De-Conditioning Racial Bias

One of the reasons we still have problems with race isn't necessarily because people are racist, though, there are out and proud racists. It's more that well intentioned people are unaware that many of their impulses and thoughts are conditioned responses, meaning, we don't think about them, we just feel them and it makes us uncomfortable.

Deconditioning unwanted behaviors is something I specialize in. I have a background in behavioral conditioning. I know the science of how to make unwanted behaviors (including thoughts), stop and I also have the practical experience to know why exactly it is so hard to change, even when we want to.  And yes, I have a course/book on that (Why is Change so Hard?

First, I want you to read this thread by Claire Willet on Twitter. 

This thread is super important for white people to read. It's about the history of our conditioned responses to black protests.  Specifically, how we have been conditioned, intentionally, to feel uncomfortable with black people protesting.  And yes, we were and are being conditioned to respond to protests by people seeking to not be shot for no reason, with discomfort. And there is a super long history in the USA of this happening. And yes, it was done intentionally. And yes, our government did it intentionally. Read the twitter thread! 

That uncomfortable feeling you have been having about how black people are protesting? It's there for a reason. You have been conditioned to feel that discomfort. And that was done intentionally to help people in power, stay in power by denying social justice movements support by other moral people, by making them, uncomfortable and afraid. 

I have a background in behavioral conditioning. I can attest that what Ms. Willet describes in her thread, is true. What she is saying, about how even when we find out we've been lied to,  we still believe things that aren't true, because it feels true even when it isn't - is absolutely spot on. 

That is the power of conditioned responses. Conditioned responses bypass your normal thinking. It's your gut reaction. You don't know why you have this gut reaction, you just do. And yes, your thoughts can be conditioned and ARE conditioned. All the time.  

If I start a commercial jingle, chances are you will sing the rest and would have a really hard time, stopping yourself.  Let's give it a try ... "plop, plop, fizz, fizz." 

There are people who want the rest of us to be afraid of black people asking for help. And they have spent, literally centuries convincing people to be afraid and uncomfortable around black people and about discussing discrimination against black people and minorities. And all this discomfort and our inability to deal with it, is preventing us from finally, creating a society where everyone is given the same opportunity and where people can actually be judged on their character and not on the color of their skin.

Deconditioning Ourselves

But in order to get there, we have to start deconditioning ourselves of these habits of thoughts that cause us to have negative thoughts when confronted by race. We have to decondition the habits that cause us to look away or deflect. 

The good news is that these various deflection responses, are a normal part of the deconditioning process. The bad news is that, unless you force yourself to challenge your own brain, you won't get past them, which is why collectively, we haven't gotten past it.

The other good news is that once you understand your own resistance response, you can help yourself decondition the uncomfortable responses you have whenever the subject of race comes up.  

So if you want to support black people but keep finding reasons why you don't actually support black people, then I have a few suggestions for you. And yes, I mean even well meaning liberal people who think they are beyond this but are afraid to go to the 'black' part of town because they are worried about crime - you too. Especially you.

What I want you to learn is first, why change is so hard (  I want you to understand the resistance ideas that pop into your head for what they are, resistance to change. Then, you can calmly encourage your brain to calm down and think explicitly about whether the assumptions you have about a given situation are true.

Think Humanistically

The next thing I want you to do is think humanistically about yourself and about the situation you are concerned about.  Think explicitly about the values you think are most important. Then, apply those values to the situation at hand. Keeping in mind that what you think, may be incorrect because of your implicit conditioned biases to think negatively about black people doing anything other than being subservient to white people.  Try to understand why black people are upset and think, if this happened to you, would you be upset? Yes, then the black community is protesting for good reason and you should support them. 

Finally, you will make mistakes. That is ok. You will stumble. That is ok too. If you are worried about black people judging you because you are not a perfect ally, well yeah, that will happen. But how you handle learning that you made a mistake is key. Accept you made a mistake and learn from it, and your efforts will be appreciated.

The problem with centering yourself. 

If you have started to become aware you may have had someone say, stop centering yourself. Here is what that means and why you should NOT center yourself. First. you don't need anyone's approval or acknowledgement to do the right thing. The right thing is to say plainly that an injustice is in fact, an injustice. For instance, cops killing unarmed people who have broken no laws, is an injustice. 

Second: If your willingness to support people who are being abused is based on whether you get credit and props for doing the bare minimum of what a moral person should do, which is to say, what happened is wrong, then something is wrong with you. And you should check yourself. Because when an injustice is occurring, the focus should be on the injustice. Not on whether or not your allyship is being appreciated by people who are literally fighting for their lives. 

If someone tells you, you are centering yourself, you are. Don't argue. Focus on the person who needs help. Not on your need for approval. 

