A country that once prided itself on being a melting pot seems to have nearly reached the boiling point, and differences among us have become cause for alarm—according to some people—rather than cause for celebration. Sometimes I feel like I’m living in a fantasy world like Game of Thrones, where the kingdoms are fighting against one another and where deep-seated animosity is especially held for the Wildlings–those people who are vastly different in lifestyle and belief.
Or like I’m living in a pre-apocalyptic world, as is the case in the film Arrival, in which earthlings are immediately frightened by strange-looking visitors from outer space and want to solve the problem with violence. Or like I’ve time-traveled back to the 1960’s, when discrimination against three very smart black women nearly prevented NASA’s progress in the space program. There are days when I’m frightened by where we are and where it looks like we’re heading.
But then I find comfort in all the people around us who are promoting understanding, cooperation, and unity.
In Taraji P. Henson’s acceptance speech at the Screen Actor’s Guild Awards, she emphasized that it was a story about “what happens when we put our differences aside.”
On the other side of the pond, Danish TV released a PSA called All That We Share that’s bound to make you think twice about whatever prejudices you might have.
Earlier this month, Emmy-award winning Love Has No Labels released another PSA called Fans of Love. Watch it. It’s guaranteed to bring a smile to your face, or your money back.
On Inauguration Day 2017, these legendary lyrics of Chet Powers (initially made famous by the Kingston Trio, Jefferson Airplane, and The Youngbloods) were reincarnated by the girl-group Bahari.
Love is but a song to sing/Fear’s the way we die
You can make the mountains ring/Or make the angels cry
Though the bird is on the wing/And you may not know why
Come on people now/Smile on your brother
Everybody get together/Try to love one another/Right now
From the Dakota Access Pipeline protests to the Women’s Marches around the globe to local town hall meetings, it’s exciting to live in a time when so many people are coming together. And yet, for things to really change once and for all, we each have work to do: we need to take a hard look in the mirror.
Social psychologist Dr. Mahzarin Banaji says the human mind is a “difference-seeking machine.”
It’s designed that way to help us navigate life’s complexities, so it’s human nature to notice if someone’s skin color or religious affiliation or sexual preference is different from our own. But the problem is that this incredible machine also develops blind spots, fears, and biases. Banaji says that even though we believe in understanding, compassion, and unity at a conscious level, we haven’t necessarily embraced those values on a deeper level. We still see differences, and we’re still frightened by them. The good news is that we can train our brains to think in other ways.
One way to promote personal change is to take Dr. Banaji’s free assessments at implicit.harvard.edu. They’re designed to open your eyes to your own implicit biases. Another way, she suggests, is to train what your mind experiences. For example, if you set up a screensaver with pictures of people who look different from you, your brain might start to think they’re not so dissimilar after all. It might even begin to care.
“There is a point at which [your] brain…can be reset into a new mold,” she says, adding that “in some ways our brains are simple and…will believe that things are real, even if they’re not… That’s what novels do for us.”
Which brings me to my favorite topic: books!
Doesn’t it make sense that, if we read enough books about people who are different from us, and we develop empathy and compassion for these characters, we could very well experience a change in attitude toward the people around us in real life? (Numerous readers reported a change in bias after reading To Kill a Mockingbird when it was first published.) The beauty of reading novels, too, is that—precisely because the stories are fictional–we can set aside those real-life biases that shackle us and we can give ourselves the freedom to float into the world of an “other” person without self-judgment.
So go ahead, challenge yourself! Pick up one or two of the novels I’ve listed below and take inventory of your feelings as you read. Some of these stories might make you uncomfortable. But that’s all right; it’s through discomfort that we grow. Be honest with yourself, and ask yourself when you’re done reading whether your attitude has changed at all. This is a random list; some of the novels are old classics and some are brand new. Some focus on race; some focus on culture or other issues that people who may be different from you have grappled with in the past or are still facing. Who knows what you might discover about yourself. And about the rest of the world.
A Fine Balance, Rohinton Mistry
A Little Life, Hanya Yanagihara
Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates
Ceremony, Leslie Marmon Silko
Forgotten Country, Catherine Chung
Four Spirits, Sena Jeter Naslund
Giovanni’s Room, James Baldwin
Girls of Riyadh, Rajaa as-Sanea
How To Be Both, Ali Smith
Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison
La Rose, Louise Erdrich
Margaret the First, Danielle Dutton
Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Lisa See
The Blazing World, Siri Hustvedt
The City and the Pillar, Gore Vidal
The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin
The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf, Mohja Kahf
The Help, Kathryn Stockett
The House on Mango Street, Sandra Cisneros
The Jaguar’s Children, John Vaillant
The Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan
The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini
The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, Sherman Alexie
The Nest, Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney
The Price of Salt, Patricia Highsmith
The Sellout, Paul Beatty
The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, Anne Fadiman
The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead
The Vegetarian, Han Kang
The Woman Upstairs, Claire Messud
To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
We Love You, Charlie Freeman, Kaitlyn Greenidge
White Teeth, Zadie Smith
It may very well be that our flawed human nature is to identify differences in our world, in order to make sense out of chaos. But I believe it’s also human nature to feel uncomfortable with divisions among us. I believe each of us, no matter where we were born or what our experience has been, would prefer to live in a world where we live together, as Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder sang, in perfect harmony. Fingers crossed that we get there one of these days.
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