by Tom Casey, Managing Principal Discussion Partner Collaborative
It has been a difficult period for tolerance in the United States. It’s apparent our political landscape is anti-immigration to the point of building a wall across the US southern border even when the consequence is a government shutdown and restraints on sufficient labor to address business opportunities.
In the US we are still reeling from the Charleston shooting and Charlottesville white supremacist march, the reactions to which have aggravated the racial tensions. Religious intolerance is visible as well in the US with the Pittsburgh Synagogue bombings and assault on the Mosques in New Zealand.
Police reactions to racial relations are strained and satirized by comedians venturing: “The only way to avoid being shot is a) don’t wear a hoodie; b) don’t be big . . . and don’t be black.” Somehow, we think this is funny!
It is easy to be cynical when we hear the words “black lives matter” and respond: “all lives matter.” Yet our reality is much different. The progress of the #Me Too Movement does not appear to have made much of a difference in racial relations.
Years ago, there was a TV series called LA Law which some of you are old enough to remember, if not there is always Hulu.
In one episode defense lawyers compel a judge to recuse himself from a trial of a black defendant and presented him with statistical evidence of his decisions and sentencing outcomes being blatantly racist.
If presented with such evidence, one would expect the character (or in real life someone who feels they are open minded) to be defensive.
In this episode, the judge did the right thing and recused himself. He was self-aware enough to know he was not self-aware.
We are all intolerant to a degree. This trait is not part of our DNA but a learned behavior. The question before any individual believing himself to be racially tolerant is twofold: a) how do you know if your self-image of tolerance is delusional; and b) what do you do if faced with your subconscious intolerance?
We were fortunate to find an executive who was willing to share his experiences. What is of particular interest is this executive previously held Congressional office and was known as an advocate for tolerance on all levels.
During my formative years I was privileged. Consequently, my personal philosophy and points of view about race relations, immigration and other issues were based on reading, discussions, not experience.
I always thought of myself as tolerant regarding people who were different whether it was race, political orientation, sexual preference, etc.
Unfortunately, I was wrong….
I was giving a speech out of state and got lost on the way back to the airport.
This was in the days before I-Phones. Lost meant lost. I had an associate with me who was driving the rental car.
We wandered into a distressed neighborhood and stopped to get our bearings. I noticed three young men of color not far away whom were clearly aware of our presence. We were unsettled. They started walking toward us; and in an attempt to drive away, we crashed the car.
They kept coming . . . actually now running. When they got to us, they said: “Are you guys ok?” “Do you need some help?” They could not have been nicer. They got us to the airport, arranged for a rental car company. They were great.
Flying back home, I could not help thinking about how scared I was and why. Clearly it was the neighborhood, the circumstances and more importantly, the three young men being black.
I asked myself this question: Even in a rough neighborhood, if they were white, dressed in khakis wearing IZod shirts, would I have reacted the same way?
What also got my attention was when I relayed what happened to others. Their response was disheartening as they commented: “I would have been scared too.” Also, “you got lucky.”
When I look back on that event, I realized that even with a narrow definition of the word, I am a racist. It shook my self-image and now I try to be mindful of ‘who I am, not who I thought I was’.
The question before me at that time and now is to channel this awareness, minimizing the damage it can cause and maybe even using the awareness to do some good.
The openness of the Congressman was refreshing. His candor allows for the derivation of forceful questions:
- We are all intolerant of some things or many things, but how do we address challenges to our self-image when confronted?
- When we are confronted with our true beliefs or tendencies, we can behave in one of two ways: Ignore it or attempt to channel it in appropriate ways. But how do we respond?
Self-awareness is an asset; self-respect, an aspiration; self-direction, in a positive way, an obligation even when it challenges who you really are as a person.