Stick with it

Undoing and unlearning conditioned thoughts is a time consuming process. Every time you manage to identify one of your triggered conditioned responses, don't get upset you thought the thought.  You were conditioned to think it. The goal is to recognize WHEN you've had a conditioned thought and to consciously and explicitly challenge that thought. 

And you can do this for anything. My son is convinced math is hard and he has some fairly extreme deflection responses anytime he is asked to do math. I won't go into the details of why he has these responses except to say that he came by his aversion to math the hard way.  As I am working with him to get past his aversion, which is a conditioned response, I have been encouraging him to challenge his negative thoughts and replace them with other thoughts. Even if they are sarcastically positive, it is still a better response than the extremely negative thoughts he has when math is presented to him.  As we practice turning the negatives into positive, it gets harder for a bit. Crying has been involved in it. But, the resistance eventually gets less hard and his ability to pivot improves. 

Positively reward success:

Every time you successfully challenge one of your conditioned responses, reward yourself. Recognize how hard that was to do for yourself and congratulate yourself. Treat yourself to something. 

The only real way to get rid of a learned response/thought is to replace it with a different learned response/thought. And whenever you succeed in doing that, reward yourself. Positively reward the behavior you want. Don't beat yourself up for continuing to have the thoughts/responses you want to decondition. Just focus on converting them to something positive and eventually, you will get through this. 

For a full list of my programs and books check out this list.  Pretty much everything on it, includes some of this behavioral learning. And the best part is, the more you learn how to do this, the easier it becomes and the less you resist it.  

Even if you start small, with just one identified response, like, the discomfort you feel about black people protesting the wrong way, start there and work through it and past it. Your response, that discomfort was conditioned by people with an agenda. Don't let them control you. 

PS - we need to do the same thing for sexism. 

Harmony in Diversity and Diversity in Harmony

 I had the great pleasure to talk ethics with my friend Masroor Lodi, he founder of ‘The Entrepreneurship School’ in India. The context was a program on how to teach teachers to teach values in the classroom. I met Masroor Lodi on a trip I took to India where I spoke at a Happy Workplace Conclave put on by my friend Mukund Trivedy.

Here is a link to the program so you can see what we talked about:  That page includes links to the resources we discussed and a downloadable copy of his presentation. 

One of the things Masroor talked about that really resonated with me was about creating harmony in diversity and - diversity in Harmony.

Moral Imagination

He said that one of the ways to move forward with diverse groups and help them build cohesion is by accepting different actions as different ways to express shared values.

Values like – respect – are expressed as different behaviors in different cultures.  For instance, looking at someone and making eye contact vs. looking down and avoiding eye contact. It’s the same value, just expressed as different behavior.

 Part of the way to help create harmony in diversity  is to talk and discuss and learn from each other. And the best way to do that is to start from a point that everyone is moral. 

I love this as it is consistent with my way of being as a Humanist. Being a humanist to me means, treating everyone with dignity and understanding that they are moral beings, even when I don't understand their behavior. 

Imagine how much easier it is to deal with conflicts when you start by assuming the other person is behaving in a way they think is moral. And then, instead of treating them as if they are immoral, asking them questions to understand the morality that is driving their behavior.  I know that's how I want to be treated.

To do this well he encouraged us to increase our moral imaginations and to look at people's behavior, as moral and to try and understand their morality. 

Primary Values:

Another way people have trouble with diversity, is that they value different things. This is especially difficult in work groups. Everyone has the same values, but what is the primary value?  This can vary from person to person or from workgroup to workgroup.

I related to this because of a personal experience I had when working at a tower company. At one point we purchase the towers from Motorola.  With that purchase came employees. And this is where we had a primary value clash. 

What was valuable in a tower to Motorola, was not what we at our company valued.  To fix this, we had to be explicit about what made a tower valuable and to discuss the competing ideas of what made a tower valuable until we came to a shared understanding. 

Don't ever assume that everyone is on the same page. Explicitly discussing values and what is valuable in a work setting, helps create harmony in diversity. No one has to feel like their values aren't valued. That's the beauty of these conversations. Everyone's values matter. But if we listen respectfully, we can create consensus on what values we value the most in a given work situation. 

This can be done explicitly and should be done explicitly. Get in the habit of discussing what values are being invoked in decision making. You will find staff more engaged and more openly moral. 

Moral Code Switching:

The final thing he talked about that I want to share here has to do with moral code switching.  Behaviors of values may differ in different context. This is code switching. 

Examples might be things that are acceptable in personal life, not be acceptable in the workplace and vice versa. 

Again, the solution Masroor Lodi suggests, is to be explicit about the problem and re-affirm shared values and expectations in the given situation you find yourself in.  In a work environment, having a conversation about the moral values helps employees bring their personal values into the work environment and that in turn, should help people, behave more ethically with each other and see the morality of colleagues more clearly.

I want to thank Masroor for taking the time to discuss explicit ethics with me and the idea of using ethics to create harmony in diversity. 

