The tragic death of George Floyd is yet another example of the nastiness of discrimination and prejudice that exists in the United States and across the world, including Canada. The sense and tone I’ve gotten from social media is one of frustration, anger, sadness and confusion. How can this still be happening? What can be done to stop this violence?
From a psychology perspective the judgments we harbour can be conscious (explicit bias) and/or unconscious (implicit bias). Some people truly hold perspectives rooted in ignorance. There are people who will argue that prejudice and discrimination don’t exist and that the challenges of African Americans are all self induced. Views like these would be considered ‘explicit biases’ and are narrow and harmful to say the least. Creating dialogue with people with differing views is likely the best chance you have to shifting their perspectives. Insults and outbursts will just embolden their views and lead to more polarity.
Then we have implicit biases that impact all of us whether we are aware of it or not. These attitudes or stereotypes can affect our understanding, actions and decisions in an unconscious way. Studies have highlighted how pervasive these views can be and how they do not necessarily align with our beliefs/ morals. As an example, the ‘black is bad effect’ describes the bias that darker skin is often associated with perceptions of evil in media and pop culture.
An extensive body of research has led to concern in regard to how empathic responses are also impacted by biases. Contrary to what we may expect, compassion shown towards victims often decreases as the number of individuals in need of support increases. It’s a phenomenon known as ‘compassion collapse.’ So, we tend to have more compassion for one victim compared to a larger group that is suffering. Some researchers think this is due to: greater psychological distance from these victims, feeling less responsibility for helping, or because we feel that helping will not matter much. Other researchers have suggested we automatically gauge the financial and emotional cost of compassion and selectively numb the feeling as a result. It’s important to be aware of this phenomenon so momentum is not lost until meaningful changes are made.
Based on evolutionary factors we have developed an ‘us versus them’ mentality especially in the case of race. We have a tendency to create ‘in- groups’ that can lead to favoritism and ‘out groups’ that can lead to dehumanizing views of indifference and hate.
We are not born with racist or prejudiced views- they are learned through conditioning over the course of our lifetime by exposure to direct or indirect messages. The good news is, we can change these patterns through a process of neuroplasticity; we can re-wire our brains.
So, what can we do about it? There’s a multitude of advocacy options to consider but here are two ideas everyone can engage in.
In order to shift our implicit biases, we need to be aware of them. This is where mindfulness comes in. Most of us are on autopilot during the day as our unconscious mind is at the wheel leading to reactions and judgements of which we are not aware. Observe these subtle thoughts and actions with curiosity! They are happening all the time! Once you are aware of them you can choose to shift your mind or behaviour to something that reflects your values and the changes you want to see in the world. In order to build this capacity, listen to one of the thousands of available mindfulness exercises for 5 to 10 minutes a day. Once you get the hang of it, you can be mindful with everything you do. Practicing mindfulness may increase our ability to savor and sustain compassion for many victims, hence offsetting the collapse of compassion. We cannot control the first thought that pops into our minds, but we can control the second. This is where the growth takes place.
One way to combat the ‘us versus them’ mentality is to consider the people with whom we currently connect. Robin Dunbar theorizes that we can only maintain stable relationships with 150 people. A lot of the issues we see today stem from the fact that the 150 relationships we have involve those with too many overlapping similarities in regard to race, culture, religion, sexuality, politics and interests. These ‘similar’ groups of people can become insular and embolden the ‘us versus them’ mentality. If each of us chooses to either create new connections or enhance existing connections with even 5 people who differ from us in some way, this can increase resonance and create higher levels of compassion, empathy and understanding. Such an approach can create a ripple effect that will lead to systemic change. As Julia Carney once said: ‘little drops of water, little grains of sand, make the mighty ocean and the pleasant land’
Lastly, it takes strength and courage to say or do something when witnessing discrimination. But that strength and courage is nothing compared to what is needed to live life each day for the victims of discrimination. We can all make a difference.
Just a few thoughts, as we grapple with ways to respond to yet another tragic event.