• Lenore Lambert

How to Stop Bigotry

Sadness, disgust and despondency. This is what many of us feel in response to the latest high profile cruelty inflicted on people with dark coloured skin in the US.

What if I could tell you how to stop bigotry? Seriously. Would you do it? Because I can. And you can - at least in your own field of influence. And if everyone did that, we’d end bigotry a lot faster and people like George Floyd will stay alive.

Many of us feel powerless to do anything about this kind of atrocity. But there is something very real and very powerful we can do to undermine it. Every one of us. Every day. Let me explain.

I want to tell you about the moment that starts hatred. Because to weed it out at its root, we need to nip it in the bud before it gets momentum. We face this moment every day, often many times per day, and not just when we encounter people who look different to ourselves.

The moment that starts hatred is the moment where we allow ourselves to accept the idea of an “in-group” and an “out-group”. It’s where we allow ourselves to draw a circle around our selves and include just selected individuals in that circle, where we decide there’s an “us” and there’s a “them”. It’s the moment when we decide that another living being is an “other,” that they are not “like me”.

What follows is that it becomes okay, or at its worst, desirable, for ‘them’ to suffer.

We’ve known for a long time that human beings have a tendency towards “us and them”. Psychologists call it Social Identity Theory. We focus on some characteristic in someone that is different to ourselves. It could be the football team they support, the nation they come from, the suburb or part of town they come from, the university they went to, the sex they are, the way they speak, whether they are religious, which brand of religion they subscribe to, or in this case, their skin tone.

It can be anything at all really. We allow the momentum of that thought to continue, and before we know it, we’ve got our ‘in-group’. From there, we over-emphasise the similarities between ourselves and other members of the ‘in-group’ and we over-emphasise the differences between ourselves and the members of the ‘out-group’.

Then because we’ve defined them as ‘other’, as outside of our circle, we close off our empathy. “I don’t need to feel for them because they are not ‘like me’.” Add fear to the equation, and violence often follows.

Now the problem is not actually the moment when the idea of an ‘in-group’ arises. Much of what arises in our minds is involuntary. It just appears based on our conditioning – what our families told us, the messages we receive from our society, our schooling, the people we grew up around, the things we’ve been exposed to, the mood we’re in. No, in that moment we are not to blame.

The tendency of the mind to think this way is natural. We don’t need to beat ourselves up for it. But cyclones are natural too. That doesn’t mean they’re good. We need to understand that we have a natural tendency to do this – a tendency that probably helped our distant ancestors survive, but that this tendency belongs with the law of the jungle and has no place in a civilised compassionate world.

If we’re serious about undermining the kind of violence we’re reeling from now, we need to undermine the seeds of it in ourselves. To do that, we need to recognise our own capacity for creating in-groups and out-groups, and undermine that process.

We may not personally be killing people because of their skin colour, but we are engaging in the very same process that leads to that dark place. All of us! And if we are serious about ridding our world of this kind of hideousness, we need to “be the change we want to see” as Mahatma Gandhi famously urged. If we’re not willing to do our best with this in our own lives, what right do we really have to be appalled?

So how do we do this? If we don’t even control what arises in our minds, where does our choice, our responsibility, come in? How do we undermine this pattern?

The moment that is ours to own is the one after the ‘in-group idea’ arises. This is the moment that defines whether we’re really committed to undermining bigotry. It’s the moment when we become aware that the ‘in-group’ idea is present, and we decide what to do with it.

Do we ignore it and let our ‘natural’ impulses drive us forward on automatic pilot? Or do we stop it in its tracks and choose differently?

A two-step practice

There are two parts to this practice. The first is to be aware of our own ‘in-groups’. Characteristics like skin colour and gender and nationality are obvious ones. But what about local accent (e.g. from xyz side of town), type of occupation (e.g. professional vs blue collar), fashion sense (trendy vs bogan), level of social competence, political persuasion, age?

Having recently turned 50, I’ve experienced being treated as an ‘other’. I’m a serious Masters track athlete and I joined a new squad of younger athletes. After three weeks (and 12 training sessions), no-one had voluntarily spoken to me. Why? Because of my age. It was awful! I didn’t need them to be my new besties, but ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’ and ‘what’s your name?’ would have been a good start!

