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What Drives Us to Divide

The Black Lives Matter movement and recent events has sparked a wildfire of passion for change, justice, and equality. But it also sparked cruel hatred and misdirected fear.

As a therapist and writer, I’ve contemplated on how to address the Black Lives Matter movement, and the need for systematic reform, over and over. What should I write? What should I voice? And what can I do about it?

Being in the mental health field, professionals like myself tend to care deeply and passionately about humanity and positive social change. With that said, seeing people tear each other down, and participate in hateful-hearted actions, or engage in arguments so heated it could sear your soul; seeing people proudly wear their racism, amplify oppression against minority communities; and witnessing police, a profession meant to protect us, fail countless times resulting in abuse and murder, to the point where some are so desensitized to it they justify it. . .my heart has been crushed down, and cracked into a million crying pieces.

I understand the reasoning for built-in fear of the system when it is something you learn might work against you from the day you are born as a Black person, Indigenous person, or Person of Color–but as a white woman, I will never truly understand what that is actually like. The more I educate myself, dig deeper into my own life choices, and watch what is going on, the more I see how devastatingly desperate the need for change is on numerous levels, and has been for a long time.

I’ve been asking myself, from a psychological standpoint, what is the engine driving these behaviors? What psychological phenomena, what mind sets and innate, buried beliefs, are augmenting hatred? Why are we still experiencing systemic racism, inequality, hatefulness, and brutality, and witnessing outright appalling behaviors that often can result in someone’s death? And how is it that some are able to stay blind to this, justify it, and only state a case for the “good people”? On the other end, why is it some want to bash and burn the entire system down and leave it at that?

This movement is greater than my profession. It is much bigger than me. Bigger than all of us, bigger than our individual problems. Bigger than political divides. Because this is a collective, generational problem and we have to view it as such, know that we must be in this together, regardless of personal opinions and backgrounds. This is collective, cumulative trauma for Black people–this goes back generations, and there are still many Black people living today who survived through blatant periods of segregation, white supremacy and superiority, and overall, tolerated racism, not one experience they would have ever chosen for themselves or their ancestors; and it is most helpful for white people, myself included, to be willing to continuously lower the defenses, keep ourselves in check, and listen. To see this as collective heartbreak, collective grief for all. For human rights. For justice.

The Black Lives Matter movement and push for reform is an opportunity to step outside of ourselves, step outside of our personal lives, and stand up for humanity. Because how the world operates, how society operates, how the system operates, unarguably has an influence on us at the individual level, and vice-versa. When our world is sick, we are infected too.

Whether you are willing to admit it or are too fearful to yet, I truly believe we can all agree, there is a grand need for better; there is a vast gap for improvement within our country—and our world, as evidenced by protests in other countries. The world is crying together, rallying together, pleading for overdue change. Change leading us away from police brutality, violence, and malice within communities. Change leading us away from poor education, limited mental health services and psychoeducation, racism, colorism, sexism, neglect, oppression, and transitioning us into a world united, a world where services are equal and provided for all.

Yet there are those who do not stand united, continuing the divide. I see many outcries of people and wonder: why are there some who are overgeneralizing still, grouping still, determined to provide arguments and justification against needing change at a systematic level? To the point where they are justifying police brutality, racism at any level, and the high rate of hate crimes (https://ucr.fbi.gov/hate-crime/2018/topic-pages/incidents-and-offenses). To the point of overlooking the countless times and statistics showing we have defunded mental health care, hospitals, medical care, public schools for our children, our communities, and housing for our people—the defunding that they never batted an eye to. It’s exceptionally disheartening when others place blame on minorities for choices when choices have been extremely limited for poverty-struck, neglected, and under-educated communities. Every individual’s circumstances lead up to unhelpful choices, but majority blame them, instead of asking: why is this happening? And how can I help seek solutions?

I wholly understand the fear of how defunding the police system sounds—it might sound unsafe, excessive, and/or misinformed.

