S2EP10 - Dolly Chugh - Implicit Bias & the Far-Reaching Effects of Systemic Racism
This is Make America Relate Again, presented by Better Angels Media. I’m Samia Mounts.
Before we get into this week’s special episode, a quick shout-out to Steven Johnson, who gave the show a 5-star review on Facebook, saying, “Meeting in the middle non-judgmentally is the only way for America to heal and move forward.”
I totally agree, and thank you, Steven, for your support of the show.
This week, instead of a conversation, I’m bringing you an interview with social psychologist and tenured professor at New York University, Dolly Chugh. Dolly has written an incredible book on implicit bias and how it can stop well-meaning people from improving and expanding upon their own perspectives to include those of others who may have had different experiences. The book is called The Person You Mean To Be: How Good People Fight Bias, and as of today, September 4, 2018, it’s available in bookstores everywhere.
Now, why am I featuring research on implicit bias on a show about politics? Because these hidden biases we all carry deeply affect our politics. If you don’t have a solid understanding of how our past of institutionalized racism, sexism, and anti-LGBTQ sentiment have affected those populations, it’s easy to think we don’t need policies designed to level the playing field or protect the rights of these groups. If you believe that the United States works as a pure meritocracy, where hard work and pulling yourself up by your bootstraps works equally well for all people, regardless of race, sex, or sexual and gender orientation, then you may not support policies like affirmative action. You may not have an appreciation for efforts to introduce more diversity into our workplaces. If you are one of the majority - meaning, a white American - your position would be understandable, given your personal perspective. The idea of a perfect meritocracy is very appealing to all of us. I think it’s what we strive for.
But we don’t have a perfect meritocracy in our country, or in our world. There are a multitude of systems that have historically benefitted some people over others, and even though we live in a world today that has progressed greatly since even fifty years ago, the ripple effects of those systems can still be observed - if you know where to look for them and how to see them. The fact is, most people are sheltered from this information, and we would all benefit from a better understanding of how our past is affecting our present.
Dolly’s book goes into all of that, and I’m thrilled to share some of her findings on the show today. Without further ado, here’s Dolly Chugh.
Samia: Dolly, welcome to Make America Relate Again.
Dolly: Samia, thank you so much for having me. I'm really honored to be here.
Samia: I'm honored to have you. Your work is incredible. I've been reading an advance copy of your book, The Person You Mean to Be: How Good People Fight Bias, and I have to say, I've read a lot of articles trying to help people see where they might have bias and a lot of books on it, and I've never seen something where things were put in such a gentle way that I feel could actually reach people.
Dolly: Oh, wow. Thank you.
Samia: Yeah. You did a wonderful job. I loved it. So, we're going to talk about some of the concepts in your book that I found especially compelling for me and educational. And I want to start with the concept of psychological threat. For a lot of people, especially people in the majority in the United States, the concept of privilege is really triggering to them. Can you go into some of the information we have on why that is?
Dolly: Absolutely. So, let's begin with psychological threat. We sometimes also refer to that as self-threat. It's the idea that any identity you care a lot about, if anybody outside of you or any little voice in your mind challenges whether that identity applies to you, we kind of go into the red zone. We psychologically really flare up when that happens. If I have an identity of seeing myself as a great artist and someone's challenging whether I'm a great artist, I get defensive about it. And so psychological threat is just this mental defensiveness we have around identities we value. When we think about privilege, the word has come to be, I think, so charged, and it's for two different reasons, I would say. One is that the word privilege actually has multiple definitions and the definitions get confused. So the most everyday use of the word privilege is usually referring to socio-economic privilege, meaning you grew up in a upper-class home, upper middle-class home, lower middle-class... All the different iterations of that. And so sometimes people, when we talk about privilege, assume that's the meaning intended, when in fact it's not the meaning intended. It’s not referring exclusively to economic privilege. That's one place. But I think the richer, more psychological story around why the word privilege causes us so much psychological threat and self-threat is that it speaks to our desire to see ourselves as deserving. Two wonderful scholars named Taylor Phillips and Brian Lowery have done some really cool research, and they titled their paper “The Hard Knock Life Effect.” Remember that song from Annie, “The Hard Knock Life”?
Samia: Sure do. Sung it at auditions.
