If you thought we lived in a racism-free world in 2020, the truth has never been clearer.
In amidst of all the racial justice movements and the media attention they’re getting, three types of people emerged:
- They’re avid, vocal, anti-racist supporters. They rally and protest.
- They understand the importance of this topic but feel uncomfortable talking about it, so they avoid it at all costs.
- They are uneducated, indifferent about this topic. They don’t think it affects their lives and they are apathetic.
I suspect in today’s America, the majority of people fall into #2 and #3. Society shouldn’t expect or force them to become the first group. Because of everyone’s unique background, individuals respond to social issues differently, especially when it is a historically rooted, sensitive subject.
Ever since George Floyd’s tragic death happened, lots more people started looking for ways to help. This is great! It means people care and realize that it is a problem that urgently needs to be addressed. The most visible indicator is that several non-profit organizations received millions of dollars of donations overnight. This is a great first step, but what happens next? After your donation went through the electronic payment portal, do you really get the feeling that you’ve contributed to the world in a positive way? Do you then think the work is done and you can now put it all behind you?
What’s clear to me in today’s world, is that a lot of us need to develop a mental model for thinking about systematic racism on a personal level. Change doesn’t happen overnight, and it’s unlikely that it will happen if most people find it hard to relate or have difficulty putting their feelings into words, or actions.
This mental model starts by asking yourself a simple question:
“Do you have interracial friends?”
In a paper published in 1999, Interracial Friendships, Multicultural Sensitivity, and Social Competence: How Are They Related?, it is found that “ Fifth-grade girls with high-quality interracial friendships indicated less minority rejection, more diverse social networks, and more sociability and leadership characteristics than their peers with no or low-quality interracial friendships.” Overall, the impact of having close interracial friends in our circles, especially for the younger age group, is a profound one.
If you have, or ever had one or more close friends of a different race than you, think about it, did your interaction with them change how you think about their races on a broader level? It is the representativeness heuristic at play when making judgments about a group of people that we perceive similar. This psychological effect is often presented as implicit bias, which affects our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner.
Now imagine you and your interracial friend have lost contact and life went on. Does your perception about your friend’s race reset or evolve? Or does it stay with you next time you meet someone of that race? Our past experience largely shapes every decision we make, and it’s hard to break it unless we make a conscious effort.
If you’ve never had an interracial friend, when you meet someone of a different race than you for the first time in your adulthood, you may feel a sense of uncertainty and are afraid to explore. What’s worse is that you will have no choice but to apply second-hand knowledge (e.g. media representation, news articles, etc.) to your situation, which often results in misaligned understanding and broken communication.
In a paper published in 2016, Race, Religion, and Political Affiliation of Americans’ Core Social Networks, it is found that “Among white Americans, 91% of people comprising their social networks are also white, while five percent are identified as some other race. Among black Americans, 83% of people in their social networks are composed of people who are also black, while eight percent are white and six percent are some other race”.
In America, making friends with those who look like ourselves is the default. This can be our first step towards addressing the larger racism issue — getting to know someone of a different race and developing relationships on a personal level. Be open-minded and talk about the differences as well as similarities. Perhaps you’ll find that we’re all humans after all, and we all have needs for sincere friendships and desires to be understood.