Archive | November, 2011

Defining “middle class”

30 Nov

Do you like lists? Sometimes I can’t resist them: top 10 superfoods you should be eating! 5 worst holiday gifts ever! and then there are the plethora of numbered Buddhist lists (the 3 refuges, the 4 noble truths, the 8-fold path…)!

So when I saw the headline “10 Middle-Class Jobs That Will Vanish by 2018,” I had to click through.

But before I give you the link, let’s play a game: what middle class jobs come to mind as likely to meet extinction in the near future? Go ahead and list a few. I’ll wait.

OK, now go back to your list and see if you can assess median earnings for each job category. What do you think the middle class folks who work these jobs make?

Here are the jobs that made journalist Christian Hudspeth’s list this summer on the Investing Answers website (in descending order of percentage decline by 2018, with median salaries in parentheses):

  1. Semiconductor Processors ($32,230)
  2. Postal Service Mail Sorters, Processors and Processing Machine Operators ($50,020)
  3. Wellhead Pumpers ($40,640)
  4. Fabric and Apparel Patternmakers ($38,970)
  5. Desktop Publishers ($36,600)
  6. Paper Goods Machine Setters, Operators and Tenders ($34,130)
  7. Computer Operators ($36,930)
  8. Farmers and Ranchers ($33,360)
  9. First-Line Supervisors/Managers of Production and Operating Workers ($53,090)
  10. Machinists ($38,520)


I found myself surprised in more than one sense by this list–or rather, by myself. Here are a few self-observations:

  • I would have designated some of these jobs “working class”–for example, machinists and wellhead pumpers. (And I don’t even know what a wellhead is.) From that assignation, I realize that I have a bias about “middle class” implying more intellectual than physical work (if that makes sense–while I consider teaching to be “physical” in a very real sense, I would categorize it as “intellectual” work).
  • My SF Bay Area bias kicks in when I look at the median earnings for some of these jobs: $32,230? Not middle class around here. Semiconductor processors in the Bay Area must either make more, or they’re barely getting by paycheck to paycheck. Again, revealing an assumption of mine: that middle class income earners are able to put a little money aside (or spend it on extras).
  • I have never thought about farmers as any particular class. I think this is my suburban-urban life bias rearing its geographical head: I don’t know anyone who farms (friends who tend to backyard henhouses and a few tomato plants notwithstanding), and my only real contact with farmers is at farmers’ markets. Once again, for the sheer labor-intensity of their work, I would instinctively have labeled farming as “working class,” even though I’m aware that some farmers live below the poverty line and others are affluent, well beyond my earnings and living standards.

How about you? Any surprises? Revelations about your own preconceptions as you defined “middle-class,” in terms of income and occupation?

What I appreciate about this article is that it concretized this ambiguous term that I always hear, but rarely hear defined. “Middle class” is the metric, the norm by which we gauge excesses of wealth and poverty. But even as it defines what it is not, it remains shrouded in ambiguity, determinedly unclear and yet desirable (because to identify as “middle class” is to avoid offending anyone with our excess or deprivation, and to identify comfortably and anonymously as “normal”).

While I don’t know what authority Hudspeth bases his definition of “middle class” on, it’s useful, regardless, to use him as a reference and ask myself: How much money would I say puts one in the “middle” income bracket? What other factors mix into my schema for the middle class? Clearly, education, profession and lifestyle–not just income–contribute to my profile of the folks in this group.

Actually, I believe Hudspeth’s headline is misleading: he’s really writing about “10 Middle Socioeconomic Jobs That Will Vanish by 2018.”

Huh? What I mean is that he’s writing about work that attaches to a certain range of income and status in our society. The jobs in this “middle” socioeconomic category require certain social capital to hold: enough education, prior work experience and/or recommendations from respected sources to get hired and to function competently. These jobs, in turn, have substantial impact on our access to resources and opportunities–like our next jobs. I’m not sure how often paper goods machine setters move into positions as CEOs of paper goods companies, but I’m guessing it usually requires a substantial investment in more education (or an act of nepotism) before they make that move.