Dolly: Oh, I'm so tempted to ask you to sing a few bars right now. Will you? Will you?
Samia: (singing) It’s a hard knock life for us!
Dolly: Wow. There it is.
Samia: All right, go on.
Samia: We're not sidetracking. I want to hear your points.
Dolly: I know. But I also want to be the guest that gets you to sing. So I'm so far checking that off.
Samia: You did it.
Dolly: Yay! So, Taylor Phillips and Brian Lowery, they described the effects they were finding in their research, “The Hard Knock Life Effect,” and particularly, what they found - imagine this, imagine someone says to you, "How difficult was your childhood?" And then, before you answer the question, they say, "Well, hold on. Before you answer, most social scientists agree that even today, white Americans are advantaged in academics, housing, health care, compared to black Americans. Now, back to my original question. How difficult was your childhood?" And what they found in their research is, when white participants in their research studies were asked how difficult their childhood was and then, before they could respond, reminded about white advantages in certain domains or white privilege, their recounting of their childhoods was more difficult. They described more hardships. On a scale, they described it as a more challenging upbringing, and obviously, their childhood didn't change, their personal history didn't change in those mere few seconds, but in some ways, what happened was they just rewrote their personal histories a little bit, not in a deceptive way at all, but in a way that reflects that feeling of threat of being a deserving person. That identity I have that I want to feel what I have, I deserve. When that's threatened, we look for ways to kind of, "No, no, no really. It was a more difficult childhood." And it's not at all unique. That particular study looked at white privilege, but it's not at all unique to white people. I think that exact same phenomena would apply to any group of people if they were reminded of certain advantages and then asked to describe their childhood. So, the Hard Knock Life Effect is just an idea that this natural psychology, we fear others will think our advantages were unearned, that we're not deserving, and for that reason we push back.
Samia: Yeah, and it makes a lot of people feel psychologically unsafe.
Samia: How can normal, well-meaning people get past this kind of threat? How can we train ourselves to look inward more instead of pushing back with defensiveness?
Dolly: Yeah, absolutely. And to be honest, that's my own struggle as well. That was a lot of the motivation to write this book, is exactly that question. How do we look for ways to grow and learn as opposed to shutting down? What I find in my research and the research of others is that a lot of it comes down to the beliefs we have about ourselves as a good person. I would say in most of our dialogue today, we have a really tiny little corner that we put ourselves in, that - the good person corner is one where there are no mistakes, there are no biases, unconscious or conscious, I don't slip up, I don't have blind spots. That good person version is so tight that's there's really no room to maneuver. The problem with that is that, as social psychologists, what we can tell you is a whole bunch of our human behavior is happening via our blind spots, and even the most well-meaning of us is going to mess up. I am a professor, I teach students, and I got an email from a female student telling me that I had assigned a sexist reading to my class. I'm a feminist, I have two daughters, how can... I totally went in to self-threat mode when I read that email. Or when I confused two students of the same race who look nothing alike, but I confused them for each other in front of the entire class. These are terrible mistakes, but they are mistakes that are potentially reflective of my own blind spots and the question is, if my definition of a good person is that tight little corner where there's no mistakes or bias, then when I get that email from that student about my reading, I'm not going to listen to her, I'm not going to learn from her, I'm not going to think about, how did I miss that in the reading? How did I assign that reading year after year and somehow never process the ways in which it was being perceived as sexist? Instead of learning from that, I am going to dismiss her, I'm going to label her a whiner in my head, and I'm going to keep assigning that reading. The place that I want to encourage people to go and the path and the tool I'm offering readers in my book is, rather than thinking of ourselves as good people in that tight corner, no room for growth or mistakes, what if we had a higher standard where we were good-ish people? Good-ish people are people who make mistakes, because that is what we all do, but good-ish people take ownership for their mistakes. They learn from them, they hold themselves to a higher standard when they make the mistake, and as a result good-ish people keep getting better. Good people in that narrow corner don't get better. And I think that's the place we want to go. It'll make it easier for us to hear about things like privilege. It'll make it easier for us to think about self-threat when it happens. When we go into the red zone, there's a path out.
Samia: So what I hear you saying is that the idea is to redefine what it means to be a good person to include, I guess, some humility about our own blind spots, as you said, and our own decisions and be able to say, "You know, I'm trying my best here and I'm going to give myself a break when I make mistakes, but I'm also going to learn from those mistakes."
