By Guest Columnist, Christena Cleveland
In post-election America, I find myself trapped inside the maze of racial, class and religious divisions that resounded during the presidential election. More often than I’d like to admit, when I encounter an individual, I make assumptions about which candidate they supported and what they believe. Amazingly, I make my assessment without even talking to the person; my assumptions are entirely based on their race, style of dress, accent, or even the type of car that they drive. Not surprisingly, I quickly conclude that I already know everything I need to know about them and that I don’t need to take time to ask them their story and let them speak for themselves.
This tendency that I have – to automatically size people up, identify their racial, religious and/or class identity, and make premature assumptions about them – is a natural tendency that all humans have. We all categorize, stereotype, and make assumptions about people. Sometimes this tendency serves us. But often times, it fails us because it prevents us from forming the empathetic and compassionate connections that contribute to justice and equity.
The challenges we will face in 2017 are urgent and massive. But the good news is that when we act together, we are stronger than any government, corporation or head of state. Next year, we can’t afford to be bystanders, so let’s get moving! Here are a few resolutions you can make to help take back 2017 for people by building bridges and working for justice.
1. Discover the humanity in each person you encounter. It’s fairly easy for us to see the humanity in people who are like us but rather difficult for us to see the humanity in people on the other side of the social divide. Social psychology research shows that when we categorize people into us and them, we often immediately do two things: one, we tend to see them as all the same. Rather than seeing each person as an individual with a unique story, fears and hopes, we tend to see them as nameless and faceless. Two, we tend to underestimate the commonalities between us and them, and overestimate the differences. Consequently, once we’ve created us and them categories, we are much less likely to see them as human just like we are. However, empathy is key to building bridges. When we discover both our differences and our commonalities, we’re better able to identify ways that we can work together for the common good. Let’s commit to seeing the individual beyond the social category.
2. Become a Social Sherlock. Individualism is a strong stated value in America; we like to believe that an individual’s success or failure in society is solely due to their individual efforts and ability. But social psychology research reveals that this is a harmful myth. Our thoughts, emotions, behaviors and social trajectory are significantly influenced by the social world. If we are to address social problems, we must begin by addressing society. Let’s commit to growing in social consciousness. Rather than assuming that individuals are entirely responsible for their life outcomes, let’s be curious investigators who ask why some groups are granted access to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and others aren’t. For example, why are African Americans incarcerated at more than six times the rates of whites Americans? Why are informally educated people the most at risk for economic insecurity? Let’s commit to reading one article each week that will help us understand how society impacts individuals.
3. Jump into justice work. With so many community members disillusioned with government, many are turning to local non-governmental organization like congregations, neighborhood associations and non-profit organizations for justice and advocacy. We can commit to joining in the fight by giving of our time, money and or resources. National community organizing networks like PICO have local chapters that individuals can join or support.
4. Commit to spiritual strength training. If we are to see people differently, act with compassion and fight for justice, we must dig deep into spirituality. Whether it’s yoga, Bible study, book club, choir practice, or taking a walk – we are stronger on the outside when we are strong on the inside.
About the Author
Christena Cleveland is a social psychologist, public theologian, author and professor. She is the first Associate Professor of the Practice of Reconciliation at Duke University’s Divinity School and the author of Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces that Keep Us Apart. She also is finishing her second book, The Priesthood of the Privileged, which examines inequality in the church and offers a theology of privilege. For more about the author, visit www.christenacleveland.com.