We know there are people who can see the range of issues rationally. We see them as part of the peaceful protests all over the globe. We see them serving communities, before this movement, during it, and onward, from all walks of life and professions, genuinely wanting to help. We are seeing more humans of all backgrounds, now more than ever, plead and beg and voice and stand up for human rights, for human decency, for justice for all, not just the ones they know and care about, or the demographics they are most comfortable with.

Those who want and can envision better are not part of the problem. Those who are willing to grow and educate themselves about what needs to change, are not part of the problem. Those who are anti-racist–a term for those who are actively not racist by promotion of equality–are not the problem. They are vigorously searching for and presenting solutions to support.

Clinging onto a problem-fixated, rigid, punishment-based mindset is one of the contributing factors of why some want to keep everything as status-quo, and the first on the following list to discuss.

Factor #1: Problem-Fixated Mindset

What is a Problem-Fixated Mindset? It is a rigid mindset that only focuses on the problem. This usually manifests as: blaming, shaming, punishing—whether on self, or dumped on another. As a country, we tend to be problem-fixated and pro-punishment.

Why is this dangerous? It creates short-term solutions fueled by fear and power, and creates long-term damage and repeated, swept-away problems.

Example: At the society level, we can become obsessed with chasing revenge and intense punishment—the intensity often mismatching the situation. What we are seeing lately is the outcry for justice, for consequences that match the crimes, and justified responses for innocent people or low-level crime and/or misbehavior.

Some statistics from the NAACP and Prison Policy Initiative:

“Between 1980 and 2015, the number of people incarcerated in America increased from roughly 500,000 to over 2.2 million.” As of 2020, this number is now 2.3 million.

Today, the United States makes up about 5% of the world’s population and has close to 22% of the world’s prisoners, a number that continues to increase.

Statistics from the Bureau of Justice Statistics:

“The United States is the world’s leader in incarceration.” El Salvadore, Rwanda, and Russia are the following three below us. The lowest rate being India.

“There are 2.2 million people in the nation’s prisons and jails—a 500% increase over the last 40 years. Changes in law and policy, not changes in crime rates, explain most of this increase. The results are overcrowding in prisons and fiscal burdens on states, despite increasing evidence that large-scale incarceration is not an effective means of achieving public safety.”

Another source: https://www.dukechronicle.com/article/2019/09/social-justice-mass-incarceration-americas-desire-for-punishment

At the familial level:

We gravitate toward punishing our children with mismatching consequences, rather than discussing WHY it was a behavior meriting reprimand, and reprimands that make sense, fitting the “crime.” It isn’t a surprise that our behaviors at the individual level mirror our system’s.

In the scenario of a child insulting his sibling, it would be imperative and effective to discuss the natural consequences such as people don’t want to be around someone mean; you hurt their feelings; you are avoiding pain within yourself; you don’t know your values and/or how to reflect your values; and you are needing help with communication of needs.

The latter is where parenting comes in to teach alternatives. Restitution versus retribution provides solutions versus punishment only, as described by Amy Morin, LCSW (https://www.verywellfamily.com/how-to-use-restitution-to-discipline-your-child-1094755). 

A restitution for the situation above, would look like: letting the sibling write an apology letter to the other sibling. Letting the child pause and reflect, to have an opportunity to do better and make it right. When the parents I work with implement this approach of replacing punishments with restitutions, they all report beautiful, positive changes in their children’s behaviors over time.

What can we do instead? Show accountability. Acknowledge the problem, and why it is a problem, then focus on SOLUTIONS for said problem, instead of spending wasted time and energy on bashing and shaming others, and/or bashing and shaming yourself. Find solutions that involve preventative strategies and plans, solutions that are flexible and open to adaptation, as necessary.

Factor #2: Grouping Mentality

Jane Elliott, an American schoolteacher, conducted an experiment with the children in her class, known as the “Blue-Eyes-Brown-Eyes” exercise on April 5, 1968, the day after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.

