Redefining Prejudice: Why are Clive Bundy and Donald Sterling choosing to be subjective, mindless, and powerless?
Elizabeth R. Thornton, Professor of Management Practice, Babson Executive Center and Adjunct Lecturer in Entrepreneurship reflects on two recent incidents that have reignited the conversation about racism.
Here we are again — two more incidents to reignite the conversation about racism. In his inflammatory statements, Cliven Bundy says, “Prejudice is about not being able to exercise what we think.” This is not what prejudice is. The dictionary definition is “preconceived opinion that is not based on reason or actual experience.” It is a form of subjectivity, mindlessness and powerlessness. According to Slate‘s Jamelle Bouie:
Obviously, Bundy is a crank. But he’s not alone. Not only are these views shared on the survivalist fringe of American life, but they’re fairly common within the conservative movement.
If this is true, then the question is: Why do so many people choose to think and act based on preconceived notions, not based on reason or reality? Why do so many people choose to be subjective, mindless and powerless when they can choose not to be?
On the alleged recorded statements admonishing his girlfriend for publicly associating with black people, Donald Sterling claims that “racism is a culture that we all have to live with.” This is not true. It is a choice! The reason why we can choose is because we are not our thoughts, nor are we our biases or prejudices. They are part of us, but they are not us. If we are aware of them, then we can evaluate their validity. We can choose to think and act based on bias and prejudice or not. I call this objectivity — the power of seeing things as they are. So, no, Mr. Sterling, racism is not a culture we all have to live with. It is a choice that you have made.
In my recent blog, “What If Many of Us Are Biased and We Don’t Know It,” I wrote about the fact that we all have biases. In fact, most of us developed definite entrenched stereotypes about black people, women and other social groups by the age of five. As children — black, white, girl, or boy — we constantly appraised our environment and formed conclusions about our world. If we didn’t see black faces in our Saturday morning cartoons, we may have assumed that black was not as good. If we didn’t see women holding positions of power, we may have concluded that women were less than men. If we saw few, if any, black children at school, we may have judged that something was wrong with black people. We were just trying to make sense of our world. We were too young, and we didn’t have the cognitive ability to evaluate the validity of those conclusions. And no matter how progressive our parents were, as soon as we walked out the door, we had to confront peer pressure, the media and the social structure that promulgated these stereotypes. As a result, these biases and conclusions that we formed as children became reinforced and integrated into our neural net, dictating our thoughts about, and steering our automatic behavior toward, certain groups of people. As children we had no choice.
So, I am not at all surprised or outraged by the fact that Mr. Bundy and Mr. Sterling may have adopted these beliefs as children. What I do find inexcusable is that, as adults, both men still choose to think and act through the lens of a child who could not fully comprehend or reason. Unfortunately, many of us think and act through mental models that we developed as children, mental models we never questioned that cause us to respond to people, situations and events in ways that we regret — or, in Mr. Bundy’s and Mr. Sterling’s case, should regret. This is our inherent subjectivity.
The problem is that we will continue to see outrageous displays of racial bias until we can come to grips with our inherent subjectivity and our belief that we are powerless to control our cognitive processes and our automatic reactions. But we have no more excuses. Neuroscience has demonstrated the power of our minds to shape every aspect of our lives — from health, to feelings of well-being, to achieving success and happiness. We are not powerless over biases, mental models and ways of thinking that can diminish ourselves or others and cause hurt, outrage and divisiveness. Instead of being mindless, not questioning our assumptions, we can consciously choose our responses to everything we experience. Mr. Bundy: MLK’s work is done. He inspired us to be better people and to evolve. And now we have the knowledge to do so.
To evolve in this context means to transform our biases, to actually change the way we think and feel about people who are different than us. We can question our biases, develop new ways of thinking about them, and cement our new way of thinking with reinforcing experiences. Here’s how we can do it:
1. Look at how we think about differences we did not choose.
Did you choose your skin color? Did you choose your gender? Did you choose your parents or their economic status? Of course not! Then how can we judge and condemn ourselves and others based on something over which we have no control? Science has proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that the number of genetic differences between two distantly related humans is roughly one thousandth of their total DNA. So what is the justification for the hatred and intolerance we have for other people who are just like us, except for a minor physical difference? How can we institutionalize how things ought to be for certain groups of people, what they should have access to or what they deserve in terms of quality of life, access to education, health care and other opportunities, simply based on a difference? It is not rational.
2. Make a commitment to transform your biases.
Transforming biases requires motivation and commitment. Because of our brains’ neuroplasticity, its ability to change with new information and experiences, we can teach ourselves to eliminate bias. There are many examples of situations where people simply exposed themselves to positive situations with groups, which they were biased against, and the bias was indeed reduced. Creating new experiences, such as volunteering for projects, participating in cultural events, traveling abroad or learning a new language are all effective ways to broaden our perspective about people who are not like us!
I have seen something very compelling in my Global Inclusion and Objectivity Leadership programs. When we sit down and actually think though some of our biases and assumptions and bring them to conscious awareness, it is impossible to keep them. It becomes very clear that they just don’t make sense. Once we choose to make the cognitive shift, then it is just a matter of breaking a habit. Every time we interrupt our automatic, bias-based reactions and respond differently, we are consciously rewiring our brains.
Mr. Sterling, we have the power to change our world. Instead of choosing to be subjective, mindless and powerless, we can all make the commitment to grow, thrive and evolve!