In the film “Deej,” part of the Reel Mind Series currently playing at the Cinema Theater in Rochester New York, we meet D.J. (Deej) Savarese, a brilliant, nonspeaking autistic young man who with the aid of a computer advocates full inclusion for people with disabilities. First impressions might indicate otherwise – Deej sometimes jumps in rapid succession, or flaps his hands, or avoids eye contact to tune out distractions crowding his beautiful mind.  As we get to know him and his family, we strip away those initial assumptions and deeply connect.

A recent study by researchers at University College, London, and Harvard found that knowing someone’s political affiliation interrupted and interfered with their ability to assess those people’s expertise in other, unrelated domains. In other words, if we contract with a plumber, accountant or therapist, our ability to judge their competence diminishes when we discover their political affiliation is different from our own.

We are quick to notice difference…too tall, too short, too gay, too ambiguous to ascribe gender… and the assumption we carry about difference puts distance between us. Since these unconscious assumptions are so prevalent and easy to admit to if we think about any of our recent behaviors, why is it so difficult to recognize the same distortion or bias when it comes to race and racism?  

The disconnect between our assumption as white people that race is not an issue and the painful reality of black experience, both personal and institutional, are ingrained by centuries of privilege, power and entitlement. We need to get past the first barrier “I am not the problem.” 

Examples of mistreatment of blacks and other people of color simply by being in white people’s space flood the media every day. This is not their problem. Let’s own it. Instead of pointing our finger outward, we might look inward and explore the roots of our discomfort. It takes courage to do that. It’s painful. Avoidance only kicks the can further down the road, festering resentment and outrage. 

In the instant between stimulus and response, there is space enough to begin. The first step is acknowledging our awkwardness and how easily we deny it. Facing it is tough. Here’s where to apply words like fight, resist, undermine and overcome – not pointing to those we’ve tagged as ‘other,’ but to our own inner work that awaits our attention.

 It takes courage to relax into the complexity of difference and welcome its many manifestations. Reading and research is one way to learn about our history of misinformation and truth telling. But the richest opportunities unfold in our interactions with one another. When we notice that first twinge of awkwardness, challenge it. Sense the discomfort and move into it.

When it seems easier to withdraw than engage, engage anyway. Drop the pretense of having to be in control and allow yourself to be vulnerable enough to be honest. Be prepared for the long haul. People who’ve been dismissed, ignored and mistreated time and again will test your good will. They will not be easily taken in.

 You will make mistakes, lots of them. Apologize and begin again, not because they are black, or Muslim, trans, or immigrant, but because you see something in them that is unique and filled with possibility. It is no more than what you hope they will come to see in you.

—Steven Jarose
May 29, 2018