Recently I watched the first episode of the reality series, “Black. White.” with some friends; we were evenly divided racially, four of us black, four of us white. The series lets us observe two families, one black, one white, that live together in a house for a short period of time to learn about how whites and blacks experience race in LA. (Check out the series here: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0494185/ ) With the help of cosmetic makeovers, the participants head out into the community and experience being members of the other race.
In the first episode it is clear that the families responded to racial situations differently during their excursions, and passions flare up back at the house when it is discovered how dramatically white perceptions about race diverged from black perceptions.
Following our viewing of that first episode, an animated and honest discussion took place that focused on how we are perceived by others and the power those perceptions have to impact our lives positively or negatively. I shared that I, a typical white American man, had since childhood received erroneous messages about who I am and who others are. These messages lie at the root of racial conditioning, which effectively distorts our perception of people from other ‘racial’ groups so that we imagine that we really see the negative character qualities in them we’ve been told about.
I made reference to the movie, “A Beautiful Mind,” in which a brilliant mathematician suffers from paranoid schizophrenia. His perception of reality becomes increasingly distorted and includes visions of imaginary people whom he believes to be real. Towards the end of the movie when he has regained his ability to function in a healthy way, he still sees the imaginary people but understands they are a product of his afflicted brain, and he has chosen not to give them the power to influence his decisions and behavior.
I told the group that even though I have worked hard over the years to expunge racial conditioning from my brain, the words and images remain filed away and still surface from time to time, thankfully with less intensity. My brain is a repository of information and programs that have been etched in gray matter during my lifetime. Some of the information and programming corresponds to truth and is beneficial to me as I navigate today’s racial landscape. Some of the information is erroneous and has the potential to program my behavior in ways that are harmful to my health and can lead me astray.
So three things, I believe, are needed: 1. An ability to distinguish between beneficial and harmful ideas, images and programming, 2. The ability to choose the beneficial over the harmful, and 3. The ability to act on those choices. I think the concept of power is key. When we choose truth we receive power to express our decisions in constructive behaviors. When we choose fiction disguised as truth we give power to ideas and beliefs that lead to confusion, disunity and the eventual disintegration of cohesive social structure.
I have found sustaining cross-racial relationships very challenging – but not impossible to achieve. Over a lifetime one’s acquired information and patterned programming can lead to dysfunctional behaviors that are downright addictive, and by addictive I mean – if you set a goal to change an unhealthy pattern, it is often almost impossible to sustain the desired new behavior. To make a change in behavior requires power. Where do we get power? From the truth. Where do we find truth? From relationships, particularly with people from whom we’ve been historically separated.