Dolly: I think that's right. But when we say "give ourselves a break,” it's not - yes, we're giving ourselves a break, but not like excusing it away giving it a break. Almost the opposite. It's in the good person mindset that we excuse it. Our minds are like Olympic gold medal gymnastic good at reconfiguring every series of thoughts we have and anything anyone else says to us, reconfiguring it, retumbling it, and making it somehow support that good person idea. We just find a way. Most of us care about our moral identity, as it's called, seeing ourselves as a good person. On a one to seven scale, most of us say a six or up. And so if we put ourselves in that tight corner, either/or a good person, we care deeply about being seen as a good person and feeling like a good person, then we shut down when anything threatens it.
Samia: Yeah. The idea is wanting to always do better and being willing to improve and learn from those moments. Instead of shutting down, we want to open up.
Dolly: Super. That's exactly it.
Samia: Yeah. I struggle with all the things that you detailed in your book with your personal struggles with this, and I loved that you are so humble in admitting, "Yeah, I do these things, too. I am in no way this paragon of perfection when it comes to bias." And I thought that made your writing really relatable and easier to read, and hopefully for other people, too.
Dolly: Yeah. I appreciate you saying that. Thank you. And I do want to credit my editor, Stephanie Hitchcock, who helped me find a way to do that. And the way she described it is being the airbag for the reader. We're asking the reader to crash in to some stuff that's uncomfortable and that will hurt, but before they crash, I'll crash first, so I'll soften the blow a little bit. And I'm glad to hear that you responded to that, and I offer that as also a model for how we can, when we're talking to other people about their biases, their unconscious biases, their own blind spots, a way to have that conversation is to be the airbag for that other person.
Samia: Yeah. I love that. All right, another thing that I've really wanted to talk about with you, over the course of this show, and on one episode in particular, where I had a conservative white man and a liberal black man discussing the NFL protests, kneeling during the National Anthem. In that episode, I was trying to demonstrate how systemic institutionalized racism and the effects of slavery and Jim Crow and segregation all have ripple effects into today that really affect people who are young right now in ways that can't always even be seen by them. So, in your book you presented this thought experiment around this young woman named Colleen, who was very convinced of the boot strap mentality. You know, meritocracy, you work hard, you get the American Dream. And then you took her through, what would her life have been like if her family had been black, going back to her grandfather? Can you lead us through that thought experiment a little bit?
Dolly: Absolutely. Absolutely. This is the idea of thinking about the what-if scenario. So, I too struggle with thinking about, how do we understand something that happened over generations and something that has such cumulative effects? So, the way we try to think about that, Colleen is a composite of three real people. I know who those three people are, but all three asked to be anonymous. And then I just combined their personal information so that it was clear that nobody was identified by the information I shared about them. The result was Colleen. And let's imagine that Colleen is a white person in her mid-30s today in 2018, and she looks back at a good childhood. She had her own room, she had her own computer, her family would take cool vacations, but sort of vacations she viewed as normal, vacations that all her friends took, Disney, Washington, DC, go see the national monuments. She grew up in a good neighborhood, as she would describe it. She went to what she described as a good school. And most of her friends, most of her neighbors, were white, just like her. And in her life, this upwardly mobile life she had was a result of her parents' and grandparents' very hard work. Her grandparents were born into immigrant families, they were a classic pull yourself up by the boot straps kind of story. One of her grandfathers served in World War II in the US Armed Forces, and when he came home, he was able to access the benefits of the GI Bill, which was, as a reminder, passed three weeks after D-Day, and was sweeping legislation that, when we read about it in the history books, it often speaks about the way the GI Bill created middle-class America, because it offered veterans home ownership through mortgages and zero down payment, or very low interest mortgages. It also offered college tuition, so veterans could come back from the war and go to college. So an entire generation, we saw a huge spike in home ownership and college attendance. The number of college graduates in America tripled within that generation, so it was a real tipping point in economic history in America, and of wealth accumulation. And as a result, so Colleen's grandfather went to college as a result of the GI Bill, and as we know, being a college graduate is very predictive of whether your children will be college graduates, and that your grandchildren, and whether you own a home will predict whether... is very predictive statistically of whether your children will own a home. And in fact, that's exactly what happened for Colleen. Her grandparents were able to own a home and go to college, and then her grandfather was able to go to college, and then her parents were able to do the same. And they were able to, as a