Everyday Bravery & The Downfall of Prejudice

Today’s blatant prejudice and discrimination pale in comparison to the community sanctioned bloodletting that has run rampant throughout our country’s history. However, there are several examples of ongoing narrow-mindedness. A quick search for news stories conjures up tactless texts, billboards, emails, and comments, littering the internet. Social media serves as one of many vehicles to transmit the virus of hatred and bigotry across the globe with a click of button.

Prejudice and discrimination continue to have a powerful effect on the lives of those who are targets of hostility, on the bystanders who witness it, and a society waist deep in mud unable to escape its firm grasp. Under the veneer, we also unearth subtle forms of hostility and implicit bias that persist. Coupled with the aforementioned, there is the impact of negativity bias, where the memory of unpleasant past events unduly dominate people’s lives.

In contrast, we find people from all walks of life calling out individuals, organizations, and governments when there is an injustice committed against others. Increasingly, people are willing to reject stereotypes and point out hatred to embrace a personal sense of fairness and equality.

Recently, psychology researchers determined that negativity can only be counteracted by more frequent and compelling positive events. According to Dr. John Gottman, the magic ratio is 5 to 1, indicating that couples who make five times as many positive to negative comments find their relationships to be more stable and satisfying than unhappy couples with an equal number of negative and positive comments. In a study examining high performing teams, researchers found a nearly 6 to 1 ratio of positive to negative comments team members made to one another compared to underperforming teams.

A person may easily surmise that positive interactions can offset the negative effects of prejudice and discrimination. If one is seeking an opportunity to make a difference and change the landscape of our country, it will require those willing to be courageous and risk being brave in the face of ugly circumstances.

6 Acts of Everyday Bravery

An overwhelming and consistent experience of everyday bravery is essential to counter the negative effects of everyday prejudice and discrimination. The downfall of prejudice requires everyday bravery. Its collapse will not necessarily mimic the fall of the Berlin Wall, the passing a major civil rights legislation, or a march to uphold freedom and democracy.

In a recent talk about bravery presented by Creative Mornings Austin, Sheila Scarborough spoke about the power of everyday bravery, describing six examples of people who took steps to make a real difference. Although the main theme did not focus on prejudice and discrimination, the six illustrations help to recognize bravery and provide examples of how people might decide to neutralize and counteract prejudice and bias.

“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” ― Nelson Mandela

Of her six examples, bravery through failure represented an easy opportunity to develop courage since many people make mistakes. It is an important step in developing an approach to counter discrimination. Our society does not always value failure and, if one can avoid it, a person is considered fortunate for dodging the bullet. There is a deep abiding fear of failure because it represents vulnerability and weakness. As painful as it can be, failure is a wonderful prospect for success if people are able to capitalize and learn from their self-induced fiascoes.

In consultation with trusted friends and wise advisers, failure can provide a chance to look back with hindsight to adjust and correct for errors in understanding and behavior. Oftentimes, people can look back at their prejudiced behavior and know instinctually they should or could have acted differently. It is also important to check in with others more knowledgeable and familiar with issues of racism, sexism, and other prejudices to provide honest and credible feedback. Through introspection and relationships with others, a person is allowed to confront emotionally difficult topics, be accountable for their behavior, possibly find a path to absolution, and release themselves to behave differently.

“Difficulties strengthen the mind, as labor does the body.” ― Lucius Annaeus Seneca

Another step toward affirming diversity, inclusion, and equity requires a focus on the mind/body connection. Researchers have long established that how people think has a profound impact on how they feel and behave. Specifically, implicit bias research demonstrates that unconscious biases have a damaging effect on how people behave daily. From their research, examples of implicit bias’ impact include a doctor may be less likely to recommend black patients to see a specialist, managers may bypass black candidates for job interviews, and judges may grant dark-skinned defendants longer sentences for identical offenses. Recognizing how we consciously or unconsciously think about issues of race, gender, sexual orientation, class, and other issues can help to tear down the veil. This requires bravery because behind the veil is a respectable person, intending to stop prejudice and reverse past injustices, but who continues to hold negative attitudes toward certain groups to the detriment of themselves and others.

Although a person could take an Implicit Attitudes Test to identify areas of challenge, our behavior and others’ reactions to it can be another good indicator of difficulties. A person may learn from conversations with others that their behavior does not reflect fairness, kindness, or openness to others from different backgrounds. With some reality checking and soul searching, one may learn about how to connect their unconscious biases to their behavior. Tooled with greater awareness, people can gear themselves with the skills to change how they act toward others.

“The quest for certainty blocks the search for meaning. Uncertainty is the very condition to impel man to unfold his powers. ” ― Erich Fromm

Sheila Scarborough also talked about coping with uncertainty as another way of identifying bravery. In certainty, there is a disquieting solace for those intimately familiar with prejudice and bigotry because experience has taught them to distrust others. Certainty provides little comfort for those experiencing, for example, racial tension and political turmoil at work. Around each corner, surprises lurked in the form of a smiling, polite face that turned into curt comments and false assertions. As a consequence, it is best to find ways to cope with the ever-changing tides that ebb and flow through a lifetime.