“They’re just young” I hear you say? No! See the words ‘they are’ in that sentence? That’s where we do it. ‘They are’ young, ‘we are’ older and wiser and more mature. No!

I’ve been on a soccer team of women between the ages of 20 and 50 and seen plenty of non-wisdom and immaturity. And I’m now part of another squad of younger athletes who are friendly and inclusive. ‘Younger people’ is just another out-group, another set of ‘others’ who are not ‘like us’, tarring them all with the same brush!

See how insidious it is? You probably didn’t think there was any problem with ‘they’re just young’ did you? Again, we shouldn’t beat ourselves up for the thought occurring, but what do we do with it once it has?

This leads me to the second part of the practice. When we notice we’ve ‘othered’ someone, how do we undermine that? How do we stop it in its tracks before it gets momentum?

Here’s the answer. It’s simple, but not easy. So it’s a good time to just check in on whether you said ‘yes’ to the question about whether you’d do what it takes to stop bigotry. If you said yes, you’re saying yes to practicing this.

What we need to do is focus our attention on what we have in common. In athletics, this is super easy. We have so much in common – all of the challenges of training and competing in a sport where there’s nowhere to hide. Your performance is measured to the millisecond! These challenges are mostly the same regardless of your age.

Where our commonality is less obvious though, what do we do?

Let’s say we feel empathy for refugees and we’re dealing with a colleague who thinks we should ‘send them home’. We see the struggle of the refugees and our heart opens. We see the relative ‘privilege’ of our colleague who wants to send them home, and we feel angry. How could they be so heartless?

The trick is to actually answer that question, which is this: the same way we are being heartless towards them right now. We don’t want to feel their pain, so we shut it out – the exact same thing our ‘heartless’ colleague is doing towards refugees.

Our colleague doesn’t want to feel the pain of the refugees’ plight, and also doesn’t want to feel the pain of their own fear of what their imagination says might happen if we ‘let them stay’. So they construct a narrative that labels refugees as ‘others’ and justifies action to quell their own fear.

But if we cast our colleague into an ‘other’ group, we’re doing exactly the same thing. We don’t want to feel their fear. It’s the very same process! Rather than open our heart to their plight, their fear, and try to empathise with it, we label them as ‘right wing’ and set ourselves apart from them. We have refugees in our ‘in-group’ and fearful border protection advocates as our ‘out-group’.

This is the same seed that grows oppressive behaviour towards those of different skin colour, gender and sexual orientation. We designate living beings, even of our own species, as ‘other’ because bringing them into our in-group, focusing on what we have in common, causes us fear and discomfort.

This is not something to punish ourselves for. It’s something to practice undoing! The key is to focus on our basic safety needs – to access our own ability to feel the fear or the pain - to build compassion. Try these:

The need for:

Material security – the need to be free from physical danger, to have enough food, shelter, and protection from the elements. George Floyd’s need for this need was trampled by police last week, and this is what has sparked the demonstrations around the world. Americans with dark skin don’t feel that they can trust this need will be safeguarded.

Many of us in modern societies don’t know what it’s like to have this need under threat. The media can be helpful here – bringing us stories and images that help us feel for others less lucky than ourselves.

I suspect that, deep down, border protection advocates fear that accepting refugees into the country (think: “they’ll take our jobs!”) will threaten their own material security. The fear is misguided but most of us react when we feel fear. We don’t often sit down and think it through rationally or in detail.

Autonomy – the need to be able to choose for ourselves free of coercion. The rise of democracy across the world is a large-scale movement to meet this need. On a micro-level, a lot of teenage angst can be a struggle to achieve this.

Can we tap into a time in our own lives when we’ve felt controlled in some way, not free to choose? I’ve heard parents ‘other’ teenagers as a way of dealing with the difficulty they present. What if we were to tune in to our own experience of the fundamental need they’re struggling with?

Certainty – the need for a means of dealing with the unreliability and unpredictability of the world so that it doesn’t overwhelm us. Many people turn to religion or philosophy for this, others turn to science. Fanaticism, whether religious or otherwise, is an extreme grab for certainty. Strongly opinionated people, or those who come across as always having to be right can have fear around this need.

Can we tune into our own experience of feeling overwhelmed by what we perceive as some kind of chaos? Some kind of overwhelm from complexity or unpredictability? Can you relate to the desire to flee to certainty? To structure the world in such a way that we feel we know how things work, at least enough that we can cope?

