We hear it often, variations on the theme “Why can’t we all just get along?” Around the world, people seem to be getting more and more divided. We sort ourselves right v left, white v nonwhite, urban v rural, rich v poor, old v young.

Right now I’m in Chile, where anti-government protests are happening daily. To stay abreast of events, I follow Twitter but there is lots of virulent, hate-filled speech. On the television they show flaming barricades, looting, tear gas and water cannons. I wonder how the two sides will ever reconcile.

I’m also thinking about my own country, the United States, currently sharply divided politically and along racial lines. 

Faced by such widespread, systemic rifts it is hard to see what one person can do, so most of us opt to go about our daily business and figure it will all sort itself out eventually. After all, I’m not part of the problem. 

But the truth is we each play a part in perpetuating divides because we all have unconscious biases that predispose us to react positively or negatively to certain stimuli.  It’s the way our minds work. The past few weeks I have come across several excellent resources that help explain this phenomenon. They point to ways we can first recognize that we have these biases; second, acknowledge them; third, engage with the other side in honest dialog; and fourth, speak out about our biases and our beliefs publicly.

Recognize:  This morning I took an amazing test, the Harvard Implicit Association Test for race.  It is a reliable indicator of the biases we all have for white vs. black faces.  There are also tests on the site for age, gender, weight and a slew of other variables including political ideologies.  These tests reveal thoughts and feelings we have that are outside of our conscious awareness and control.  Thousands of people have taken the IAT for race and the findings show that the great majority of people show an unconscious preference for white faces, although when asked, most people say they have no preference. The IAT is a fascinating tool that can show you if you have a judgmental attitude that you did not realize you had. My test showed that I, a white American, have an automatic preference for white faces.

Acknowledge:  Once you realize you have implicit biases, the next step is to acknowledge them. This starts with admitting to yourself that you might not be as perfect as you’d like to think. It also means realizing that much of what we are fed on television and social media is driven by forces with a vested interest in perpetuating conflict for their own power and profit.  On episode 176 of the 10% Happier podcast Arthur C. Brooks, who’s been called the Republican Party’s poverty guru, says “I think most people are tired of being manipulated by forces that tell them they need to be hostile toward their fellow Americans. It’s crazy that we can’t love our neighbors even though we disagree with them.”

Engage:  On the same 10% Happier episode, Brooks talks about a lesson he learned from the Dalai Lama, with whom he has worked closely. According to him, the Dalai Lama says to look for people who treat you with contempt, and treat them with warmheartedness. Contempt is an opportunity to change your own heart.  Brooks urges us to realize, if you catch yourself feeling contempt for someone, maybe for a political belief they have expressed, try to learn more. Ask that person what they mean by what they just said.

A great example of engagement through and beyond contempt is the relationship that Derek Black and Matthew Stevenson developed.

Black is the son of a major white nationalist leader in the US. He spent his childhood and adolescence championing white nationalist ideas, denying the Holocaust and was absolutely convinced of the rightness of the cause.  Stevenson is the Jewish student who, upon meeting Black in college, rather than vilify and ostracize him, decided to invite Black to Shabbat dinner. 

What followed was two years during which Black attended Shabbat dinners where he talked, interacted and got to know people whom his ideology told him were evil.  The Shabbat conversations practically never touched directly on the beliefs that separated them, but rather they ranged over many topics. Black says the difficulty of reconciling his friendships with his beliefs brought him to a crisis point.  His friendships became a bridge that eventually led him to denounce white nationalism.

Speak out:  But Black’s conversion story is more complex than that simple summary might make it appear. In an interview with Krista Tippett on On Being, Black says that simply having friendly conversations with people he disagreed with would probably not have changed his belief system.  He says it’s essential that people speak up loudly about things they feel are wrong.  He says it took a whole community of people around him, creating a social context for more intimate, one-on-one conversations, before he was ready to admit that his belief system might be wrong. At that point, Black says he “just wanted to disappear and never speak again,” but he eventually decided he needed to speak out publicly, so he wrote letter explaining his change of heart that quickly went viral.  The impact of that letter has far exceeded that of any one conversation.

If you’re interested in breaking down some of your own mental walls, here are three easy steps you can take:

  • Take one of the Implicit Association Tests and then reflect on what you learn about yourself.
  • Read a book about unconscious bias or white privilege.  One I highly recommend is Blindspot by Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony G. Greenwald. 
  • Make a friend who is different from you, and just talk.

We’d be interested in knowing other ways you have used to confront your own biases and get to know someone across a divide.