essays on suffering and awakening

Our subtle biases

Earlier today, I came across a tweet from the writer Jamelle Bouie quoting Ta-Nehisi Coates: “Racism is not merely a simplistic hatred. It is, more often, broad sympathy toward some and broader skepticism toward others.”

I write a whole blog on the theme that everyone is connected—I see how absurd hatred is. But Coates’ is pointing towards something more subtle. He’s asking: are we giving everyone equal benefit of the doubt?

I frequently don’t. It’s easier for me to feel aligned with people I either see myself reflected in or who help me shore up my identity. I instinctively take what they have to say more seriously than folks I perceive as unlike me or as unable to offer me self-affirmation. It’s mostly quiet—I’m not out there manning any barricades—but if I’m honest with myself, the bias is there. I’m more inclined to care if doing so makes me feel secure or like a good guy.

I think this sort of subtle bias comes from a desire most of us have to protect and reinforce our sense of self. Perspectives that seem to clash with ours feel inherently threatening, because, on some level, they remind us of the slippery nature of who we think we are. We think we’ve got it all figured out, and then someone comes along to shake the foundation we’re standing on, and that is genuinely uncomfortable.

The way forward, of course, is to go with the shaking. Let different perspectives make us feel uncomfortable—yes! Sit with the discomfort and see what happens. Take heart in the fact that even our biases reveal that we do care about others, and that our shortcomings are an invitation to open that circle.

Ask: what aspects of ourselves are we pushing away? What are we holding tight to? We may associate different values or connotations with different groups—if we feel a dislike or affinity towards one culture or another, what does that say about who we want to be? Do we have to be that person all the time?

My sense is that we feel we need to ration our love because we’re scared of losing ourselves. Honestly, that fear is not unfounded. The drop of rain does become lost in the ocean. Closing off is a way of trying to maintain a sense of solidity. But is it worth the cost?

So let’s ask: can we offer the sacrifice and loosen our grip?

Ian Cooper