Belonging – the need to belong with and be accepted by other people. For many of us in the modern world, this need is the one that is most poorly met as our societies have moved towards individualism. But the need to belong is in our DNA. It drives us deeply. Rejection is felt as physical pain.

Most of us can empathise with this one. Most of us have been rejected or ignored in our lives by at least someone. So when we come across people who are desperate to impress or to be liked or approved of, or even just accepted, can we feel into that awful feeling of being excluded? That’s what we’re running from when we try too hard to belong. That’s what drives a lot of status seeking behaviour, including the amassing of wealth and the showing of symbols to display this (for example paying for expensive brands, living in the ‘right suburb’).

The un-met need for belonging shows up in so many places in our world. Those people who always need to be right.... sometimes this is the need that they are trying to fill. They’ve learnt somewhere that being accepted depended on them never being wrong. The same with those of us who are driven to be perfect, or to always win.

There are other human needs too, such as the need for pleasure, for engagement in challenging activities, for achievement, and for contributing for the benefit of others. But these needs are more in the realm of fulfilment rather than safety. If we want to pull bigotry out from its roots, its possibly more effective to focus on the safety needs because fear is very easy to provoke in us humans and therefore easy to empathise with.

I want to be clear that this practice of recognising and feeling with the fears or hurts of others doesn’t mean we accept their behaviour. We should intervene wherever we can to prevent fear-based behaviour turning into harm. Our social safety systems and laws are an important part of that.

But we can do that AND build a habit of dismantling the ‘othering’ process.

The in-group/out-group division is where we need to focus. In addition to focusing on our shared safety needs to ‘feel with’ those being ‘othered’, we can also deliberately use inclusive language to shape our thinking. We can treat the in-group as all of humanity.

I heard an American woman with dark skin talking on the radio referring to people with dark skin as ‘my people’. Again, this might sound innocuous, even uniting. But it’s uniting people with dark skin as an in-group and people with light skin as an out-group – the very same process that’s led to the incident she’s demonstrating against.

Even the term ‘racism’ holds within it in-groups and out-groups. We all belong to the human race. What if we were to refer to that as our race? What if we were to call it ‘skin-ism’? Wouldn’t that rightly cast skin-tone related bigotry as ridiculous?

I understand how tempting it is to identify with a group when we’re wanting to defend it, especially if it needs defending. But it’s also inadvertently watering the seed of 'othering' and therefore bigotry, rather than pulling it out at the root. Can we defend the victims as members of our human race, rather than as ‘black people’?

This is a human problem, not a problem with light skinned people, or heterosexual people, or men. These are just the in-groups that have historically had the most power to add oppression to their bigotry. This is demonstrated powerfully by the fact that even out-groups, who know firsthand what it’s like to suffer the effects of bigotry, engage in it themselves.

For example there are many sub-groups within the LGBTIQ community who are bigoted against other sub-groups. I have a dark skinned friend of Indian origin who grew up in South Africa. She tells me that dark skinned South Africans whose ancestors are from India suffer bigotry from dark skinned South Africans whose ancestors are from South Africa. I’ve known Greek and Italian people whose migrant families suffered bigotry in Australia in the 1970s – the very same families who now insist that my friends marry people from their home country! It’s the same process: in-group, out-group.

What if we were to undermine bigotry along the way as we right the wrongs in the world? If we undermine bigotry, the rest will follow much more easily.

Few of us are in a position to make changes to government policies or cultures of police forces. But signing petitions and commenting on Facebook posts are not all we can do. It’s nowhere near the most powerful thing we can do.

We can practice pulling bigotry out by the roots every day in our own worlds. Identify who you treat as ‘other’, be kind to yourself about it, then focus your attention on commonality of experience - of basic human needs. Practice it again and again and again. This is wise attention.

It’s not easy. And this can help us tune in to why others ‘act out’ rather than ‘feel with’. We can relate to how hard it is. So even when we’re standing against harmful behaviour, we can do that in a way that doesn’t cause its own harm, and doesn’t represent the same in-group/out-group process we’re fighting against.

Who knows, maybe one day we’ll even expand our in-group to include other species whose suffering is currently seen as acceptable, because they’re ‘not like us’.

Perhaps a step too far for today.


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