This is Part 2 of a Two-part post. Click here to read part 1.
Ef oona ent kno eh oona da gwine, oona should kno eh oona come from! ~Gullah Proverb
With this past election the winds of change have blown through our country with hurricane force, revealing a divide that is deeper than most of us suspected. In the last post I shared two social science theories that help explain our human tendencies toward polarization that get exacerbated into chasms during election cycles.
It’s not healthy to stay in this matrix of polarization, however. At this stage, individuals are most prone to self-righteously label and lump others into not just “in-group” and “out-group” but “winners” and losers.” The prevailing emotion is fear that locks individuals into their own narrow world, hindering them from seeing the reality and needs of “The Other.” Ironically, the needs of the out-group often mirror those of the in-group.
In this post I want to share some strategies for navigating through this season.
According to the Intercultural Development Continuum, the stage of intercultural development that follows polarization is “minimization.” I know, it doesn’t sound like a stage that any one wants to go through. It is a necessary stage, however, in one’s journey to fully accepting & appreciating cultural differences. Minimization describes a stage of development in which individuals come to recognize the things their culture holds in common with other cultures. In this stage an individual develops a mindset that “highlights cultural commonality and universal values and principles.” The reason this stage is called “minimization,” is because the quest for commonality can cause individuals to minimize or “mask a deeper recognition and appreciation of cultural differences.” None of us can truly recognize, appreciate, and adapt to other cultural values, or advocate on behave of others from differing cultures until we move out of polarization through minimization into acceptance.
The scientists at the Neuro-Leadership Institute offer similar guidance on mitigating the similarity bias (e.g., the “in-group”/”out-group” bias) that is just one of over 150 cognitive biases they’ve identified. According to the NLI, to counter the brain’s tendency to categorize other people into in-group or out-group, we each need to first “affirm our own identity in positive ways” without being negative toward others who are different from us. In other words, my win doesn’t have to mean your loss. We also have to “find ways to think of those who are different from us as more similar to us. We have to find ways to connect. As the late civil rights leader Rev. Willie Taplin Barrow used to say,
In a time where emotions continue to run high, doing the work of moving past polarization may seem too hard or even unwanted. I argue that it is necessary. We have precedence from our past of leaders and freedom fighters who led the nation through divisive periods. As the opening Gullah quote affirms, “if you don’t know where you are going, you should [at least] know where you have come from.”
Remember Where We’ve Come From
As a nation we have core values that are embedded in our constitution that leaders and freedom fighters appealed to in other times of division and polarization. During the troubling period of slavery in the US, two occasions come to mind for me when Abraham Lincoln appealed to the core values of our nation to preserve the nation.
A House Divided Cannot Stand
On June 16, 1858, Abraham Lincoln became the Illinois Republican nominee for the United States Senate. That night Lincoln addressed his colleagues and reminded them of the context in which he had been selected to represent his state—a country that was “half slave and half free.” Standing on the words of Jesus as found in the Gospels, Lincoln affirmed an eternal truth, “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” Lincoln lost the senatorial election but won the principle that ultimately helped him become president two years later.
Government For Us By Us
On November 19, 1863, after the battle of Gettysburg during the Civil War, President Lincoln delivered a two-minute speech as part of the dedication of the Soldier’s National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Most of us can quote the opening line that starts with “Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, upon this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” And yes, today we remind ourselves that the founding of this grand nation on Native land presents a contradiction in and of itself. And we still struggle to fully live out the truth that all people (women and men) are indeed created equal. Yet, Lincoln went on to affirm America’s commitment that a “government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.” Yes, those espoused values helped our forebears work through the many contradictions in our national lived-experience. We must continue to appeal to them to work through the contradictions that have emerged from this election.
