Race In America: When Oil and Water Doesn't Mix

09/30/2016 04:51 pm ET Updated Apr 25, 2017

Mostly because I have spent my whole life trying to check my subjectivity and balance my objectivity, I’ve been accused of viewing life through rose colored lenses.  I must say, I like the view from here because it gives me hope! 

A quote, credited to Anais Nin, captured the heart of how I have felt my entire life.  “We don’t see the world as it is, only as we are.”  That quote was so empowering for me, because it encouraged me to check me.  I literally had to look at the woman in the mirror and ask myself “Is the world really as I see it, or has my exposure and experiences, or lack thereof, somehow handicapped my view of how the world really is?”  Is it possible that the deductions I’ve made about other people and places really wrong?  Naturally, we spend our entire lives subconsciously proving or justifying what we have come to believe about the world and all of its’ inhabitants.  It requires conscious and diligent effort to disprove what we have come to know and believe.  Beliefs, conscious and subconscious alike, are powerful because they shape who you are.  Our beliefs help us to assign meaning and importance to people and things that we come in contact with.  They also shape our behavior towards those same people and things.  Beliefs can either progress you or paralyze you.  Beliefs can either expand your world, or shut you off from entirely new world.  You are the sum total of your beliefs!  Further, you are ultimately responsible for your own beliefs!  

I have heard the idiom, “Oil and water doesn’t mix,” all of my life, to express when two things or people or groups of people are too different, to get along or mix well.  While this can be scientifically proven, what the idiom fails to do is offer a solution.  Often, we just accept it as is, and proceed with the belief that we should just stay in our respective corners because that is most comfortable.  Then life very abruptly reminds us that there is no respective corner, and we’re forced out of our comfort zones.  Out of our comfort zones we can either attempt to justify what we already believe to be true, or consciously seek to determine if there is more to it than what we believe.

A science experiment I participated in as a kid has often been my point of reference when faced with issues of race.  In this experiment, we were asked to observe what happens when oil and water are mixed together.  One jar, one cup of water, and one cup of oil later, I was fully aware of where the idiom “Oil and water doesn’t mix” came from.  As soon as the two chemicals were mixed in the jar, the oil quickly rose to the top of the water.  I covered the jar with the lid, and I shook it until I couldn’t shake it anymore.  Initially it appeared that they may mix together well, but once the liquids had settled, again, they separated from one another.  The oil settled on top and the water on the bottom. 

It’s not hard to draw a parallel to that profound science experiment to life in America, unless you choose to turn a blind eye or close your mind to what is happening around us.  We are struggling to move beyond the theory of unity to the actual practice of unity.  There is oil and water, and a great shaking that is happening right now, trying to move us to mix.  We go to school, work and church together.  We gather in great number at sporting events together.  We mourn in the face of tragedies together.  However, when the shaking is over, and everything settles, the oil molecules, so closely bound to one another, resettle at the top as the water molecules, equally bound to one another, collapses below it.  For a moment, all is peaceful, all stand on common ground, and all seem to mix well, but then all settle back to things as they always were.

Getting back to the experiment...My teacher asked us what we thought would happen if we added a third liquid.  Many hypothesis were expressed before she instructed us to add our samples of dish detergent and shake the jar again.  What happened next was nothing short of amazing.  The oil had mixed with the water.  What we learned is that the introduction of the detergent had created what is called an emulsion.  The detergents’ molecules have two different endings.  One end binds to the oil molecules, while the other binds the water molecules and creates a STABLE mixture of two or more liquids that would normally not mix. 

I don’t believe that the majority of people today want to continue the divide that we are experiencing now. I believe that we are simply having trouble finding our detergent.  I also believe that the only way that we will find it is by attempting to see the world from each other’s perspective versus through the lenses of stereotype and bias. We must collectively challenge our beliefs via conscious and intentional exposure and experience.  In every group there are the few that meet the stereotype, but it would be insane to believe that it is the rule. I’m willing to bet that if we can put our fears and pride aside for a moment, we will see that generally speaking, we value and want the same things.

I will never know the stigma of being presumed a terrorist simply because I wear a hijab, but I can empathize and make sure I'm not apart of the problem.

I will never know the pain of being mistreated or presumed an illegal alien, drug dealer or rapist because of my Spanish descent, but I can empathize and make sure I'm not apart of the problem.

I will never know the frustration of the presumptions that precede our Asian citizens, but I can empathize and make sure I'm not apart of the problem.

I will never know the impact of conjectures on our Native American citizens.   

I will never know the anxiety of being presumed a racists, or feeling as if you have to apologize or overcompensate for the ones that are, simply because you are a White American, but I can empathize and make sure I’m not apart of the problem.

I do know the feeling of discontentment I feel as an African American having experienced blatant racism, and false assumptions made from lack of exposure, experience and sometimes outright ignorance.  Can you empathize and make sure you are not apart of the problem?

In my experience, empathy has been a unifying detergent.  If you and I both become responsible for adding our drop of empathy, versus denying that there is a problem or blaming each other for our problems, I’m convinced that is when we will begin to see a stable mixture that many of us seek. 

Will you experiment with me?

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