result, provide her with a childhood where they could save enough for her college education. She didn't have to apply for financial aid, she didn't have to work during college to pay for her expenses. She drank in college like many people do, but she had a fake ID, and she never worried about the consequences if she got arrested. She didn't have to worry about supporting her siblings or her parents while she was in college. They had the financial resources they needed. And if she had a bad semester, her parents had been to college. They knew how to help her navigate what to do. "Go talk to your professor. Let's find an undergrad advisor and maybe get a tutor. Let's drop that course before it shows up on your transcript." They knew how to navigate all that. She graduates from college debt-free, and is able to take jobs that allow her to not necessarily make enough money to support all her living expenses, because her parents give her an old car, they give her generous holiday gifts that allow her to pay for nice work clothes, or a phone. They help her out with security deposits, things like that. And all this time, she's certainly working hard, continuing the strong work ethic in her family's tradition, but doing so with that tailwind of financial security, college attendance, and home ownership in her history. So we'll pause there and say, okay, that's Colleen's story as it actually happened. What if Colleen was black? What if her parents and grandparents had been black? What would have her story looked like? And it's in fact of course a thought experiment. We know that there's a wide range of experiences, but we can probabilistically kind of guess on average what were the experiences of a white World War II veteran versus say a black World War II veteran. And Colleen, in fact, she herself is the one who began walking me through this thought experiment when I interviewed her. She started just breaking it down. It began with the fact that first of all, her grandfather very well would not… may not have been able to serve in the armed forces, that it was very difficult for black applicants to the military to be deemed suitable for service. They were often deemed unsuitable for service. So he would have had to been extraordinarily lucky to even be allowed to serve his country. Chances are her family would have lived in the South. Three quarters of the nation's African Americans were living in the South at the close of World War II, because slavery was a very fresh legacy at that point. And so in fact, if we even really think about it, Colleen's grandparents' grandparents, maybe even her grandparents' parents, so we're talking about somebody right now, 35 years old, their great grandparents might in fact have been enslaved. So that's a pretty fresh legacy in a family. If they were enslaved, they might have been separated. Their families, mothers, fathers, and children were often bought and sold separately, may have been raped, may have born children into slavery. This would have been part of her family's legacy. Let's go back to her grandfather. If her hypothetically black grandfather - let's say he got lucky. He was one of the lucky ones who was allowed to serve his country, and he went, he fought in World War II, thankfully came back alive, and now the GI Bill is available, providing these amazing benefits that are going to change the entire face of America. Full tuition. So he might have tried to go to college. He knew that was going to be critical, but at that time, very few colleges were accepting black students. His chances of even finding a college that would accept him, very slim. They would put higher criteria on black applicants than white applicants, so he would have had to be not only more qualified, he would have had to be more lucky than Colleen's white grandfather. If he did go to college, if he was in that lucky group, he likely got a very hostile welcome. He might have been on a campus where they chanted, "Two, four, six, eight, we won't integrate," or he might have been on a campus where the black students were not allowed to live on campus where all the white students lived, they had to find housing elsewhere on their own. He very likely would never have seen a black professor, and he very likely would have had white professors who had never before had a black student, or a black classmate, or a black professor themselves. So he would have been a first in almost every way. And, you know, college is hard. College is hard for all of us, for anyone, and this makes it really hard for someone. So okay, let's say he pushes through. This hypothetical black grandfather is just the most exceptional. He somehow gets through, or alternatively, he goes to a historically black college or university, the HBCUs, but they had very few spots. One estimate from historians says that there would have been an additional 50,000 African Americans who would have applied to college had there... veterans who would have applied using the GI Bill to college if only there had been spots, but there were so few. In the white colleges and the black colleges, we had very few spots. But okay, let's say he somehow pushes through, what would he have studied? In the historically black colleges and universities, they had no PhD programs, they had no engineering programs. They had such limited resources. Their programs tended to be in fields that are deeply important, but also tend to be low-paying: education, theology, the trades. So even if he was one of the luckiest that got through, his education would not have been the sort of ticket to financial security that it might have been for Colleen's white grandfather. So right there, one of the seminal benefits of the GI Bill