Ms. Elliott told the brown-eyed children they were superior to blue-eyed people. Ms. Elliott also told them blue-eyed people were less intelligent and less clean. The students, although surprised to hear this, complied. She then made the blue-eyed children create construction paper armbands for the brown-eyed children, so they could easily stand out. The brown-eyed children were not only told they were superior, but they had their authority figure, the teacher, “on their side.”

You can guess what happened next. Within minutes, the brown-eyed kids were aggressive toward the blue-eyed kids, telling them they couldn’t play with the brown-eyed children, or be on the playground at the same time. The brown-eyed children argued with the blue-eyed children, and at times hit them.

Normally, “blue-eyed” is not an insult. But once she injected the stereotype into their heads, the change was rapid, alarming, and damaging. The engine driving the oppression was set in motion, until she spoke with them about what the exercise represented.

This happens in the real world. This happens within our country, from our own President.

These are President Trump’s latest statements from the rally in Arizona, addressing the audience, as described in Politico:

He called the audience “smarter” than Democrats, who he said require “absolute conformity.”

“They hate our history, they hate our values, and they hate everything we prize as Americans,” the president said. “Our country didn’t grow great with them. It grew great with you and your thought process and your ideology. The left-wing mob is trying to demolish our heritage, so they can replace it with a new oppressive regime that they alone control.”

Why does this happen? Because we are built for survival—and part of survival, for some, is greedily seeking success and narcissistic power, and gaining it by any means necessary.

When that part of our brain was built, tribes were inherently linked with surviving. The bigger the tribe, the higher likelihood you will feel and be safe. Therefore, our modern brain cannot always recognize when the grouping is at play, especially when it leads to racism, prejudice perspectives, stereotyping, insulting, and violence against the group we disapprove of, or a group whose opinion differs from ours.

Grouping, when done mindfully, can even be fun, uniting, or helpful–as experienced in support groups, communities, or competitive sports. But clinging onto a group and seeing it as the only part of one’s identity, and any outside group as opposing and/or a threat, is incredibly dangerous, as it leads to hatefulness and division.

Factor #3: Blind Obedience to Authority

Haney, along with Stanford University psychologist and APA Past-president Dr. Zimardo, conducted the Stanford Prison Experiment in 1973; it was presented in the Naval Research Review, under the title, “A study of prisoners and guards in a simulated prison.”.

The experiment took place over only six days—because of the extreme behaviors, it was stopped shorter than planned. Within only a few days, the results provided evidence of how harmful and grievous radical obedience to authority can become, and how this dynamic creates a severe shift of superiority vs. inferiority of humans.

It displayed how psychologically healthy individuals could quickly shift into a sadistic mentality and slip into a power-hungry role when given an authoritative role, while the oppressed “prisoners” developed depression, powerlessness, extreme distress, and diminished self-worth. The “guards” became tyrannical and psychologically abusive. Certain “prisoners” began to even side with the “guards” against other “prisoners” who did not obey the rules.

It also showed the ugly potentialities normal people harbor when given the opportunity to let them out, and/or are encouraged to do so.

Another famous study conducted at Yale University is called the Milgram Shock Experiment, conducted by Stanley Milgram in 1963. It was sparked after the Nazi killings in World War II. The role given to 40 male participants, aged between 20 and 50, selected through a newspaper advertisement was the “teacher” role. The “learner” roles were filled with participants knowingly involved with the experiment, and what it was studying.

What they found through the Milgram Shock Experiment was seeing how far people would go when an authority figure, labeled as the “experimenter,” instructs harm on another person. The “teacher” was told to administer an electric shock whenever the “learner” made a mistake—increasing the level of shock each time. It marked from 15 volts (faint shock) to 450 volts (severe, dangerous level of shock). The “learner” purposely gave a higher rate of wrong answers. When a “teacher” refused to continue shocking the “learner,” the “experimenter” gave them more orders to encourage they continue. The prods were:

Prod 1: Please continue.

