Recently, I was asked about how to help someone grow their understanding of equity. Many people of color have been doing this work since birth. White people need to choose to do this work, as our society has been formed to center and support whiteness. The work of transforming everything you believe about your society is not easy.
First, you need to accept that everything you believe is wrong. Shaking one’s foundations is unsettling, to say the least. But, cracking those innate assumptions is essential, so that the new ideas about our society have space to take root.
Every once in a while, someone tells something that creates profound cognitive dissonance. Recently, on a trip to England, my young daughter was asking me what we would see Native American art at the National Gallery, London. In the end, I came to understand that she wasn’t asking if we would see work from the tribes of the Americas. She was asking if we would see work of the indigenous people of the British Isles. There I was on the escalators in the Tube, leagues, or so, under London, realizing that indigenous and person of color were synonymous in my daughter’s mind. The conversation has stuck with me partly as it illustrates how many coded ideas are imbued in every word we use. Those codes remain invisible unless you are forced to reconsider those ideas. Once you see the codes, you can never un-see them. Think of coded language as a sort of optical illusion. Once your eyes see the trick, you always see it. So, how do you ensure you can “see” social inequity in all its myriad forms?
Placing yourself in moments of cognitive dissonance is essential to being about to transform your world view. You need to be proactive finding ideas and situations that break you out of your norms. You need to challenge yourself to see the world differently. You are the only one who can transform your vision of society.
So, where do you start? Reconsidering the fundamentals of your world is a good place to start. Look at ideas and concepts that you face every day. Break down your assumptions about those ideas.
Family is a particularly interesting one. Even those who aren’t close to their family face the concept constantly.
Take this situation. You walk into a coffee shop to look for a seat. You scan the room and find no tables available. You buy your coffee to go. By the time you leave, you have seen dozens of people. As you scanned the table, you likely unconsciously judged the relationship between the people at the tables. Everyone unconsciously makes hundreds of snap judgments, making images with frames of understanding, every day. Your brain decided on the relationship between people, even if you didn’t consciously realize this. The challenge is that your unconscious ideas are often biased.
American society was founded with the idea of the family being heterosexual with natural-born children and married adults. The idea of 2.5 children in the home of their birth parents is pervasive in our collective subconscious. Family has been transformed considerably in the last fifty years. Interracial relationships are at an all-time high. The state of marriage is no longer defined by gender.
Yet, many people still have innate, unconscious ideas about family. In that coffee shop, if there was a table with a black man and two white children, would you have said family? What about an old Filipino woman and two white children? A white woman and two black children? Two white men and one black boy? All of those groups might define themselves as family. They might not be related. They might. They might family friends, big brothers, foster parents, neighbors, nannies, families by choice, or blood relatives. But, they might all say they are family.
Family is defined individually not from the outside. The idea that family isn’t about blood or marriage breaks many of the unconscious ideas you might hold. You might know this intellectually, but I challenge you to find ways to short-circuit your unconscious frames of reference about family. Next time you are scanning a crowd force yourself to stop and question the groups you didn’t see as family.
This is part of an ongoing series about small actions you can do to increase your ability to increase equity in society.