Prejudice, Diversity, the Brain and Empathy – September 2013
On a train from Baltimore to Washington, DC I was sitting across from a man of color who was reading the New York Times. He finished each section and put them on the seat across from him, 2 seats away from me. He still had three sections left in his hands when a caucasian man, with glasses, sharp shoulders and khaki pants, came over to our seats.
“Can I read your paper?” he asked me?
Shocked, I just stared at him. I shifted and gestured the man reading his paper.
The man in the glasses peered at me, uncomprehending. “I’d like to read your paper,” he said again.
“It’s not my paper,” I said, after I found my voice. . “See, that guy reading it? It’s his.”
With no sign of consciousness of his own racism, the man finally turned to the owner of the copy of the Times. “Oh, can I read this?” he asked.
These thousands of paper cuts of prejudice, called microaggressions by Chester M. Pierce, are in his words “subtle, stunning, often automatic, and nonverbal exchanges” experienced by non-dominant groups at the hands of representatives of the dominant groups they live within. Overtly racist behaviors have become less socially acceptable over the last half century in North America, but even after we work on getting rid of our glaringly obvious prejudices, we are left with our basic human propensity to act on judgments we make from patterns based on visual or conceptual differentiation of groups. Embedded in these ideas are our sense of where power lies, and our sense of who matters. And every time we enact a group-based judgment that lands for another as a paper cut, we are responsible, usually unknowingly responsible, for another blow on the immune systems of the people we live in community with.
Even though in the experience I had above, I was an ally and witness rather than a microaggressor, (thank the powers that be that it happens sometimes!) I read the list of microaggressions with a dawning sense of horror and self-recognition, as I long to be able to move through the world consciously, and doing as little harm as possible. The larger patterns that I wish I could see, anticipate and hold with care in myself and others include: categorizing people by whatever group we’ve put them in; denying “-isms,” our own or others’, or the effects of “-isms”; using one person to stand in for a whole group; or asking someone to be an expert on whatever group we have decided they are part of. Nonverbal microaggressions include times when we discount, dismiss, devalue or don’t notice others based on our evaluation of what group they belong to, like our newspaper story above. Here are some examples of spoken microaggressions:
“I don’t know what you are talking about. Racism really isn’t a problem nowadays.”
“I don’t think of you as Black. You are just a normal person.”
“I have lots of Asian friends… One of my best friends is gay.”
“Tell me what it’s like to be disabled… transgender… asexual…Mexican….”
“Where are you from? You speak good English.”
It is simultaneously simple and horrifyingly difficult, this asking ourselves to be present to one another without story, without preconception, without judgment. It is mindfulness in relationship with one another, just as we ask ourselves to be in relationship with the present moment with our judgments and stories stripped away when we are meditating. Each of us is complex and capable of seeing the people we meet as souls, (as infinitely varied individuals, if you don’t like the “s” word), rather than as representatives of groups, genders, races, ethnic identities, or gender orientations. Each person is sacred, and there to be discovered and known. (It’s only what all the religions of history have asked from their mystics and devotees.) And every time we mindlessly group, dismiss, or invisible-ize the people we meet, they take a hit to their immune system.
Of course, this request is extremely difficult without big doses of self-empathy. Even thinking about treating each person we meet as an individual might seem exhausting. There is ease in making patterns out of people. We predict and generalize and use gender-biased language because that is what left hemispheres do, and because it saves time and energy. In asking ourselves to do it differently, we may find that we feel impatience, pain, defensiveness or even anger or outrage. We may long for ease, for fluid capacity for presence, forgiveness, generosity, understanding, support, or to have our intentions seen. The starting point, as always, is our body. When we contemplate this issue, what happens in our stomach? In our heart? In our lungs, throat, face? If those sensations were emotions, what might they be? And what are our deep needs and longings?