Prod 2: The experiment requires you to continue.

Prod 3: It is absolutely essential that you continue.

Prod 4: You have no other choice but to continue.

Results showed 65%, or two-thirds of the “teachers” continued to obey up until the HIGHEST level of 450 volts, which has the potential of killing the participant/“learner.” ALL “teachers” had continued to 300 volts.

Variations in the experiment involved “experimenters” who wore gray lab coats versus those who did not—results showed that obedience increased when the “experimenters” were in uniform versus those in ordinary clothing by 20%.

What Can We Do Instead? Remember your rights in the face of authority. If you do not know what they are, read up on them: https://www.aclu.org/know-your-rights/stopped-by-police/

Also, remember the influence any type of authority figure can have on us. If it seems against your values, you have the right to question it, and cease following directions in scenarios where this choice can apply.

Factor #4: Judgmental Stance

Our brains constantly scan for meaning, repeatedly seeking: “is this helpful or harmful for me?” It is immensely efficient. And this built-in system can help us during life-threatening situations, igniting reflexive responses to get out of harm’s way. It’s why you quickly pull your hand away when it is near fire.

The brain uses every level of consciousness to rapidly access references and associations to apply to every scenario or person, especially one that is unfamiliar, to determine if it/he/she is safe or not, as well as if it is something or someone worth approaching. It judges, judges, judges, rapidly forming opinions.

Why can this be potentially dangerous? Because taking a judgmental stance can lead to biases, stereotyping, racism, bigotry, xenophobia, paranoia, inaccurate generalizations, and distorted thought patterns, that then lead to ineffective, unhelpful, and potentially harmful decisions. It can also block you from some pretty amazing experiences, and from befriending some fantastic human beings.

Black people, Indigenous people, and People of Color can also have built-in judgments, that can trigger traumas regarding oppression or powerlessness whether internalized, situational, or generational. For some, the appearance of a white person, or police officer, can trigger intense fear. And for white people with internalized racism or those displaying blatant racism and/or bigotry, seeing a Black person, Indigenous person, Person of Color, or a member of the LGBTQIA+ community, can trigger generational limiting beliefs, fears, bigotry, and/or phobias, that then hijack–which often leads to making false judgments; avoidance of anyone deemed as “different”; mental, emotional, and physical abuse; and ultimately, devastatingly, can lead to murdering another.

Be aware of what mental shortcuts your brain is pulling from—they are called availability heuristics—and they cannot always be reliable (https://kenthendricks.com/availability-heuristic/). Be aware of your biological and psychological influences. You do not have to keep them or listen to them.

What can we do instead? Remember that just because someone is not familiar to you, does not look like you, think like you, or act like you, it does not mean your immediate judgments are accurate. Ask yourself: is my judgment helpful or hindering me? Is my judgment harmful to myself and others? Same goes for situations. 

For those who display hatred–just because you have opinions and built-in associations does not ever give you the right to harm another. What else can you do instead? Go to therapy and work through it, or read and read and read, and dive deep into your brain to see what is going on that produces such hatred toward a certain demographic. Or simply keep your opinions to yourself.

To Sum It All Up

The Black Lives Matter movement and recent events has sparked a wildfire of passion for change, justice, and equality. But it also sparked cruel hatred and misdirected fear. The psychological factors contributing to the latter are the problem-fixated mentality paired with punishment; the grouping phenomenon; blind obedience to authority; and a judgmental stance.

The more people who remain open-minded, maintain a willingness to grow, and educate and empower themselves for the better—the more the world will grow into the change it not only craves, but needs.

I leave you with this poem by Langston Hughes:

“I am so tired of waiting.

Aren’t you,

for the world to become good

and beautiful and kind?

Let us take a knife

and cut the world in two —

and see what worms are eating

at the rind.”

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