In our current climate where elected officials are being “outed” for racist practices and conduct that expresses bias and racist intentions, it would be fair to pose the question, What is going on? When such an expression occurred many years ago, it might be characterized as something that “was all in the past” as a way of diluting the seriousness of the actions, invoking yet another valid question: Haven’t we all done things that we regret? For most of us, the answer to this question is yes; however, most of us don’t participate in actions that demean and mock others. Most of us don’t, in crisis, demonize an entire group of people for the actions of a few. The Theory of Social Learning, as expressed by Canadian-American psychologist Albert Bandura and others, supports the position that behavior is learned through observation and imitation. People are not born to hate, but they are born to learn.
In a 2018 study by The Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University at San Bernardino, researchers found a 12% increase in hate crimes in our 10 largest cities. They also noted that this increase has been rising for the past four years while the overall crime rate has been decreasing. The rapid pace of social change may have something to do with this. The term “Hate Crime,” as defined by the U.S. Department of Justice, has evolved over time and is a criminal offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender or gender identity. Prompted by social interactions people often operate on autopilot. We react to situations based on how we were raised or the cultural norms accepted by our social circle or both. As our society evolves, there will be some who are left in a state of internal conflict, recognizing that their behaviors are now deemed antiquated. This can leave a person in a state of disconnection if there are no new behaviors taught and accepted – new ways of thinking and being. Over the years, I have been directly asked regarding evolving social standards: “I’m not sure what steps to take; what should I do?”
My answer is this: Take the first step. In your own privacy take stock of who you are. What are your biases? (We all have them.) There is a free online assessment test provided by Harvard University called “Project Implicit” (Implicit.Harvard.edu). This test can provide you with valuable insight. Second, you might ask, Now what? Take that insight and make a list of topic areas that you can focus on to expand your knowledge through targeted literature. A third proactive step could be to attend public forums where you can listen to guest speakers talk about different cultures and unfamiliar topics that expand the way we think. Last, know the difference between empathy and sympathy. There is a distinction, as empathy is putting yourself in someone else’s shoes to understand that person’s situation; whereas, sympathy is just feeling sorrow for someone else. Knowing this difference can help shape how you connect with people.
Positive social change can be as simple as starting with yourself. As you become more informed, so will your circle of friends, family and acquaintances – and your community.
A frequent contributor to the Poughkeepsie Journal, Pawling resident Obed Figueroa is the author of Marcus Learns About the Different Types of Doctors, soon to be published by Austin Macauley Publishers. He is also a published researcher and a graduate (MA) of Stony Brook University.