I recently found myself in an all too familiar position. I was discussing local politics with other members of my community and I pointed out that an assertion that another person had made was foundationally racist. The immediate reaction to my statement was vehement defensiveness on the part of those who agreed with the speaker. It was not long until the group decided I must be a racist because the group had no intention of any such thing in their use of the term. No amount of explaining or reasoning would shake the belief in this group that I was just trying to open their eyes rather than attack the person. I will get into what the phrase of contention is later, but this is an example of what happens frequently when someone tries to share their awareness of how common assumptions by those with privilege can hurt the group that does not benefit from similar privilege.
We live in a time of maximum communication and interaction. The Internet and various forms of media have allowed us to share our thoughts and opinions with others in ways that were impossible a few decades ago and we are just now beginning to realize there are consequences for this ability. The common wisdom is that you should not engage in argument with strangers online because no one ever changes their mind. This may be true of many people, but I have found new understanding by listening to people with a wide variety of backgrounds. It is trendy to call society soft and decry the days when you could say something without everyone getting offended. There was a time when I agreed with this, that time was before I started listening to those who were offended and why they felt the way they did. The process is called Viewpoint Diversity, it is the act of opening your mind to thoughts and ideas that conflict with your strongly held assumptions. You must then examine your own views in light of the new perspectives you have been given and change your position as you find necessary. This is a difficult practice to engage in and I am far from an expert, but I have made progress over the years as I learn to listen to others. Embracing Viewpoint Diversity takes time and practice, many people will struggle with the concept at first because they will say they were unmoved by new perspectives. In our society there is a fear of being thought of as weak because you change your mind; that is a difficult hurdle to overcome. We must persevere if we are to stop marginalizing others.
Privilege is hard to perceive when you have it. There are a few examples of it that most people can understand, for example, wealthy people are far less likely to suffer the consequences of crimes they commit because they can afford better legal services. That is an obvious benefit of the privilege of their wealth. There are far more instances of privilege that people experience on a daily basis that burden others in their lives without being obvious. It is difficult to write this because I am cisgender, straight, white, middle class, college educated, and male. I have hit the nearly all the categories of highest privilege in our society. Over the years I have engaged in many mistaken assumptions because I accepted the viewpoint of the world that my privilege allowed me. I did not intend to harm others with my assumptions and would never have considered my behavior to be racist in any way. That does not change the fact that others who were hurt by my beliefs and actions. What I have come to learn is I was engaging in acts of Microaggressions. A microaggression is when what you think, say, or do is perceived as an act of subtle or unintended discrimination of others. Microaggressions can be committed in many ways to all people and when pointed out the person committing them often becomes defensive because they did not intend harm. Microaggressions can also be part of a behavior called a Dog Whistle. Dog whistling is when a person uses key phrases and terms that would be understood by others to support their beliefs, but could be easily defended if confronted by those they were discriminating against. These behaviors have made it difficult maintain politeness when confronting the discriminatory behavior of others and have led to a callout culture that is dividing people along societal battle lines that are hard to cross.
I myself have come to understand that many of the beliefs I held were forms of unintentional racism and discrimination. I could defend the people who instilled them in me by saying they were from an earlier time or that they did not realize what they were doing is wrong, but none of those reasons absolve them of the responsibility of having been wrong. We need to be willing to confront our assumptions and change them to heal the wounds that those assumptions have inflicted. An early example in my own life is when my parents decided to move our family between my 6th and 7th grade years of school. At the time and for years after I was told the reason was due to a block of apartments on the other side of town were being opened up to Section 8 housing. I did not realize this was an example of white flight at the time. I did not know what Section 8 housing was, but I now had a framework for it that was later filled in by other passed down faulty assumptions about poverty and racial shortcomings. Years later as I began to question my foundational thinking I discovered that being a feminist was not akin to being threat to national security. As my understanding grew I began to try sharing my new understanding with those around me. At first I was confronted by all the things I had said or done that contradicted my new beliefs. I had to reconcile with my actions and apologize for them. Our culture holds people accountable for what they have said or done without an expiration date and often will refuse to accept when a person says they have changed. This is unfortunate because it serves to entrench people in their beliefs because they see others trying to break out and being accused of being inauthentic. Even now, when I discuss feminism I am careful to avoid talking about my daughter because it is cliché and a microaggression to claim to be a feminist after having a daughter. In my life I will try to educate others when I can and try to avoid calling out others unless their actions are particularly egregious. When those I know change their behavior I recognize the change and treat them as an ally rather than reminding them of how they were wrong in the past. I know I still make mistakes and when they are pointed out to me I thank the person for bringing them to my attention and examine my behavior and make the needed changes.
I did not come to this way of life easily. I had to overcome the Backfire Effect. The Backfire Effect is when you are confronted with an idea that challenges your firmly held beliefs and your mind reacts to the new ideas similarly to how it would react to a physical threat. You become resistant to the new information and will fight back against assimilating it into your view of the world. It is how so many people can continue to hold onto beliefs that are provably wrong. An example of this would be the rise of people believing the world is flat. This idea is easily proven wrong, yet the people who believe in a flat Earth refuse to accept any evidence that challenges their beliefs. The Backfire Effect happens in many different ways and I strongly recommend reading a web comic by Mathew Inman, known online as The Oatmeal, titled You May Not Believe What I’m About to Tell You. (link) He explains the Backfire Effect and gives great examples of how you can experience it for yourself. Another contributing factor to misunderstandings is the Dunning-Kruger Effect which can be summed up as, the less you know about a subject, the greater you feel that you know about it. This can affect how you think of others when you know little about them. If you only have the broadest understanding about a group of people and you are only exposed to the viewpoints of those who oppose the group. In this situation, you will be fed a narrative that is difficult to break unless you meet people of that group and take the time to get to know them. There are many examples of this in the recent fight for marriage equality in the United States. Republicans in various positions went against their party’s policy to support marriage equality because they personally knew someone who was being prevented from marrying the love of their life due to societal bias against same-sex marriage.
In the end, we must not be afraid to confront our beliefs and we must embrace Viewpoint Diversity in our lives. We have all made assumptions about others that range from unintended microaggressions to outright racist expressions of thought. It is vital that we examine this behavior and shine the light of understanding on it. The only way our society can move forward in healing the divisions that have kept us apart is through the spreading of self-reflection and opening our eyes to see how we have hurt others. In doing this I have come to regret many actions I have taken and words I have said. I have apologized where possible and resolved to not repeat those mistakes. I ask that you similarly take the time to change your perspective. You will find the world is filled with amazing people you have overlooked for far too long. If, at this point, you still think I am wrong and you have never done anything wrong I ask that you examine why it is that you are so sure of this. The absolute surety of your belief in your innocence is a sign of self-deception.