t mean I didn’t have to work hard to succeed. It just means that I spent less effort to gain credibility and the opportunity to prove my worth. But as I entered adulthood, parenthood, and the professional world, I was forced to face the reality of this world’s diversity. At that point, I had to make a choice: double down on my mono-culturalism and work where it was easiest, or force myself out of comfort and predictability in an embrace of ever-present difference. I have never been comfortable since.
But how is this done? Speaking specifically as a white male, I approach this from a persistent perspective of majority status. On the face of it, nothing requires me to embrace diversity but my own commitment to building social justice and challenging privilege. When I seriously ponder how society might be bettered for me, my family, and all those I care about, I must admit that becoming familiar with diversity is the only real solution that exists. The embrace of diversity is thus a deliberate action on my part—not a state of being in the sense of just surrounding myself with difference. But an intentional step by step process up the steep hill of progress.
The shift towards a mindset of diversity requires me to do two things: 1. Place myself in contact with those different from myself; and 2. Actively engage in the work of neurally resetting my brain to value multi-culturalism more than mono-culturalism.
To address the first point—interacting with diverse communities—requires an initial recognition: we are all born where we were born. I didn’t choose to be born white in a mono-cultural community in Utah, that is just where I was born. Just as a person born Latino to immigrant parents, a person born African American in the deep South, or whatever a person’s origin may be, none of us choose where we were born. But all of us are responsible for acting on the knowledge we gain, no matter our origin. As I grow up and discover that my upbringing lacked significant diversity, I am responsible to reverse that for myself. I need to reach out to social groups, engage in professional networks, get to know the person of color in my office, attend plays and lectures featuring diverse presenters, get to know politicians and community leaders who differ from me, and read up on histories of civil rights while learning about the experience of people not like myself. This is the obvious work—consciously engage in a more diverse reality.
But to address the second point—neurally rewiring my brain to be more accepting of diversity requires both an understanding how stereotype and prejudice works, as well as a deliberate effort to build new overpowering neural connections that are positively oriented towards diversity.
Let me introduce how this is done—neural rewiring—with a story of significant courage: Daryl Davis, the only black man in a country band, and his biggest fan, a member of the Klu Klux Klan. Over the course of several years, Davis befriended this man, conversed with him extensively, and even had him over to dinner at his house. From this, Davis was introduced to the Grand Dragon of the KKK in Maryland, and repeated the same process—befriending this man who represented pure hatred to Daryl’s racial identity. Eventually that man left the KKK, and Daryl preceded to befriend the next two Grand Masters of the KKK in Maryland leading to both of them leaving the KKK as well. As Daryl describes it, “I became friends with each one of them—when the three Klan leaders left the Klan and became friends of mine, that ended the Ku Klux Klan in the state of Maryland. Today there is no more Ku Klux Klan in the state.” You can learn more about Daryl Davis’ story in the March 27, 2015, edition of the Atlantic at: http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/03/the-audacity-of-talking-about-race-with-the-klu-klux-klan/388733/?utm_source=eb
Our minds process visual images at roughly 1,000 images per second. Thus, the moment we see something, our brain races to find a memory, or neural connection, with what we are seeing. If our initial understanding of race is tied to prejudice, that is the neural memory the brain will find first. We are wired for fight or flight, and so negative associations take precedence over positive ones. Consequently, as a white person if I have seen too many media images of black men as threatening criminals, then when I see a black man my mind will instantly connect that visual image with a misplaced visual image of “black man as threatening.” Within a split second, I have already rendered a judgment on this black man I have barely seen, let alone meet and get to know him, as with Daryl Davis. So visual processing happens at the speed of electricity, but our mind processes auditory signals only at the speed with which we hear things. Even if my belief is that I am non-racist, my mind has already associated this black man with a negative judgement long before this person can tell me why they matter and are non-threatening in my presence. And thus when I start talking with this black man, we have already entered into a long and difficult dialogue trying to overcome the racist judgment my mind already concluded.
It is often said that racism can never be overcome in one’s mind. This is because of these neural connections. Even if I disagree in belief with my mind’s conclusion, my mind will always conclude the same prejudicial judgement, unless I build up enough new positive neural connections to overwhelm the negative one. As has been said so many times, “It takes saying ten nice things to make up for saying one mean thing.” The same process works in our brain—we need to build well over 10-times the number of positive memories and neural connections of good interactions with people different from ourselves as we have negative and prejudicial preconceptions of people different from ourselves.
I can never overcome my racist proclivities that have come from my privileged and mono-cultural upbringing. But I can train my brain to trust my positive experiences with diversity more strongly than my negative prejudices. This takes significant work—work on the level of Daryl Davis. For a neural connection to be built, the brain needs to create a strong memory. And memories develop when all of our senses are engaged—auditory, visual, touch, taste, smell—along with interpersonal connection. Thus Daryl going to dinner with members of the KKK gave those men the opportunity to build an authentic memory of interacting with a black man. Enough of these interactions and these men could no longer hold on to their racist affiliations. This is the way we can train our mind to visually process diversity—especially racial difference—as positive rather than negative. They might still struggle for a lifetime against racial tendencies, but they had made progress to quell bigotry! Powerful indeed.
Yes, I can overcome my mono-cultural bias by actively engaging with diversity. By diversifying my environment and by consciously reworking what I value within my mind, I will find myself overpowering stereotype and judgment with acceptance, tolerance, and even empathy for those who come from a different background than myself. This is the path forward for white people like myself who might not have chosen to be born in a privileged place surrounded by people like themselves, but who now strongly desire to triumph over bias, prejudice, and privilege. Privilege can fall, but only if we work at it.
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