As an African-American woman of faith I am well aware of the history of women and men who resisted polarization to bring about rights and freedom for all people: through the Civil War, Reconstruction, the post-reconstruction set-backs, the era of the legalized discrimination of Jim and Jane Crow, to the Civil Rights movement that sparked the movements of so many other people groups.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the most visible leader of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s used the very strategy to which I am referring to challenge the status quo. He appealed to the core values of this nation to call the nation to unify around the freedom and rights of Black people. There are many instances when Dr. King called the nation to task for not living up to its own core values as explicitly stated in its founding documents. The most vivid for me is the imagery he invoked in his “I Have a Dream” speech on Aug 23, 1963 at the March on Washington. He declared:
In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the “unalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.”
But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.
So, how do we cross the polarizing divide? We hold fast to the core values of our nation. They were foundational enough to turn the tide of chattel slavery, and to eradicate legalized discrimination. They are foundational enough to offer a bridge across the great political divide to remind us of what is important—no party or government leader’s policies can threaten the freedom of the citizens of this nation without “We the People” coming together to resist.
So what can you do to move forward?
Clarify Your Personal Values
In addition to reminding ourselves about our common core national values, each of us must do the work of clarifying our own personal values that infuse our work for inclusion and justice. I must say, I was disheartened by the results of the election in which the winning candidate had a history of misogyny and racism. I have done diversity and inclusion (D&I) work for over twenty years but wondered: if the organizations for which I worked to create cultures of inclusion are microcosms of the U.S., then had I and my D&I colleagues made any impact and progress? I was discouraged and thought about taking down the consulting shingle. Until I took some time to reflect on my own call and reasons for doing what I do. My professional career emanates from a distinct call and vision rooted in my cultural and faith tradition. Thankfully, in private and public comments many organizational leaders, have affirmed their commitment to “double down on diversity and inclusion.”
When the media began to report exit poll numbers, I was quite perplexed at how 53% of white women could vote for a man who presented such sexism during the campaign, even to the point of calling his opponent a nasty woman during the last debate. I have the great fortune of leading learning events for women across the world. For a great number of my clients in the U.S., the majority attendees for many of these sessions are white women. I remember the apprehension I experienced entering the venue of the first training session I had to run after the election. I thought, “Would these be women who supported Mr. Trump? Could it be that 53% of the women in this workshop will be Trump supporters?” My emotional mind continued as I calculated, “Even if the 53% number holds for this class, that means, 47% are Hillary supporters!” As I sat up front perusing the room as the women gathered, I couldn’t tell who was a “Trump voter” and who was a “Hillary voter.” And that was a liberating point. I could not pick out an individual woman in that workshop and place her into a box or category and judge her based on a polling statistic. Polarizing biases make it too easy for us to stereotype and act with prejudice to entire groups of people. Each of us has to examine our own lenses and categories and use our rational mind to resist stereotyping. If you haven’t already done so, I suggest you visit the Implicit Association Test (IAT) website that has a series of tests that help you assess your own tendencies to privilege some groups over others. Accepting that you stereotype is the first step to resisting the stereotype.
Adopt Reconciling Strategies
Change is upon us and we must prepare for it. I recommend a book that a dear friend of mine published
recently. Dr. Brenda Salter-McNeil has dedicated her life to reconciliation across differences. She is a professor of reconciliation studies and international speaker. Her book, Roadmap to Reconciliation: Moving Communities into Unity, Wholeness and Justice provides a framework and tools for reconciling our polarities without compromising our core values of justice and inclusion.
One of the concepts Dr. Brenda talks about is the power of catalytic events. She defines a catalytic event as “the painful but necessary experiences that happen to individuals and organizations and serve to jump-start the reconciliation process.”
She goes on to write,
“Most of us need this type of push to help us start the journey. We need someone or something to push us out of our comfort zone and the isolated enclaves that keep us alienated from other people and their differing perspectives.”
This entire campaign season has served to be a catalytic event that has shaken us out of our comfort zones. Regardless of who had won, our nation was going to have to reckon with our great divide. And now each of us must respond in our own way.
My niece Kristen shared a post that she says went viral. This post is a great example of a person who did the work of clarifying her or his own personal values and committing to embodying those values one day at a time, one act after another. I close this post with that commitment.
I invite you to make your own commitment to move across the divide to live, work, worship, and stand together – in spite of our differences.