“Racism isn’t born, folks, it’s taught. I have a two-year-old son. You know what he hates? Naps! End of list.” ~ Denis Leary
Over the last couple of months, the discussion about racism and homophobia in this country has heated up again with the death of Trayvon Martin, the trial of George Zimmerman, and the Supreme Court ruling on the rights of gays to marry.
I’m not interested in debating the merits of legal arguments or whether Trayvon Martin got justice or how marriage should be defined.
And I’m not interested in pointing fingers at “those” people, the folks who are fervently and unabashedly racist/sexist/homophobic. They have their own path to walk.
No, I’m more concerned about us, you and me. The unconscious haters with our hardly-even-visible prejudices. Because we ALL have them – no exceptions. And we are the real problem.
Say what? How can I say that? I don’t even know you! You’ve got friends of all races. You support gay people’s civil rights. You respect other genders (Oh, did I forget to mention that sexism cuts both ways?). How dare I accuse you of prejudice?!?
I dare because it’s just how it is. As human beings, we can’t escape having prejudices and biases. We’re wired for it. It’s human instinct, an efficient way of staying safe and surviving. Our unconscious mind (whose mission is to keep us alive) sorts zillions of bits of data from the time we are born. It can’t possibly sort through each bit individually. So for thousands of years, the unconscious mind has been wired to create associations and group potential threats: One lion kills? All lions kill. One monkey steals our food? All monkeys will steal our food.
We may not like it, but it’s our default position.
When we say that prejudice is taught, what do we really mean? It’s not so much that our parents consciously teach us the prejudices we carry around with us. Most of this learning is unconscious – and therefore more insidious and more deeply rooted. We notice that Mom seems tense when she walks past a group of young African-American men. Our unconscious mind registers some kind of threat. We notice Dad making a face when he sees a gay couple holding hands. Hmmm . . . must be something wrong there.
Even when we consciously reject prejudice, we will still react according to our unconscious beliefs. We will “see” things that may or may not be there. We’ll make assumptions about others’ intentions or capabilities without even thinking. We’ll give off vibes of disapproval even as we’re smiling and nodding. Unless we’re brave enough to acknowledge these unconscious beliefs and bring them to consciousness, they will continue to influence how we behave.
The thing about unconscious prejudices is that, even though we don’t notice how we’re playing them out, the targets of our prejudice are very aware of it. A woman may be painfully aware that men in the office aren’t taking her ideas as seriously as ideas from other men. But the men are probably totally unconscious of it. A police officer may not notice that he is more lenient with a young white female who’s caught speeding than a young black male, but the young black male sure as heck sees it. A waitress may not be aware that she avoids serving the table with the affectionate lesbian couple, but that couple is very conscious of it.
So who’s on your unconscious hater list? Hollywood starlets? Welfare recipients? Muslims? Christians? Women? Men? Old people? Teenagers? Republicans? Democrats? Are you willing to take an honest look, get a little uncomfortable and acknowledge those unconscious beliefs?
In NLP we call such beliefs “limiting beliefs” because they restrict our ability to live our fullest expression of who we really are. We have several techniques to uproot and change these beliefs which I’ll outline in another blog.
Many of us say that we want to end the divisiveness in our culture. If that’s what we truly want, the place to start is with ourselves.