08/20/2013 08:28 am ET Updated Oct 20, 2013

Embracing Tolerance

A few weeks ago, I was walking down a crowded sidewalk late at night when a young African-American woman came up from behind, pushed me out of the way, and angrily shouted, "excuse me, George Washington!" From their conversation, it appeared that she and her friends had just had an altercation with some white men. My fight-or-flight response kicked in and the adrenaline started flowing, but luckily they left me alone. It was clear that her intent was to vent her frustrations on me because of my skin color, something I have experienced before, and it got me thinking about the cyclical nature of negative stereotyping.

I know I am fortunate. The prejudices others hold towards me are occasionally hurtful, but rarely threatening. I have never experienced the institutionalized racism or discrimination that minorities face. Given how distressed I have been over minor racist or prejudiced encounters, I can't imagine how awful it must be for more harmful behaviors and policies to be sanctioned by one's own government.

In college, I began to fully appreciate the hardships people face based on the seemingly endless divisions and subdivisions that narrow-minded people use to separate, whether based on race, religion, sexuality, national origin, gender, disability, or personal preference. At times, it was difficult to understand the anger of mistreated minorities. Having grown up in a predominantly white town, I was not often exposed to diverse groups of people and their struggles. I was probably guilty of the ignorance that Ta-Nehisi Coates describes in his insightful piece, English Is a Dialect With an Army.

As inspiration, I put up a U2 poster and one of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in my dorm room. It included the words of his historic speech, delivered 50 years ago. No one thought much of the U2 poster, but the Dr. King poster occasionally elicited ridicule, as if it were disingenuous for me to embrace his ethos of tolerance and justice.

I distinctly remember as a child hearing Dr. King's booming voice replayed on TV and feeling moved. Long before I was able to comprehend the centuries of painful history behind the "I Have a Dream" speech, his words reverberated in my head, reinforcing a morality that seemed unquestionably correct: to judge others not "by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character."

U2 also inspires me, in part because I love the magical, uplifting sound of their music: the rising crescendos, Edge's trance-inducing guitar riffs, and Bono's gravelly, melodic, occasionally anguished voice. More importantly, the band preaches equality, tolerance, and peace, as embodied in classic anthems such as "One" and "Pride," a reminder that anyone can carry this universal message, no matter where they're from or what they look like.

Over the years, I've tried to heed Dr. King's words by getting to know people as individuals and listening to their stories, forcing myself to scrutinize my own behavior and recognize when I am unconsciously being intolerant or harboring prejudice. On a certain level, I can sympathize with some minorities because I don't fit into anyone's boxes. Based on my appearance and an anecdote or two about my life, people constantly try to force me into one of their mental paradigms and are sometimes hostile towards me because they view me as a symbol of white male dominance. As people actually get to know me, many struggle with apparent contradictions that challenge the narrow collection of traits they have attributed to me, a sort of stereotype dissonance. We all face this in some form.

As people of all kinds share their stories, such as Suzette Hackney, Val Nicholas, Ana Defillo, American Indian students in South Dakota, Anna Lekas Miller, and President Obama, I believe white men should spend some time listening, being introspective, and seeing the bigger picture. Personal stories can promote understanding in a way that statistics cannot. After all, human experience is filtered exclusively through the minds of individuals. Normal human biases often lead people to favor their own groups over others, even unconsciously. As white men, we should ask ourselves if we are helping to perpetuate an unfair system, intentionally or not.

Honestly, all of humanity could afford the same introspection. We all harbor prejudices and hatreds that contribute to the fear, pain, and mistrust that often lead to misunderstanding and violence. Many of them are subtle or unconscious, but they are harmful. We can't ignore that white people are subjected to prejudice, and that these stereotypes are impediments to improving race relations. Of course, prejudice and racism against white people in America are not as harmful as police brutality, biased drug laws, stop-and-frisk policies, or mass incarceration, which are realities African-Americans and other minorities face.

Fifty years after Dr. King's historic speech, the world has changed. Although it has been hard for some Americans to accept, the United States does have an African-American president, twice elected by a majority of the voting population. Female presidents and prime ministers are becoming more common around the world. Iceland's prime minister is the world's first openly lesbian head of state. The identity-based barriers to opportunity and success are crumbling. But we have more work to do, and not just to correct institutional injustices. We also need to understand that humans have natural tendencies to form groups and to discriminate against outsiders, but that we can train ourselves to reduce our own prejudices.

Racial and ethnic prejudices are among the most prevalent forms because skin color is easily identifiable. In Mali, lighter-skinned Tuaregs have historically and recently suffered persecution by the more powerful, darker-skinned Malians to the south, which has fueled reprisals by Tuareg rebels, including an effort in June to expel darker-skinned Malians from Kidal. Mali's newly elected President Keita faces the task of breaking the cycle of violence between these ethnic groups. As this example shows, people are dehumanized and killed over all sorts of intergroup hatreds, no matter what color they may be.

Embracing tolerance can be difficult because it means letting go of the intolerant aspects of our worldviews and recognizing our in-group biases. It means abandoning our mental straitjackets and acknowledging the full spectrum of exquisite nuance that humanity exhibits. It can be hard to tear down our own internal walls, but it's worth it. The new possibilities for love and friendship can enrich our lives in innumerable ways. There's nothing wrong with spending more time with the people we are most comfortable with, but letting go of our blanket hatred or mistrust of one group or another is not only liberating, it can lead to a richer understanding of the human experience.

I do not have the authority to speak on behalf of my dead relatives or other white males, but I will not ignore or forget the injustices perpetrated by white men, both past and present. I also recognize that African-Americans have endured gross injustices and continue to bear a disproportionate burden of injustice in America. Understanding our own history is essential, but learning from it and building a better future is more important. Anyone can be victimized by intolerance. Those who perpetrate injustices today should be held accountable, no matter what group they identify with. Unjust laws and policies should be eliminated, no matter who they affect.

Embracing tolerance means letting others exist in peace as long as they are not harming anyone, even if they don't comport with our notions of how people "should be." It means supporting equal treatment under law and moving beyond the discourse that pits one group against another, focusing instead on the universal human struggles to survive, to know security and comfort, to be accepted, and to find meaning in life. It does not preclude us from debating the merits of different lifestyles, but it means respecting those who prefer simply to live and let live. The beauty of tolerance is that it gives us the right to demand the same of others. We can't stop chasing Dr. King's dream because it is a fundamentally human dream.