would not have been easily accessible, or accessible at all, to Colleen's black grandfather. Additionally, we have the home ownership piece of it, and this was one piece that I was just so... all of this, by the way, let me pause and say everything I'm sharing was stuff I learned through the writing of this book. I knew none of it. In fact, if you look at my book proposal, none of this appears in it. When I signed with my publisher, it was all learned through the process of writing the book. And it might be worth, once we get through Colleen's story, talking about why that is true. I'm not surprised I didn't know it, because I wasn't the world's best history student, but I've talked to others who know more, and they haven't known it either. So let's talk about his attempts to purchase a home using the mortgage opportunities made available by the GI Bill. Well, one of the agreements that historians have now documented when they look back at the legislative process that led to the GI Bill, was there was a big tug-of-war between whether states would control how the GI Bill was implemented, or whether the federal government would. And in the end, they gave states control over who would receive the benefits of the GI Bill. What that meant, is a number of states, for example, southern states, crafted eligibility requirements that made it difficult for African Americans to access those benefits. So one analysis looked at the first 67,000 mortgages that came out of the GI Bill. Fewer than 100 were taken out by people of color. So now we have the big home ownership boost that is meant to be carried by the GI Bill also not applying to the black veteran. We have localities that are explicitly excluding blacks from moving into their neighborhoods. Levittown, which is often referred to as sort of the classic first suburb in America, the first suburb on Long Island, Levittown, they very explicitly said, quote unquote, "Their homes could not be used or occupied by any person other than members of the Caucasian race." So even if that veteran - Levittown is on Long Island, which is in the northern - it's a suburb of New York City - so even if you weren't in a southern state, but even if you could somehow get that mortgage, you still couldn't move into the quote unquote, "good," neighborhood. And I'm putting good in quotes. So we see today, if we bring ourselves back to where we are now, this is what we see. We see neighborhoods that have traditionally been white staying white. We see home ownership being passed down through families. We see wealth being accumulated. The black family of Colleen would not have accumulated wealth throughout the generations, probabilistically. Her mom, by the way, would have been... if she was like 85% of black women at the time of World War II, she would have worked in agriculture or in a domestic related job, perhaps cleaning homes, because those were the positions available at the time. And what that meant is that two other important laws at the time, social security and minimum wage, would have excluded her. Those laws explicitly excluded domestic and agricultural workers, so she wouldn't have made minimum wage, probably wouldn't have made minimum wage, and she wouldn't have had social security benefits accumulating to help her in her retirement. That would have fallen on Colleen. So in college when she could have been out studying, socializing, she would have been working part-time jobs to help support her parents, who wouldn't have had the opportunity to accumulate the wealth to protect their own retirement and support her other siblings. I'll pause there.
Samia: Yes, okay. So what you're describing is the concept which you introduce in your book, and I've never heard it put so succinctly, of tailwinds and headwinds. So all of these benefits for Colleen's white family were tailwinds that were pushing them along, and the second you turn it into a black family, suddenly there's all these headwinds that make it so much harder to do everything. And I think that is a concept that is really hard for especially a lot of white people who feel they've had it rough, to understand and to grasp.
Samia: People want to cling to this idea of a meritocracy, and they want to believe, "I worked so hard, and I deserve everything I've earned. Don't tell me that I don't just because I'm white," which is an easy to understand position when you're looking purely through the lens of that person's personal experience. Gaining these other perspectives I think is really helpful for people.
Dolly: The idea of the headwinds and tailwinds, like not knowing about the GI Bill, I've talked to history teachers who don't know about the GI Bill and how it was actually implemented.
Samia: I didn't know about it.
Dolly: Yeah, and so I think that's interesting. Like of course, if you don't know all this, you would kind of resent a narrative that said somehow your family had it easier. I can understand that. So it might be about talking about how the telling of history, and there's some stuff about what we cover in our history books.
Samia: We really do gloss over a lot in our history books.
Samia: The longstanding dominance of white Americans has re-written our history in a lot of ways. And we're not teaching our kids about these things. There's such a concept of personal responsibility, and you hear it with liberals and conservatives, but conservatives especially are like, "Personal responsibility. You need to work hard, you need to do this." And there's no appreciation for the headwinds that marginalized populations face. Now, you cited a study by sociologists, and I hope I say their names right, but correct me if I get them wrong, Emilio Castilla and Stephen Benard.
