Between the Lines
The subtitle of this very timely book is Overcoming Us vs. Them. In this remarkable work, Shakil Choudhury delves to the heart of the human problem of xenophobia.
According to Choudhury, our temptation to fear and exclude those physically unlike themselves begins in the brain: our neurology makes us tilt towards apparent tribe members and away from those who look different.
He quotes social psychologist and science writer Siri Carpenter, who explains that:
"Deep within our subconscious, all of us harbour biases that we consciously abhor. And the worst part is: we act on them."
Along with our implicit bias, which we must work to bring to consciousness, the tendency toward negativity bias is also a challenge. Biologically speaking, we are more likely to withdraw in fear than approach in optimism. We're run by our emotions, and in an effort to keep us safe, the body defaults to fear.
Racism, says the author, "remains a defining issue in our world." Yet humans "are learners," who have changed our thinking and behaviours, and will continue to do so." The idea that society is getting better is a view held not only by Chourdhury himself, but by such diverse individuals as the Dalai Lama and linguist Steven Pinker, whose TED talk provides startling evidence that we are living in the least violent era in human history.
Choudhury, a former Ontario teacher, now gives workshops in cross-cultural communication, anti-racism, multiculturalism, and cultural intelligence. In a clear and engaging manner, he lays out his four pillars of deep diversity. He then goes on to explain the reality of unconscious bias, backing up this claim with personal anecdotes and scientific studies like Harvard's Project Implicit. Interestingly, it is now possible to participate in this research online.
We have the power to change. To do so, we need to raise our awareness and learn a variety of skills. And since it is part of human nature to make mistakes, our first guideline must be compassion, for ourselves as well as for others. There is much to be learned, and some of the facts about the implicit dominance of certain social groups can be startling. Facing up to the deep unfairness of society's power structures evokes the courage that helps us begin making positive changes, even at a micro personal level.
Inner work is an essential part of the process. We need to become aware of and face our biases, and work at being hopeful of positive outcomes. This we owe to ourselves and society. "Honouring the values of our egalitarian, democratic society requires this much from us."
One way to develop our inner personal power is meditation. With self-awareness, empathy, and a well-developed ability to regulate our behaviour, we can learn to manage conflict and be open to relationship with those who initially appear quite different, even inimical to us.
To heal ourselves inwardly and have meaningful lives, we must become clear-eyed and whole. To do this, we must be "able to see both the beauty and the brutality in the world." After taking what actions we can to improve a situation, we can then remain serene about things we cannot change.