Philosopher Alan Watts used to tell a story about an astronaut who was asked upon his return from a space expedition whether he had seen God.Maya Angelou
“Yes,” he replied, and after a pause, he added…and she’s black.”
The story reminds me of an old riddle. If you haven’t heard it, give yourself a moment to ponder the answer before jumping to the reveal. Here it goes.
A father and son are in a horrible accident and the father dies. The son is rushed to the hospital; just as he’s about to go under the knife, the surgeon says, “I can’t operate—that boy is my son!”
How did you get on?
Who is the surgeon?
Take a moment.
In research conducted by Mikaela Wapman and Deborah Belle, fewer than a third of participants (30%) responded that the surgeon in the riddle could be a woman. 36% responded to the riddle by noting that the surgeon could be a second father in a same-sex marriage. The research team found that even young people and self-described feminists tended to overlook the possibility that the surgeon in the riddle was a she.
The genesis of the research was Belle’s 10-year-old granddaughter, who was given the riddle by her mom. “She thought for a moment,” Belle says, “and she said, ‘How could this be? Well, he could have two fathers.’” The child couldn’t muster any other explanation. Nor could several of her friends. “This piqued our interest,” Belle says. When she and Wapman posed the riddle to other kids, some of the answers stretched the bounds of inventiveness: the surgeon was a robot, or a ghost, or “the dad laid down and officials thought he was dead, but he was alive.”
What made imagining a surgeon mom so difficult?
The answer lies with schemas.
A schema is a cognitive framework that helps organize and interpret information. Schemas allow us to take shortcuts when interpreting the vast amount of information available in our environment. However, these shortcuts can trip us up. Once we form a schema it is difficult to rewrite the schema, to unlearn and relearn. Schemas are formed very early in life and once they are embedded, to save energy, we do not like to revisit old schemas.
We have deeply embedded gender schemas, as the riddle above reveals. However, as the “…and she is black” story reveals, these stereotypical models exist for racial schemas also. Because so many of our schemas come from our environments (including families, churches, schools and corporations), the information we are exposed to informs our schemas. Equally, the information we are oblivious to also informs how we see the world. Therefore, when we are unaware of the struggles of others, it is often because we have no exposure to such struggles. Many challenges other people experience, would just never dawn on us. This is exactly why I am writing this piece, here is an example where I experienced this just this week.
Having “The Chat”
If a parent said to you, I need to have “the chat” with my children, what would you think “the chat” is about? The birds and the bees (human reproduction)?
However, there is another much more important chat that a black parent must have with their children in the U.S. I learned this during a recent conversation on The Innovation Show with the author of ‘Radical Empathy’, Terri Givens. Terri was talking about a far more important chat. She shared how she must tell her kids about how to behave around police in the USA, if they are pulled over by police, they must very carefully communicate that they are not armed and not even take out a cellphone for fear that it may be mistaken for a firearm. An example Terri shared was when her husband treated their young sons to play with guns, as so many young kids like to play with such toys. However, Terri had to secretly discard the guns, so strong was her fear that police may inadvertently take the guns to be real weapons.
Wow! I would never have even considered such a thing, it was just not something that would burden me, thankfully it is not in my environment. That is the challenge with privilege and that is the blindness of unconscious bias.
What is a way forward?
It is critical to realise that our schemas, these mental shortcuts, while beneficial can produce biases and prejudices that often obscure the truth. As our recent guest on the Innovation Show, Elliot Aronson told us, “Unless we recognize our cognitive limitations we will be enslaved by them.”
“Eternal vigilance, is the only solution,” says Belle. “These schemas do change over time”—she points to other countries with greater gender equity—“but the pace is glacial.”
When it comes to racial disparity and discussing racial bias, courage is key according to our recent Innovation Show guest, the renowned political scientist and author of “Radical Empathy”, Terri Givens. “I often see this happening in these workshops when maybe a group of white people I’m talking to, and they might have one or two black colleagues in the room, and they’re literally afraid to speak up because they’re afraid of making mistakes. You have to have the courage, maybe you will make mistakes at the beginning, but have the courage to make those mistakes and learn from them, every single one of us makes mistakes. So if you get paralysed with fear, then you’re just not going to take any action. So it’s really important that we understand that you have to have the courage to make mistakes because we all learn from them.” – Terri Givens
Thanks For Reading
To bridge our racial divides, our guest, our guest on the Innovation Show calls for ‘radical empathy’ – moving beyond an understanding of others’ lives and pain to understand the origins of our biases.
Deftly weaving together her own experiences with the political, she offers practical steps to call out racism and bring about radical social change.
We welcome the author of, “Radical Empathy, Finding A Path to Bridging Racial Divides”, Terri Givens
More about Terri: https://lnkd.in/di8gXd5m