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Sharon Meers's picture

My daughter came home from kindergarten reciting “I Have A Dream” so we decided to watch the YouTube. Her 8-year old brother Max furrowed his brow as MLK talked about the day to day ugliness of racism. “What kind of people could be like that?” Max wanted to know. We’ve talked about the horrors of slavery, the brave people who stood against it and the segregation that followed. “It’s all better now, right mom?” Humm.

Is it a sign of progress that my kids can think this chapter of history-gone-wrong is anything near corrected? Maybe. But with so much more work to do, I’m thinking it’s better to focus my kids (and myself) on the question of “what kind of people” hinder or help progress toward equality in all its dimensions. I’ve spent a lot of the last year talking about exclusion of a different kind -- the kind that keeps men and women from getting on the same page and building a better world.

Beyond moral considerations, less homogeneous work groups are better for economic reasons: they’re more productive and allow us to more effectively solve problems in everything from science to business to government. Pushing talented people away because they are different costs a lot. And skin-tone-based exclusion presents particularly weighty examples.

I have only 2nd hand exposure to the black experience, but as one of many ethnically-ambiguous Americans, I’ve had some run-ins that make me marvel at how much effort it takes to reverse the impulse to exclude.

At a holiday party a year ago, my husband and I were approached by a friend. “Who’s the rag-head posing with Max in your Christmas card?” he wanted to know. With a frozen smile, my husband explained. “You know, Sharon’s half Indian -- and we were in India a lot this year.” The friend, well-educated and generally kind, looked thunderstruck. Turning swiftly to me, he said “Oh! I didn’t know…I didn’t mean.. I was just joking about the turban!” I said nothing. I like the guy, he felt bad, could I really re-set his thinking with some quip I’m too slow to think of?

Visiting South Carolina as a kid, I was walking through a store with my very tanned sister. A woman looked at her quizzically for a few moments and then approached, “Excuse me miss, but are you black or are you white?” My sister, still in grammar school, had the most accurate response I’ve ever heard: “I don’t know.”

The fact is, even the folks who came here on the Mayflower really don’t know their roots back beyond a few hundred years. Yet today, we base so much identity on the fallacy that we do know. Time magazine explained recently that that John Smith, the leader who opened Jamestown to slavery, had himself been a slave. As a young man, Smith was a mercenary fighting on the edge of the Ottoman Empire and ended up as the chattel of a Turk (he escaped by killing his master).

It may be natural for humans to see ourselves as different and better than others, to use this as a rationalization for taking things (land, food, power). But as I learned from my favorite evolutionary biologist, “What is natural is not necessarily good.” And we all benefit by acknowledging our lesser urges and getting them better under control.

So how do we do that?

Here’s what I’m trying out. In honor of MLK day, I took the Implicit Association Test, an invention of the Harvard psych department popularized in Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink. The test shows us how our implicit attitudes -- attitudes we inhale from the environment we live in -- impact how quickly we can connect certain ideas. According to the test, I am moderately biased about skin tone and gender too. (Research says most Americans -- whether black or white, male or female -- show socially-conditioned bias, associating good things more quickly with light faces and career/power with men).

One point of the IAT research is that it takes a lot of active effort to put instinctive assumptions in check. (E.G. if you surround yourself with photos of female scientists, you may less often picture a man when you hear the word “physicist.”). So having taken the IAT, I have to ask myself what active effort I am making to alter the environmental inputs that shape how I think -- and how my kids think too.

I’ve also been reading the current advice on the bullying -- the schoolyard version of exclusion. Bullies get their power from bystanders who don’t intervene, who passively condone the mistreatment. Instead, experts say, we should train our kids to break that power in gentle ways. When actions or words exclude others, our impulse should be to neutralize the bully (“thanks for sharing”) and include the excluded (“come sit with us”). Not turn away. Can we train ourselves to do this as adults?

I hope I’ll think of the brilliant retort -- humorous, mind-changing -- to the next odd comment on turbans. Or do more than raise my eyebrows when someone tells me how one group of people is inherently “different” in X or Y way. But mostly I hope it will become more common to talk about how much effort it takes to kick the habit of exclusion -- so it’s easier for all of us to be the kind of people who choose words that include, who extend a hand. So please chime in with your thoughts (clever comebacks welcome too).

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