Samia: They talked about the “paradox of meritocracy” in organizations. Let's get into that a little bit, because it relates to this point. Can you tell me a little bit about that study that they did?
Dolly: Absolutely. And actually, let me also take the opportunity to thank you so much for bringing up headwinds and tailwinds. And I want to make sure I credit that Debby Irving is the person behind that beautiful metaphor. I've gotten a lot of mileage in my own learning from her on that, so thank you for bringing that up. Yes, Castilla and Benard have done some beautiful work, which they describe as the “paradox of meritocracy." It was sort of almost like a puzzle they were trying to solve. What they did was they said, oh, I bet organizations, companies that put merit-based compensation in place, a system where instead of like the more years you are at the company, the more you make, or that kind of thing, it will all be based off of your performance. That seems like, as you said, a very sort of classic American value, and something that would eliminate some of the disparities and biases that we worry about. So they started studying a company that had that kind of compensation system in place, and what they were surprised to find is they saw people, women, minorities, and people born outside of the United States actually had to earn higher performance scores just to get the same raise. So they were actually having to outperform others in order to get the raise, which seems like the exact opposite of what you would expect in a merit-based compensation system. And so this was a puzzle. It was not what they expected to find when they went in, and they decided to take their analysis into the lab, where you can control more of the settings and really try to break down what's going on, and see if they could find explanations for these surprising patterns. Interestingly, when they brought it into the lab, the same thing happened. When they had people do experiments, they said, "Imagine this is an organization that labels itself as a meritocracy." They found that male employees, that the participants in this study were giving male employees higher raises than women employees. Keeping everything else the same, versus when they didn't describe an organization as a meritocracy, they didn't see the same discrepancy. The paradox of meritocracy. Why is meritocracy actually triggering more bias rather than less? And they're still working on this research to crack the code, but they have a few hypotheses as to what's going on. One of them is that maybe what's happening is when we assume a meritocracy, to use Debby Irving’s term, when we assume that there's no headwinds or tailwinds, we perhaps become less vigilant about the ways in which our biases might flair up. And so we've kind of... There's a term in psychology, moral credentials. We've credentialed ourselves as being legit and objective because we're calling this a meritocracy. And once we credential ourselves, we kind of relax and loosen up. And that's when, in fact, our unconscious biases can really rage and do their harm in those moments. So there's maybe something - unintended consequences to meritocracy that blind us from these headwinds and tailwinds, is their speculation.
Samia: Yeah. It's bizarre that that would be the result.
Samia: It's hard to wrap your mind around. One thing that you stressed a lot in your book was opening oneself up to gaining the perspectives of others, which is what this whole show is about. Because once you... There's a lot of things that we just don't see, we just don't realize. Like I had a moment recently here in Seoul, Korea, where I was discussing visa issues with another performer here. And they were telling me about all these problems they were having with their visa and I was like, "Really? I haven't had any of these problems." And they were like, "You're American. I'm not."
Samia: "You have an American passport. That gets you this privilege." I was like, "Dang. That's right."
Dolly: Oh, man.
Samia: And also, just being an English speaker gives me a lot of privilege over here in Korea than somebody who might speak English but might have an accent. Having that standard American accent really helps me here, and people who don't have it face many more struggles. Their earning potential is lowered. Their ability to get a legal working visa is lowered. And that's something I never thought about even though I grew up here.
Dolly: That's fascinating.
Samia: Yeah. So there's all these different levels of privilege, and finding out the perspectives of others really helps you see it. What are some resources or some things that people who do want to do better, who want to grow from believers into builders, as you say in the book, where are some places that people can go to gain those perspectives if they can't find them in their daily lives?
