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Thursday, April 20, 2006

Conscious vs. Unconscious

I’m reading all this academic literature about how deluded white Americans are. What I’m finding most interesting are the studies that show a gap between what people say they believe and how they actually behave on tests that measure unconscious assumptions. In daily life, this manifests as the white woman who says she doesn’t have any stereotypes about black people, but who unconsciously grips her purse tighter when she passes a black man on the street, or the white employer who says he wants a diverse workplace, but whose body language toward a black job applicant is subtly less welcoming. According to psychologists, this is the most common type of white American. Those who are openly racist and those who are truly not racist are both minorities.

I’ve been thinking about what this type of unconsciousness means economically and politically for people of color, but also what it means spiritually for whites. Every author I’ve read so far points out that people tend to cling to their delusions, making up reasons for their behavior so they don’t have to face their unconscious motivations. It makes me wonder how often this applies to other areas of our lives, as well. What are the self delusions I cling to, and what harm do they cause?

For example, I’ve been dragging my heels about getting my mom’s name engraved on the headstone that already bears her maiden name. Decades ago, my grandmother purchased six plots together, and now they are all full (My grandparents, three of their children, and one son-in-law). But the headstone is still half empty because my cousin never got around to adding his parents’ names after they died, years ago. Before she died, my mother instructed me to have her sister and brother-in-law added to the headstone when her name was added (She made a point of wanting her brother-in-law to be listed last since he was not really part of the family). In the winter, when I was working on my mother’s affairs full time, the funeral director told me they usually don’t engrave headstones at the cemetery in winter; they wait until spring, so I put the chore off. Well, now my tulips are blooming, the clematis buds are poised to open, and the fern are unfurling. Still, every day I postpone calling the gravestone company. Is this simply laziness on my part, or evidence of some unconscious issue? Maybe engraving her name seems too permanent. Or maybe I have some unresolved anger, and procrastinating on the headstone is a relatively harmless way of acting passive aggressive. If that’s the case, I wonder what it means that my cousin still hasn’t added his father’s name after ten years.

We humans are so complicated, our true motivations often mysterious. I recently watched a friend muck up a situation because of some passive aggressive behavior that I’m pretty sure was unconscious. It reminds me that Thich Nhat Hanh and other Buddhists talk about mindfulness as a peace issue. As Hanh writes in Peace is Every Step,”We are afraid to bring into our conscious mind the feelings of pain that are buried in us, because they will make us suffer.” He suggests we take up practices like mindful breathing that help us to acknowledge our painful feelings and accept them. Only when we pay attention to our thoughts and actions can we stop ourselves from hurting others accidentally and sow seeds of peace instead.

In the situation with the friend, my first impulse was to figure out how to make him more self aware, just as my first impulse after reading the studies on racism was to go around educating other white people. But then there’s that old line in scripture about removing the plank from your own eye first, a line I suspect Buddhists would agree with. As Gandhi and others have pointed out, transforming ourselves and transforming the world go hand in hand.

7 Comments:

Blogger Darius said...

And it always seems that after you've taken out a couple major planks and feel you're all squared away, you feel something in your eye and pull out another two by four.

10:32 PM  
Anonymous laura s. said...

I am struggling to teach my children the evils of racial stereotyping. They get it to a degree -- have learned about the Civil Rights movement, live in an integrated neighborhood, attend an integrated school. But their school is in a poverty-stricken all-black neighborhood. Houses are falling down, trash and graffiti abound. At the public high school two blocks away, a student was shot by a classmate last year.

My children want to know why black neighborhoods are like that -- violent and ugly. I do my best to explain about people having different economic opportunities and the effects of years of racial discrimination.

But the fact, through their eyes, is that in this poor all- black neighborhood, people don't take care of their homes or yards.

We drive past an all-black public school and every day see children casually littering as they walk to and from school. I am certain that kids at every school litter... but we don't always see that.

My son's baseball team practices at a field next to that public school. It is filled with garbage and broken glass. I suggested his team bring plastic bags and pick up the garbage. He said they did it once and it was all messed up again next time.

So these are the realities that my children see, and that are informing their opinion. We also drive through an all-black, well kept middle-class neighborhood on the way to school. I realize now I should take care to point this out to them. But I can't close their eyes to the other things they see, things that reinforce damaging stereotypes.

3:24 PM  
Blogger Eileen Flanagan said...

Laura's comment was posted the same day I was reading a book that said that what kids see as they travel through the world is exactly what forms their impressions of race, at a much younger age than most adults expect. By three, these sociologists suggest, children (black and white) have already absorbed who picks up their garbage and who bags their groceries vs. who is their pediatrician, etc. Reading anti-bias books in Kindergarten is too little too late.

It's disheartening because they say that it is pretty much impossible to shelter children from the whole culture, but that understanding the history ourselves as parents and helping our kids understand it is important. I think that seeing things like black middle class neighborhoods, as well as white working class ones, does help negate the stereotypes, too. In fact, Laura, you've given me a new perspective. Our community garden is constantly being littered in by the patrons of the two Irish bars that flank us. Perhaps I should stop seeing this as an annoyance, and see it as a chance for my children to notice that it's not just people in the nearby black neighborhood who litter.

7:06 AM  
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11:30 PM  
Blogger Lips Mahoney said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

6:36 PM  
Blogger Lips Mahoney said...

I guess from my experience and observations, this issue of what neighborhoods are kept versus those that live in some degree of squalor has little to do with race, and everything to do with CULTURE.

What children are actively taught is expected from them as appropriate public behavior from a young age is critical.

I've lived in many diverse neighborhoods and have seen degrees of trash/litter in all of them, but none nearly like what I observe on a daily basis in the black inner city.

When I witness a mother of three leave a convenient store, and she proceeds to thoughtlessly throw the wrappers from her fast food on the ground just feet from a public trash dispenser, and her kids follow with the same, I know exactly where they get it from, and it doesn't have to do with a legacy of slavery or a lack of economic opportunities.

6:39 PM  
Blogger Eileen Flanagan said...

Author and preacher Jim Wallis points out that Democrats tend to blame society for social problems, while Republicans tend to point to personal responsibility. He argues, rightly I think, that we all need to understand that both are important.

10:42 AM  

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