Eliminating our Biases…Embracing Our Diversity

Rabbi Steven I. Rein
April 26, 2012
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A colleague of mine once related to me that she was leading a program at the local community center. Prior to the program’s start, she went to the lobby to wait for a pizza delivery. For roughly fifteen minutes she was looking for a short male of Hispanic descent, wearing loose jeans. Finally, a tall, fair-skinned gentleman waiting next to her said: “do you know anything about a pizza delivery; I’m waiting for someone to pick up a few pies?” Reflecting back, my friend felt not only embarrassed, but ashamed at being blinded by her racial bias.

Unfortunately, my friend is not alone. How often are we blinded by our own biases towards other individuals or groups? Frequently, we are not even aware of the prejudices that we have internalized. Italian scientist Alessio Avenanti of the University of Bologna has recently shown that racial bias can in fact negate the ability to feel pain of someone from a different ethnic group (Current Biology Vol 20). Avenanti recruited white and black Italian volunteers to watch videos of a stranger’s hand being pierced with a needle. While measuring the neurons of the observers’ hands in roughly the same place, he found that the recruits only responded empathetically when they saw hands that were of the same skin tone as their own. If the hands belonged to a different ethnic group, they were unmoved by the pain they saw. These reactions point towards an implicit prejudice unconsciously coloring our world.

While the research of Avenanti does indeed indicate that we possess multiple biases, he also concludes that this is not our default state. Avenanti repeated his experiment with brightly colored violet hands, which clearly do not belong to any known ethnic group. Despite the hands’ strange hues, when they were poked with needles, the recruits all showed strong empathetic responses, reacting as they did to hands of their own skin tone. There is indeed hope. The learning process, however, is not easy. One step that we can all take is engaging in real dialogue with individuals of different faiths and cultural backgrounds. Several summers ago, while working at the United States Air Force Academy, I organized and led joint programming for Jewish and Muslim cadets. It didn’t take very long for the students to realize that the characteristics they thought were real were not necessarily so. Our differences were not very significant; our similarities were surprising. Our ability to learn from each other is an important first step towards eliminating our biases and embracing our diversity.

We cannot erase years of evolution during which we have learned to fear the unfamiliar, to flee from or fight any threat. Fortunately, however, our minds are flexible enough to be altered by experience. We must become aware of our unconscious forms of prejudice and confront that which has been implicit. Creating positive memories with individuals and groups with perceived differences will begin to restore our collectively dimmed vision. We must once again learn to evaluate people based on who they are, not who we think they are. By refusing to see the humanity in the eyes of another human being, we embody the very intolerance that has afflicted us for millennia. Embracing diversity begins today, our neighbors are waiting.

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