How can good people come to different moral conclusions about politics

 Now that the election is over, hopefully, as I am prewriting this in October, let's talk about how good people can come to such radically different moral conclusions about politics.

This is based on an actual conversation I had with some people on social media. Their names have been deleted, but I thought it was important to discuss this, from an explicitly humanistic perspective.

Question 1: I cannot get into the minds of those who go along with hateful and hypocritical rhetoric and actions. If you are decent, caring, and honest, how can you accept what is contrary to your values?

My first answer: By not knowing and not believing when you are told that something immoral has happened. Also, being told the other side are the bad guys and that your side is the good guys, plays into our tribal biases and short circuits our moral reasoning.

It's having your morality, which we all pretty much share,  hijacked for nefarious purposes. We've had 30 plus years of this happening along with concerted efforts by foreign bad actors to exacerbate this dynamic. But the lying liars thing is just partisanship. It's substituting tribal thinking (our side good, their side bad) over actual moral thinking (these actions are good or bad regardless of who does it).  In other words, morality becomes, it's ok if my side does it - to beat the other side.

Question 2: What you state appears to be the situation. However, morality can be interpreted and practiced many ways. It's personal and based on perspective. What you and I accept as moral is not necessarily what another person goes along with. Biases are factors. Personally, my mind differentiates between what I know, based on experience and facts and data; plus compassion and empathy play a role which I cannot ignore. Sometimes it is difficult to accept truths and maybe that is the problem with people who look the other way and go along with hateful, spiteful rhetoric and acts.

My 2nd Answer:  Studies on global ethics show that there is actually a common global ethic. Compassion is good. Harm is bad. Everything flows from there. I once did a just war session at a conference. We all agreed what a just and unjust war was but when we tried to apply to particular conflicts we couldn't agree at all, because of what we knew or thought we knew. 

Add to that the fact we almost all take short cuts in our thinking. If we had to analyze everything it would be exhausting so we take short cuts and make assumptions. One of those short cuts is our tribe good, our enemies bad. We substitute if our tribe did it it must be good because we are good and everyone I know is good. Therefore they are not capable of doing bad - for actual analysis of any given situation. This happens all the time. The idea that humans are rational is incorrect. We are capable of rational thought,  but most of the time we don't use critical thinking. We use emotional thinking and rational short cuts. Further, we don't have time to learn everything. 

This is how people with a shared morality can come to hugely different conclusions of what is moral or immoral or amoral. And that's when we share the same facts! 

When we don't share facts or when people believe things that aren't true it would be nearly impossible to come to an agreement on what is moral.

Signs of a Toxic Workplace Culture

I have personally experienced the negative effects of toxic workplace cultures and I have the experience to provide insight into how to recognize toxic workplaces, but more importantly, how to fix them. 

My experience with toxic workplaces: 

In my first job out of college – I was a volunteer manager for a non-profit. One of our volunteers was toxic. After I fired her – she tried to get me fired. I endured 8 months of all sorts of crazy horribleness.  Among other things, I was accused of sexual misconduct. I not only survived, I got through to the other side with my reputation intact and the toxic volunteer, eventually gave up.

At that same job,  one of my colleagues was super passive aggressive. I was able to work around her and eventually the board asked me to set things up so they could fire her.  I succeeded in that too. 

I live in FL now. I had a boss once who was not only racist he was incredibly sexist. When I say sexist, I mean he used to rub himself in front of me. It was disgusting. I didn’t succeed there, but I did get out ok and into another better job where I was appreciated and supported.

I now teach how to get unwanted behavior to stop using behavioral psychology techniques known as operant conditioning. Specifically I teach the technique known as extinguishing a behavior.  I learned this while training dolphins for a dolphin language cognition research lab in Hawaii.  

That's me. I really did train dolphins. 

How to fix it:

The great thing about truly toxic people is a) they aren’t very creative and b) they are super predictable which makes controlling their behavior easy. 

I caution people all the time: truly toxic people are really really rare. Most people you have problems with are NOT toxic. The ones who are have mental health issues that are usually untreated.  The great thing about my approach is that to do it well, you have to treat people with dignity and give them opportunities to change and embrace you as an ally.  If they just can’t, that’s on them.  

Most people respond super well to these techniques. I have created allies out of enemies with this technique.  That’s the ideal outcome and it’s doable assuming the person is … neurologically normal which most people are. 

But if the person is truly toxic and not in control of their behavior what will happen is they will expose themselves as toxic to the point no one can deny it anymore. You can do this while maintaining your dignity and grace and without fighting them.  And yes – it works. 

Learn more:

All my harassment courses teach these behavioral conditioning skills. They will allow you to deal with people effectively and with dignity and grace. And if you do come across someone with problems that need, more professional help, you will be able to help your organization cope without violating their dignity.

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