Dolly: Absolutely. The examples you just gave were so powerful. Thank you for sharing those. They illustrate this idea of ordinary privilege that I talk about in the book, which, again, goes back to your earlier question about privilege being such a charged word and something that does trigger us. What I describe as ordinary privilege, though, is just the parts of your identity that you don't think about, and that's probably where your tailwinds are, and you just illustrated that beautifully. That's a good way to see where your tailwinds are and then use are tailwinds to do what you just described, find other perspectives where you can understand what the headwind perspective is like on that identity dimension. So some of the things I share in the book, like some concrete things you can do, like immediately, today even. What if you looked at, whatever your sort of favorite form of media conception is, maybe it's podcasts, maybe it's music, maybe it's movies, maybe it's books, maybe it's TV, but what if you looked at the last ten things you consumed in that media form, and then thought about the voices represented in those media - how close are those to yours? How close are those voices in the backgrounds to each other? In other words, so how much of a different perspective are you getting from your own and how much of a range of perspectives are you getting between the last ten you last heard? If you're like most people, you probably aren't getting as much of a range as you could, and that suggests there's probably a chance there, an opportunity to open yourself up to different perspectives, as you said, to hearing perspectives with more or less headwinds, tailwinds. Twitter, for example, has a really active, kind of, I would call it a community, but it's like Community with a capital C. It's very amorphous, but Black Twitter it's often referred to. And you can go on just any search engine and just type in, "What's hot on black Twitter? Who to follow on black Twitter," and you'll get whatever's current. This if you're black or if you're not black, mostly if you're not black to do this, and then you'll get a bunch of hashtags and people to follow. And you'll suddenly be eavesdropping on a fascinating conversation. It might be about politics. It might be about entertainment or sports or social justice or anything. It's often funny. But it's also often eye-opening. And when I've done this, for example, it's opened me up to seeing, A, just what a range of perspectives there are. There is no black perspective or black view or black experience. There is a whole range. And two, what it's like to hear a conversation and not interject, not disagree, not argue, just truly listen. Like if you were eavesdropping in a coffee shop, unless you're really rude, you don't jump into the conversation you're eavesdropping on. You just pretend you're not listening and keep listening. And obviously, what I'm describing on Twitter is actually a public conversation on the social medium, but, again, it's important to listen without injecting ourselves into the space itself. To just hear and notice when your self-threat goes up, notice the red zone when you feel it, but don't react to it. It's great practice for that, in addition to getting the range of perspectives you were describing.
Samia: Yeah. I love that. I do feel that that is enormously difficult for a lot of people to do. Because sometimes those conversations that we can eavesdrop in on can make us feel really, really bad. The instinct to want to fight back against that feeling is so strong.
Dolly: Yeah. I hear you. I hear you. I wonder though if it's a little easier to eavesdrop and literally be invisible, no one knows you're doing it, versus have that conversation in person. The guests that come on your show, I feel, show so much courage in being willing to actually engage with another person who they know they're going to disagree with, as opposed to just listen with no need to respond, take that pressure off, and to just feel what it's like to be in a space where your voice and people like you are not the dominate voice. That's a really powerful and kind of unique and rare privilege to have.
Samia: Yeah, it's something that most people aren't exposed to in their daily lives, since we do surround ourselves with predominately people who think like us.
Dolly: Exactly. Exactly. It's just, I think - that's why I think media is a great way to do this. You can be a passive listener and just let yourself off the hook of trying to convince anyone of anything. Just hear it.
Samia: Exactly. I like that. “Let yourself off the hook of trying to convince anybody.”
Samia: That's great. All right. We're going to wrap this up soon, because I think we've covered most of the things that I wanted to talk about. But did you have any final thoughts, anything you wanted to bring to the table, that you really want the listeners to know about your work?
Dolly: Oh, thank you. I think one of the things that I found most gratifying, interesting, and productive for my own learning in doing the book was the interviews I did of people, the stories they told about their own struggles, all the struggles that we've just talked about in our conversation, their version of that, and how they've stumbled and how they've grown. And there was one story in particular I would just love to share. I think about it so often.
Samia: Yes, please.
