Anti-Racism Needs Difference More Than Commonality

People of color in our society who become more white have greater opportunity than those who do  not. The more like the people in power you become, the more opportunities they will give you. Unfortunately, as unjust as that is, it does work that way.

When a person is interviewing someone for a job, they unconsciously, if not deliberately, look for what they have in common with the applicant. It can be trivial – shared backgrounds of some sort, shared interests, knowing someone in common. The more in common, the more comfortable they are with the applicant. The more in common, the more likely the person will hire you. This is one aspect of how race and subculture systematically work for some and work against others.

If hired, the more in common, the more easily collaboration with co-workers will take place, so people can justify the wisdom of hiring and promoting based on commonality, comfort level, fitting in. This, despite the fact that it is unjust. Also, research shows better team outcomes with groups of greater diversity. The reason? More information to draw on. A system that tries to get people to be more similar will have fewer ideas to draw from. And, it will be engaging in injustice. There is a moral motive and there is a pragmatic one.

Despite moral reasons not to, the human brain looks for commonality, and race and culture are big ones. Some people try to overcome racism with the belief that down deep we are all the same. Differences are only skin deep, they think. All people really want the same things, is another. Some religiously and spiritually minded people try to promote focusing on the fact that we are all members of the human race. The strategy is to see beyond color to focus on what we universally have in common.

It is true that some unconscious racist reactions are negated by putting the other person into the groups you identify with. A person of a different color in the uniform of a team you don’t care about will be judged negatively. Put the same person in the uniform of your favorite team and you rate them higher. This has been shown to be the case.

But focusing on commonalities is how relationships become cordial but superficial. We can do better that that. To search for and value differences takes us farther than finding comfort in what we have in common. The marvelous truth is that others have accessed inside themselves things I cannot seem to access inside myself. I lose out on expanding my access if I just look for what we have in common.

This takes a commitment to retrain the brain to not seek comfort, but rather seek the stimulation of what is new and different. This is actually how many people learn to get along with different kinds of people in college or the military or work settings. They find that people who are different from them expand their horizons. People often realize they have hidden what is different about themselves. It is a fearful process only because of the expectation of judgment that is not diminished by the common practice of seeking commonality. When they don’t let themselves be constrained by that fear, they experience the joy of breaking free.

The cause of justice and the joy of human liberation are both served by learning to value differences more than seeking commonality.