Coping with uncertainty allows for bravery as people experiencing bigotry and discrimination seek opportunities to struggle and fight for dignity without the guise of happy appeasement about ills perpetuated against them. People find it necessary to cope as an act of self-preservation and a means to daringly defuse the contagion of bigotry. Coping with uncertainty includes the following, but is not limited to:

  • Talking with others who share the same feelings of anger, frustration, sadness, unease and desperation,
  • Giving voice to shock and disbelief,
  • Acknowledging the distraction bigotry and discrimination creates,
  • Managing the tension, irritability and conflict that manifests with others,
  • Muddling through recurring intrusive thoughts about the negative event(s), and
  • Searching for information to better understand what happened.
“A wise man travels to discover himself.” ― James Russell Lowell

All too often, people are isolated when they leave the self-perpetuated social cocoon. Even on social media, people tend to choose to connect only with the political and social information that they find affirming, comforting, and acceptable. In marketing, cocooning is a term to describe those who spend less time socializing and more time at home connecting with others through technology.

Travel is an invaluable way to develop bravery because it allows people to explore, connect with others, exchange ideas, and build relationships. However, cost, time, and other barriers can make traveling prohibitive. If you are not able to travel, courageously reach out of the self-insulating cocoon through an opening and break away from the conventional. However, to make bravery more commonplace, it is important to take steps to connect with those who may be different from you and reside in your own community.

“In nature, nothing is perfect. Trees can be contorted, bent in weird ways and they’re still beautiful.” ― Alice Walker

As a child, I spent many afternoons visiting with my grandparents in Redwood City, California, watching reruns of TV shows such as Kojak, Cannon, Barnaby Jones, and The Rockford Files. My favorite character came from the detective show Columbo, starring Peter Faulk, who played a polite lieutenant and used his power of deduction to catch the murderer.

I would sit with my grandparents, guessing who the real killer was, knowing Lieutenant Columbo would sort it out. I admired his ability to see things differently, to make connections few others were willing for risk of looking foolish. His search for the unusual entailed an inquisitive nature needed to develop bravery.

Searching for the unusual is another tool that distinguishes bravery. Without the curiosity to seek out weird and unique people or environments, a person tends to be left with their conventional surroundings that neither provide a challenge, nor push a person to view the world from a different perspective. It also closes us to the variety of experiences people have every day in what seems to be behind the scenes but actually is out in the open. A person’s willing to search for the unusual requires bravery to get lost, at times, and find a way back home. The journey offers an opportunity to see and participate differently in the world around.

“(W)hen we fail to speak up and speak out, we strike a blow against freedom and decency and justice.” ― Robert F. Kennedy

The final example of recognizing bravery comes in the form of speaking out. Sometimes naming injustices can be difficult. It requires tapping into a reservoir of bravery, especially within cultures that avoid or discourage conflict. Those who speak up about prejudice and discrimination are oftentimes considered troublemakers, ill-suited to work in an organization, or as complainers with hidden agendas.

As a young teen growing up in Grand Prairie, Texas, my mother would drag me to church on any given Sunday for Bible study, a church service with at least four songs from the choir, and a sermon to tickle the spirit. On more than one occasion, I recall the Pastor thundering from the pulpit, “Shame the devil, and tell the truth!”

At the time, the phrase was a cute reminder to be truthful. Today, it’s a clarion call to speak truth to power. Everyday people witness unfair and inappropriate behavior whether at work, home, or in their communities without uttering a word or taking action. From bystander behavior research, we learned that people rationalize their inaction because they believe that someone else will take responsibility.

Bravery requires taking responsibility when others will not or cannot because we are committed to fairness, equality, and justice. When they see their coworkers mistreated, friends and neighbors bullied, and strangers abused for being different, people see their values being violated. After the daily onslaught of micro-aggressions and slights, it takes a brave friend or stranger to attest to the burden they bear each day. It takes bravery to find a common kinship with people who seem to have no connection, bridge divides, and see how the triumphs and ruin of others are intricately interwoven with their own.

Living everyday bravery comes with its bumps and bruises, because the short-term consequences can be disjointing and exhausting. As a buffer, it is important to rejuvenate and retool in order to cope with the uncertainty and backlash that will likely come. Survival will also require figuring out how to hack the system, job, or other environment to ensure longevity.

In the end, the short- and long-term rewards outweigh the negative consequences. If people do nothing, they risk having the same familiar and predictable problems. Taking up the mantel to be brave risks making the change that may have once upon a time been inconceivable. All six suggestions for recognizing bravery are interconnected. Alone, each can be powerful but together, they can be used to fight for change.


Originally published at jelaniaustin.com on November 21, 2013.

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