I’m reading all this academic literature about how deluded white Americans are. What I’m finding most interesting are the studies that show a gap between what people say they believe and how they actually behave on tests that measure unconscious assumptions. In daily life, this manifests as the white woman who says she doesn’t have any stereotypes about black people, but who unconsciously grips her purse tighter when she passes a black man on the street, or the white employer who says he wants a diverse workplace, but whose body language toward a black job applicant is subtly less welcoming. According to psychologists, this is the most common type of white American. Those who are openly racist and those who are truly not racist are both minorities.
I’ve been thinking about what this type of unconsciousness means economically and politically for people of color, but also what it means spiritually for whites. Every author I’ve read so far points out that people tend to cling to their delusions, making up reasons for their behavior so they don’t have to face their unconscious motivations. It makes me wonder how often this applies to other areas of our lives, as well. What are the self delusions I cling to, and what harm do they cause?
For example, I’ve been dragging my heels about getting my mom’s name engraved on the headstone that already bears her maiden name. Decades ago, my grandmother purchased six plots together, and now they are all full (My grandparents, three of their children, and one son-in-law). But the headstone is still half empty because my cousin never got around to adding his parents’ names after they died, years ago. Before she died, my mother instructed me to have her sister and brother-in-law added to the headstone when her name was added (She made a point of wanting her brother-in-law to be listed last since he was not really part of the family). In the winter, when I was working on my mother’s affairs full time, the funeral director told me they usually don’t engrave headstones at the cemetery in winter; they wait until spring, so I put the chore off. Well, now my tulips are blooming, the clematis buds are poised to open, and the fern are unfurling. Still, every day I postpone calling the gravestone company. Is this simply laziness on my part, or evidence of some unconscious issue? Maybe engraving her name seems too permanent. Or maybe I have some unresolved anger, and procrastinating on the headstone is a relatively harmless way of acting passive aggressive. If that’s the case, I wonder what it means that my cousin still hasn’t added his father’s name after ten years.
We humans are so complicated, our true motivations often mysterious. I recently watched a friend muck up a situation because of some passive aggressive behavior that I’m pretty sure was unconscious. It reminds me that Thich Nhat Hanh and other Buddhists talk about mindfulness as a peace issue. As Hanh writes in Peace is Every Step,”We are afraid to bring into our conscious mind the feelings of pain that are buried in us, because they will make us suffer.” He suggests we take up practices like mindful breathing that help us to acknowledge our painful feelings and accept them. Only when we pay attention to our thoughts and actions can we stop ourselves from hurting others accidentally and sow seeds of peace instead.
In the situation with the friend, my first impulse was to figure out how to make him more self aware, just as my first impulse after reading the studies on racism was to go around educating other white people. But then there’s that old line in scripture about removing the plank from your own eye first, a line I suspect Buddhists would agree with. As Gandhi and others have pointed out, transforming ourselves and transforming the world go hand in hand.