One of the more well-known, and potentially contentious, songs from the musical Avenue Q declares everyone is a little bit racist. What it doesn’t state is that we are all also a little bit sexist, regionalist, and nationalist as well. We naturally identify with people who are like us and are suspicious of those who are different. If you are travelling in a foreign country and meet up with someone from your own country, there is an immediate affinity. If they happen to also be from the same region (state, province, whatever) that bond is intensified. If they are from the same city, you are like long-lost friends who have found each other in a sea of unfamiliar sights and sound, regardless of any other differences (race, religion, sex, etc.). This is how human beings are wired and how we have survived as a species.
The Biology of Prejudice
Prejudice and stereotypes are part of our genetic makeup, the biology allowing our species to survive. When our ancestors heard growling and rustling in the shadows, the immediate sense of fear and suspicion is what saved them; those that didn’t, or couldn’t, make the association between these inputs and the savage beast about to attack, didn’t survive. The fact our ancestors survived to give rise to the current population is a testament to their natural ability to take in their surroundings, match complex patterns of association, and make sound, rationale assessments. While those assessments may not have always been correct, it only took one instance of being correct (or seeing someone else be incorrect) to cement the association and the behavior. Continued exposure to patterns matching our expectations, solidify and codify these reactions until they become unconscious and automatic. We have little control over it.
This is not to say that we are born specifically racist or bigoted. It is more that we are wired to trust the familiar, and distrust the dissimilar. We naturally find safety in similarity, and discomfort in differences. The more dissimilar, the more discomfort. Given a choice between aligning ourselves with those that are like us, and those that are different, we will choose similarity every time. This is the biology of prejudice. It is not about sex, religion, race, nationality, or anything specific, it is simply a cognitive process that seeks affinity with those most like ourselves. We are social animals and seek similarity. It is who we are, the way we are wired, and all of us are subject to it.
What to do About It?
If this prejudice is hard-wired into our brains, what, if anything, can we do about it? Interestingly, telling people to quit being prejudice may have the wrong effect by focusing on the differences instead of the similarities. However, there are a number of things that individuals, organizations, and society at large can, and should, do to combat the negative aspects of prejudice.
As individuals, there are two things we can do. The first is to accept and understand our own biases, and not discard them as characteristic of low moral fiber; they are a part of us and still have value in today’s world. If you are walking alone in a foreign city at night and see a group of locals hanging out on the street corner, maybe it is okay to have a heightened sense of awareness. It is not inherently bad to follow our instincts and to have caution; it has kept us alive for centuries. Maybe, just maybe, it is appropriate to take steps, like crossing the street, in order to minimize your unease. It does not make you a bad human being. There is a distinct difference between being cautious and going out of your way to harm those who are unlike you. Being cautious is okay; being mean is not.
Which brings us to the second thing we can do. If you happen to be one of those locals hanging out on the street corner and notice someone crossing the street to distance themselves, don’t be so quick to take offense. This act, which might be labeled a “mirco-aggression”, is not aggressive; no one has done you direct harm. You don’t know that individual, just like they don’t know you. Prejudice works both ways and is a general stereotype, a pattern that says nothing about you as an individual or the other person. Reacting negatively to the situation does more harm as good, because it reinforces the original, negative prejudice. Acknowledge your own biases and show empathy for another; focus on your similarities.
As individuals, we must accept that we are all prejudiced against the unfamiliar. It biases our view of the world, including how we interpret other people’s behavior, and words. What we see and hear, may not be what the person actually did or said; our interpretations of reality are just as biased.
Diversity is an essential ingredient to organizations, as diversity is a key ingredient to the innovation that drives success. Left to their own devices, however, diverse groups of individuals will naturally segregate themselves based on their similarity or dissimilarity with other members of the group. This works against getting the benefits of diversity because innovation comes from not just having diverse employees, but getting them to collaborate. There are also things organizations can do to improve this.
Organizations should find ways of fostering shared experiences and socialization for their diverse teams. Sponsoring a bowling team, a reading club, toastmasters, or anything that can developed shared experiences will help employees do two things: 1) it allows diverse teams to get beyond inherent prejudices by engaging with individuals and discovering hidden similarities; and, 2) it creates similarities that can override other differences. As we come to see our coworkers as more similar to ourselves than others, we change the dynamics of our prejudices. Coworkers take on new shared labels, like coworker, bowling buddy, or literature lover. Just like the travellers from the same city who meet in a foreign country, even the smallest similarities can foster connections.
Another way organizations can foster cohesiveness is by employing great leadership. Organizations are formed for a purpose, and great organizations are effective at connecting that mission to the contributions of each and every employee. Organizations creating passion for their purpose, create an environment of inclusion and solidarity. This simple fact, once again, creates a new kind of similarity between diverse employees: they are all champions of the organizational mission. By encouraging an “us against the world”, the “us” becomes a new, powerful form of similarity.
If organizations want to harness the full potential of diversity, they need to focus on creating similarity. While this is counterintuitive and often runs contrary to most organization’s diversity programs, focusing on differences will not suffice. Organizations must seek to redefine employee perceptions through inclusion and redefining who “we” are.
As a Society
As a society, we also need to quit focussing on our differences and foster our similarities. It is not without coincidence many Sci-Fi storylines show all of humanity coming together when aliens invade earth. This scenario clearly creates a strong definition of “us” as humans, overcoming all of our other differences. It changes our calculus of difference as race, religion, and national origin seem pretty insignificant compared to differences in species. And, we can learn from that. There are two great examples from the past year or so that illustrate how we could focus more on our similarities than our differences: the “Black Lives Matter” movement, and the term “Radical Islamic Extremists”.
While any rational person should not be able to argue the statement that black lives matter (they obviously do), the movement has often generated contention because of the implication that only black lives matter. Of course, this was not the intention of the organizers, but the resultant backlash is instructive. By calling out labels, which focus on our differences, rather than our similarities, our biology gets in the way. There are important issues that this movement seeks to address, and while many of them may affect one racial group more than others, solving them will not be effective when we focus on differences, rather than similarities. More inclusive language, focused on similarities, may have been a better choice and promoted greater engagement.
A similar thing can be said for the term “radical Islamic extremist”. Applying the label of “Islamic” immediately divides our social understanding of the issue. Suddenly, we not only see how we are different from others because we are not radical extremists, but also because we may or may not be Islamic. Highlighting this difference, instead of the ones that matter, does not help us work together to solve the problem. Instead, it further divides us. There should be no difference between how we react to Islamic extremists or Christian fundamentalist extremists. The part that matters is “extremist” or “terrorist”, not what faith or doctrine they happen to hold. Further segmenting the issue only serves to blur who “us” and “them” are.
As a society, we need to work harder to focus on our similarities, rather than our differences. This does not mean that we should attempt to create complete homogeneity and make all people exactly the same. We just need to foster greater affinity between ourselves. Only then can we truly celebrate our differences – from a place of safety and familiarity.
If we are going to survive as a species, we need to focus on that fact: we are all the same species. We need to accept that we are inherently wired to be prejudiced towards people who are not like us, and foster our understanding of our similarities. The more similarities we can find, the less the differences will matter. Furthermore, in today’s globally interconnected world, it has never been easier to uncover our similarities. It has never been easier for us to get beyond our prejudices and create new patterns of behavior. If we find a way to come together and focus on our similarities, we not only make it easier to celebrate and harness our differences, but we may also find ways of eliminating negative bias for our future generations.