Dolly: So I'll take you back to 1960, Greensboro, North Carolina, the Woolworth's lunch counter, segregated. And February 1st is when the Greensboro Four started their lunch counter sit-ins. The Greensboro Four were four freshmen in college, four black men who decided it was time to do something. And 1960, this means this is very early in what we will eventually describe as the Civil Rights Movement. They begin a sit-in movement that spreads from the four of them to hundreds to thousands to across the country and will by the end of the year lead Woolworth's to be... Your listeners are maybe too young to remember this, but Woolworth's was like Panera or Au Bon Pain back then. It was like the big national chain for lunch. It leads Woolworth's to desegregate their lunch counters. Why do I tell you this story? Well, one of the Greensboro Four was Joe McNeil. Joe McNeil is now in his 70s, and I've had the blessing of getting to know him, having him speak to my students at New York University, and interviewing them for this book. One of the things I asked him when I interviewed him for my book was, I said, "I don't know if you remember this, Joe, but the first time you came to speak to my students, in the Q&A, one of the students asked you your views on gay rights. And you stumbled a little in your response. You said you really didn't know, and you needed to think more about it. And then the second year, I invited you to come back, and not only did you not stumble, you built into your prepared remarks - it was clear you had read up on gay issues, gay rights issues. You had thought about it, you had talked to people. You had a point of view and your point of view was we need to ensure equality for all. And I'm really curious as I sit," this is me speaking to Joe, "as I sit across from you now, a few years later, what happened between year one and year two?" And there was this little bit of silence, and he looked at me, and he said, "I said to myself, 'McNeil, you better grow up. People are people and you need to treat everybody the same. It doesn't matter how you grew up. It doesn't matter what people used to think and used to say. It's just not right.' And so I decided I needed to grow." And when he said this to me, and when I say it in his actions with my own eyes and ears, I said to myself, "If Joe McNeil, civil rights icon, a giant, a man who, along with the other three members of the Greensboro Four, Nelson Mandela cited as inspiration for him while he sat in prison, he would think about them, if someone like that is willing to keep growing in his 70's and to never stop pushing himself to be a good-ish person, I think the rest of us can do it too.” I'm just really, really inspired by him.
Samia: That is very inspiring, and it speaks to where we started with this, which is that we all have room to grow, and admitting that is part of having a growth mindset as opposed to a fixed mindset. It allows us to improve ourselves instead of staying stagnant and limited to our own perspectives.
Dolly: So beautifully said. Yes.
Samia: Dolly, thank you so much. I'm going to tell everyone I know to buy your book. I really appreciate you coming in to talk to me today. Thank you for the work that you do. It's making the world a better place.
Dolly: Oh, Samia, thank you for the work you do, and Chris here in the studio with me. You've just done... You're doing a huge service for all of us. Thank you for this work.
Samia: Thank you so much.
Samia: This book should be required reading for all Americans. Most of us consider ourselves good people, but what if we could become good-ish people? People who realize our own capacity for blind spots and mistakes, and choose to focus on them and improve, rather than dig our heels in to our current positions and get defensive?
You’ll find a link to purchase The Person You Mean To Be: How Good People Fight Bias on the Episode 11 page at makeamericarelatepodcast.com, as well as a transcript of this episode. In addition, you’ll find a few other resources introduced in the book that can help you start to see other perspectives in a way that might help you to transform from a non-believer - a person who believes the playing field is already equal and doesn’t see the headwinds and tailwinds that benefit some at the expense of others - to a believer, a person who recognizes and acknowledges the injustices that have dominated our systems for so long. And then, to grow from a believer into a builder - someone who works every day, through their example, to improve upon the progress we’ve already made, so that one day, perhaps we can have that dream of a perfect meritocracy, in which all people have an equal chance at achieving the American dream.
These can be painful concepts to address, and you may experience the feeling of psychological threat as you explore more. When you feel yourself getting defensive, embrace that feeling as a sign that you’re hitting on some ideas that, if examined fully, will serve to help you become more like the person you mean to be. And go deeper. And keep going. We all have room for improvement. I know I do. And there’s nothing wrong with that, as long as we avoid a rigid, fixed mindset that limits us and keeps us where we are, instead of propelling us forward.
Next week is the final episode of this season, and I’m going to wrap things up with a few catch-up conversations with some of the women featured in Season 1. It has been my honor to bring this show to you for a second season, and I thank all of you for tuning in and supporting the depolarization of America. If you want to do more work in this area, please head to better-angels.org to learn about the many opportunities they provide to help move this work along.
Many thanks to Dolly Chugh for agreeing to this interview, Douglass Recording in Brooklyn for recording this conversation, LGate Studio in Seoul for recording my intro and outro segments, Dani Valdizan for creating the theme music, and Christopher Gilroy for mixing and editing this episode.
This is Make America Relate Again. See you next week.