09/03/2009 03:53 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Can You Order A Person Not To Be Racist?

Laws protect people from discrimination, whether it is racism, sexism or any other form of prejudice. The less we socially sanction racist behaviors, the more we can expect that people will feel uncomfortable displaying these behaviors. Yet, anyone who has been part of a close group discussion knows that when people trust other people, they feel more comfortable expressing their anti-group sentiments. Men will often complain about the habits of women to other men, non-Jewish people will complain about Jewish people and other races will complain about Blacks if there are no Blacks present in the group. When people hold onto their "secret" prejudices, it makes me wonder if we can perhaps do more than "expect" non-discrimination or "order it". If anything, my experience with human nature has led me to believe that people, regardless of color or sex have the propensity to bond by pointing out how "other" groups differ from themselves. Still, I can't help but feel that the "righteous" attitude about prejudice seems inappropriate and dishonest. I have yet to meet a person who truly is not prejudiced.

I have not only come to understand that racial prejudice exists, but I have also come to expect and observe it more than react to it. It works in all directions too. Whites against Blacks, Blacks against Whites, Indians against Blacks, Blacks against Indians-you name it, and it probably exists. The idea that somebody should feel "ashamed" about being racist seems absurd to me, as many racist responses are based on personal experience and have taken years to cement in a person's brain. Feelings of shame lead to complex outcomes. Shame does not only lead to stopping a behavior-it can lead to anger, irritation, and even deeper resentments coming to the surface. In lieu of the recent Gates incident, for example, White people on a radio show aired in Boston expressed their disdain for being called racist in a way that suggested that Blacks were overly sensitive and they were tired of having to "own up" to something just because Blacks were so sensitive. The whole incident appears to have stirred up racist feelings between both groups even more.

Now I can't claim to have the answer as to how to end racism, but I thought that it would be important to express at least one other approach apart from shaming people for being racist. When I am faced by racist people (the situation is usually quite obvious), I will often seek to find in that person, something worth appreciating and then focus on it. For one, it takes the conversation to a completely different place, and secondly, it reduces the anxiety associated with that racism. This allows the conversation to reach a very different outcome than if I were to focus on the racism.

I think that society needs to be more honest about the feelings of racism that are much more widespread than people like to believe. Accepting that these feelings exist is a good first step. Then, trying to understand and refocus on something else is a great second step. Brain imaging studies have shown that even when people consciously think that they are not racist, tests of their unconscious show that they are, and this activates the anxiety centers in their brains. Our prejudicial reactions to people may in fact be deeply wired, and to undo these associations takes more than "fessing up" to what we truly feel, because we may not even be consciously aware of this.

The main point I would like to make here, is that I hold the view that people are fundamentally beautiful even though they can be very misled into areas of decision-making that are horrible and atrocious-take 9/11, the holocaust and apartheid for example. If we truly want to change how people feel, we have to do more than just enforce laws and shame people. I believe that we have an imperative to understand-to take a non-judgmental respite-in the course of our feelings about racism. We have to learn to forgive ourselves, and we have to learn to focus on the strengths of others as well. Doing this will give the racist person's brain's anxiety center a rest.

In the case of Gates and the policeman for example, they probably both held racist views-ideas that have been cemented in their brains over years. What if we took a moment to step back from our reactions, to understand that we do react, but that we can change how we act by reconsideration without shame? What if we understood that there is a biology of prejudice, and that overcoming prejudice requires self-forgiveness and loss of shame before we can truly be citizens who do not judge on the basis of a person's color? I think that we would make a very valuable contribution to the end of prejudice by admitting to our automatic reactions, and then re-examining them with new intentions. Shame seems to me to be unnecessary and counterproductive.

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