In the aftermath of the Zimmerman verdict, it is critical to explore new perspectives about race relations and to engage in a conversation that can be constructive and transformative. As an African-American woman who has had her share of painful experiences of overt racism, I have found that the most meaningful discussions start from a point of common ground. The conversation must start with the acknowledgment that we all have bias. Male or female, African-American, Asian-American, Latino, Caucasian, etc., we are all subjective about the way we respond to our environment. Our common ground is that we all perceive and respond to everything we experience through the lens of our mental models. These mental models, which often lie beneath our level of conscious awareness, are deep-rooted ideas, assumptions, biases, and beliefs about the way the world works, and how things ought to be. These models lead us to expect certain results, give meaning to events, and pre-dispose us to behave in certain ways. We are inherently subjective. It is the nature of the mind.
From this perspective, the actions of Zimmerman, the Sanford police department, and the final verdict are the consequence of unchecked subjectivity. Through my lens, I believe that pervasive societal mental models about young black men influenced the responses and behaviors of many of the people involved in the case. The challenge for us as a society is that it is likely that racial disparities in the criminal justice system will persist until we, as human beings, grapple with our inherent subjectivity and begin to have a conversation about how to be more objective.
Our challenge is that we perceive through our senses, a person, situation or event and in an instant, we project our mental models onto that perception, which often results in cognitive error, meaning we judge and respond incorrectly. If we are honest with ourselves, we have to admit that sometimes our assumptions and preconceived notions are wrong. Our interpretations of events are incorrect and cause us to over-react. We make the same cognitive errors when we interact with someone who does not look like us. Our minds instantly perceive a difference, which leads us to make a judgment about that person based on mental models, which then dictate our response to and behavior toward that person. These mental models are often rooted in stereotypes, biases and prejudices, which can result in the unkind, unfair, or unlawful treatment of that person. Again, through my lens, Zimmerman automatically judged that the young black man in a hoodie was up to no good. I believe that this unchecked mental model drove his unwarranted behavior.
Studies of unconscious bias reveal that by five years of age, many children have definite and entrenched stereotypes about blacks, women, and other social groups. Children don't have a choice about accepting or rejecting these concepts, since they acquired them well before they developed the cognitive abilities or experiences to form and evaluate their own beliefs. Reinforced by the media, these mental models become hard-wired in our brain's neural net over time. Left unchecked, they can motivate discriminatory behavior such as racial profiling. We can clearly see how this has played out in our society over time. For example, mental models about African-American men have pervaded our society to such an extent that this segment of our population is clearly at risk, evidenced by the alarming drop-out, incarceration, and mortality rates. And today, we are struggling with the most severe consequence of unchecked subjectivity: the senseless killing of a 17-year-old black child.
President Obama responded to the verdict: "We should ask ourselves, as individuals and as a society, how we can prevent future tragedies like this. As citizens, that's a job for all of us. That's the way to honor Trayvon Martin."
This is what we all can do:
• Understand and accept our inherent subjectivity. The fear and shame of being labeled a racist evokes denial and rejection when the reality is we all have bias. There is no shame or blame in having bias and stereotypical mental models that were formed when we were 5 years old, but as adults we are accountable for our responses.
• Learn and choose to increase our objectivity, to see things as they are without projecting our own interpretations or assumptions, to try to understand another person's perspective and to respond thoughtfully, deliberately and appropriately.
• Recognize our mental models and be open to the possibility that we may be wrong about what we believe. We can begin to identify our mental models about race by being aware of our triggers. For example, when we meet someone who is different from us, we can be aware if it evokes an uncomfortable physiological response, such as anger, fear, or anxiety. This could be an indication of an unconscious bias. By being aware of our mental models and biases, we can learn how to pause before we react automatically and subjectively, and we can choose to respond more thoughtfully and objectively. We must have the courage to question our behavior and its underlying assumptions, and to develop new and more effective ways of understanding and interacting with people, situations, and events.
• Transform these destructive and harmful mental models by using our knowledge to develop new ways of thinking, reasoning and acting.
• Neuroscience reveals that with the brain's neuroplasticity, we all have the capacity to change in response to new information. Instead of being ashamed of the mental models we adopted as children, we have the power as adults to choose to respond objectively, to discern what is appropriate, what is right and proper, and to actually do it. Every time we interrupt our automatic reactions and choose a different response, we are loosening those neural connections and creating new pathways that can inspire inclusive and compassionate behavior!
• Help our African American youth overcome the mental models they confront each day. Because our inherent subjectivity has gone unchecked for so long and there have been too many Trayvon Martins, we have promulgated a vicious and dangerous cycle. It is natural for our young black children to project these circumstances onto themselves. Many adopt destructive mental models such as: "I will never make it," "the odds are against me, so why even try" or "I will either drop out of school, be racially profiled, go to jail, or die young." Because mental models are so powerful, i.e., what we fundamentally believe about ourselves helps to shape what we will experience, more young black men may slip through the cracks because they don't believe they have a choice. As adults, we do have a choice. We can change their experience by responding more objectively to our experience.
Improving race relations in this country requires "attention density," i.e., a sustained focus and commitment by each of us to be more objective in our interactions with all people. The question then becomes, "What is our motivation to sustain the required effort?" Is the death of an innocent child walking home from the store with Skittles and a drink enough of a motivation?
Elizabeth is currently working on her book, entitled, Objectivity, The Power of Seeing Things As They Are.