THE BLOG

The Face to Fear

07/30/2013 11:43 am ET | Updated Sep 29, 2013

I guess that few would admit now to locking their cars doors abruptly or clutching their purse tightly when the younger Barack Obama approached. But someone did, as the president explained in the White House press room with his soliloquy on being treated as a threat simply for being a young black male and what we can learn from the case of Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman. Some people looked at the young Barack Obama and saw a face to fear.

When the editors of Rolling Stone magazine put Dzhokhar Tzarnaev on their cover, they revealed the uncomfortable truth that someone with a face of seemingly innocent adolescent confusion can actually be dangerous. How many people walked by Tzarnaev on that fateful Boston day thinking nothing of him? I suspect it is the fact that Tzarnaev looks so "normal" that caused the public uproar, because people do not want to be reminded of truths that make them uncomfortable.

How Do We Decide What Type of Face to Fear?

We want a violent person to resemble a caricature we have in our heads of a villain, like in the movies. What is the origin of that emotional response called fear? Conditioning. Tolerance and intolerance are learned. A baby is not born with prejudices. The child is trained who and what to fear from those around them, from their life experiences, from stories they hear. As President Obama said, we all look "through a set of experiences and a history."

It's that childhood conditioning that teaches us to view "different" as threatening or as exciting and fascinating.

Those unconscious assumptions affect us all the time in ways large and small, benign and explosive, whether in a business meeting or on a dark street.

These past experiences become seared into our psyche so deeply that we don't even realize they are ruling our autonomic reflexes, and are reflected in the unconscious assumptions we bring into any situation, at work or play. Dr. Liz Phelps, professor of psychology and neuroscience at New York University, describes this in a video accompanying the Fear Exhibit as, "fear conditioning" where "the brain's threat center, the amygdala, facilitates the storage and retrieval of these implicit memories through an unconscious learning process." These memories are seared into our memories by the release of stress hormones, according to the Fear Exhibit.

But We Have to Get Over It, and We Can.

To grow our economy and solve our challenges, we need to innovate on a grander scale. To innovate on a grander scale, we need to embrace "difference" -- whether it is in gender, ethnicity, experience, expertise, or wearing a hoodie.

It's about what happens in the moment. We each have to take personal responsibility for our automatic responses, our words and actions. Are you judging the kid with the nose ring as not worthy of your respect? Are you rolling your eyes when someone presents a "crazy" idea in a meeting because the person delivering it is so different from you?

Perhaps this moment is a wake-up call. We need to shake out of this fear of "otherness" and recognize that we all have fear conditioning buried in the depths of our psyches, from moments in our lives when we felt unsafe.

But we can reprogram it. As Brig. General Loree Sutton (Ret.), M.D., and Laurie Leitch, Ph.D. wrote recently in Threshold GlobalWorks:

It is self-regulated individuals who build, broker, and are a part of relationships of trust who create healthy communities; communities capable of not only providing a safety-net for those in need but also a springboard for their citizens, building local capacity and empowering ingenuity.

Intolerance -- conscious and unconscious -- is holding us back. We must be willing to shed light on our demons, be self-aware and self-regulated, and disempower those demons that are unfounded. We need to observe ourselves more often and more honestly -- actively listening to our word choices, noticing when we roll our eyes or tighten up when someone "different" is around us. Today, inappropriately judging someone in a work or school setting can derail your career, or in the case of Trayvon Martin, cost you your life.

The Guy Whose Car Breaks Down

Have you ever heard the story of the guy whose car breaks down? He walks to a house for help and the person shuts the door in his face. He goes to another house and they shut the door in his face, too. He tries another house and the same thing happens. Exasperated, he goes to yet another house and when the person answers the door he yells at them "How dare you shut the door in my face!" -- holding that person accountable for the actions of others.

What assumptions and preconceived ideas are you carrying around about people from your past? What impact are they having on your present relationships?

The face to fear is not going to wear a label to the untrained eye (though it may be discernible to trained law enforcement officials). The normal looking kid may turn out to be truly dangerous while the "different looking" person may be completely harmless.

It's time we stopped defining the face to fear as one that is "different" and instead embraced difference as an exciting curiosity. Maybe that's one of the lessons that President Obama was referring to in his soliloquy.

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