Treating Differences as Challenges Rather than Threats

A white man, (I will call Bob), recently asked me what the difference was between President Obama inviting leaders of the Black Lives Matter Movement to the White House and President Trump’s embrace of White Nationalists. It was a genuine and sincere inquiry based on a conceptualization he deduced from media sources. From that information, he erroneously equated the Black Lives Matter Movement with Black Supremacy.  I was able to clarify that Black Lives Matter was an international network of activists who work to  intervene in violence inflicted on Black communities by the state and vigilantes. Unlike White Nationalism  a belief that white people, as the superior race, should have their own nation and hold power, Black Lives Matter’s guiding principles include diversity, restorative justice, empathy and globalism.  In other words, Black Lives Matter is not a Black Supremacist or Black Nationalist group and is not comparable to White Nationalism. 

Yet, there are extremists in every activist group, including Black Lives Matter. Extremist tend to garner a lot of media attention, making it understandable how Bob, drawing from his sources, could have made a comparison between a social justice advocacy group and a dangerous ideology that has been the catalyst for hundreds of terrorist attacks.  

Bob draws his conclusions from limited news sources and a myopic world view.  Like all humans, his thinking is fueled by how our brain manages differences and reaches conclusions about diversity.  Our brains tend to treat differences as threats to be feared rather than a challenge to be mastered. When we couple fear of differences with the loss of what we value, it becomes a solid formula for bias, discrimination and segregated living patterns.  

It’s an easy formula to execute.  We value home ownership, safety, education, health and wellness, peace and democracy. When we associate property value decline, crime, poor educational systems, secularism, greed, sexual exploitation, conflict, war, and violence with people of color and immigrants, we have the recipe for a racially segregated society, racial inequality, xenophobia, Anti-Semitism, bigotry and hatred of the “other.”  

As it turns out, the more we understand about how the brain works the better we can unravel how we draw these conclusions and subsequently how we can interrupt these patterns in our thinking. That takes a bit more work, but we are capable of mastering that challenge. We do not need to achieve the educational levels of brain surgeons to shift from fearing differences to approaching differences as learners. It is as simple as saying “help me to understand…”

I am glad that Bob had the courage to ask the question, challenge his assumptions and help us get to we.