So that’s socioeconomics: in shorthand terms, I define it as the status and everyday experiences that describe us because we have accumulated or lack socially valued “stuff” (money, education, jobs). And while socioeconomic status (SES) and “class” are often used interchangeably, I would argue that SES is actually a variable component of class, like language is to ethnicity.

Class, then, is an aspect of identity and culture informed by:

  • SES
  • access to social resources and opportunities,
  • daily living norms and expectations, and
  • sense of entitlement and constraint in the world.

The reason I make this distinction is because SES is an identity that can change with a winning lottery ticket or a global recession. However, class identity and culture are acquired and lost less easily: my parents, who grew up destitute during and in the aftermath of the Korean War, became a doctor and a chemist in the US. While the educations they earned and jobs they have held have elevated their SES dramatically, to this day, they still evidence the lack of resources, daily routines and sense of constraint imprinted on them by their childhoods. I see it in the way they keep house, the way they prepare for the unreliable future and the way they treat the money they have. Even as they have adopted and internalized the ways of a wealthier class (and fit into it quite well), they still also identify with and negotiate the world through the lenses of their poverty class backgrounds. That’s what I mean by class: the identity and culture defined by resources, opportunity and access that moves glacially, compared to our accumulation and loss of money.

The monsters among (and within) us

29 Nov

In a recent interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Academy Award-winning actress Charlize Theron shares a theory about the human tendency to distance ourselves from very human acts of evil:

“People are so concerned that if you look at a monster, you might find a human being. There was this great story that I came across when I did research for [the film about serial killer Aileen Wuornos] Monster about the guy who originally came up with profiling serial killers. His name is John Douglas, and he had a chapter in his book about writing. He believes that fables and werewolves and Dracula and all these scary characters were created because people don’t want to believe human beings are capable of bad things. But we are definitely are capable of some shit that will scare you, given the right circumstances. The quintessential character is Hitler. You have to be brave enough to say he’s a human being. And on that level, we’re all like him. It doesn’t mean that you’re saying what he did was right, but you’ve got to admit that he’s from the same breed as all of us. It has to make you aware that, given the right circumstances, there are things you might do that you don’t want to believe you’re capable of doing” (

Let me switch to a more personal pronoun for that final thought: Douglas and then Theron are suggesting there are things I might do that I don’t want to believe I’m capable of. What things, exactly?

I’m not so worried about drinking blood or turning into a wolf and ripping someone limb from limb, but when Theron invokes Hitler, she is asking me if I think I might actually be capable of…

No way. Not me. Only a monster could do the things Hitler did.

Douglas’ point exactly. Granted, committing genocide is inconceivable for most of us. However, we’re trying to disown more than that when we cast Hitler as a monster: we’re trying to say that we can’t even imagine—let alone relate to—the racism that motivated him.

This is what I call The Secret Life of Bees/The Help syndrome. These novels are “racist–who, me?” books (and now movies): stories in which clearly, extremely and uncomplicatedly bad white supporting characters are (of course) racist, and an equally uncomplicatedly good, innocent, preferably young and necessarily white protagonist is (of course) not racist. Her goodness is demonstrated in her colorblind embrace of older black women (these supporting “proof-that-she’s-not-racist” characters are always women, presumably to avoid any untoward implications of a young white girl-older black man friendship). Unable to fathom or tolerate the bad white folks’ racism, our heroine foils their evil plotting and triumphs over hate like a lotus rising from the mud to personify racial harmony and all-around goodness for readers and fellow characters alike.

I may not be representing these novels entirely fairly or accurately.

In fact, that’s very likely because the truth is that I couldn’t finish The Secret Life of Bees or even bring myself to pick up The Help, despite bountiful praise for both books. I got a sense of where they were going, thought I recognized the storyline and had to walk away.

What I couldn’t get past was the screaming denial of racism: the need to deposit it in the least human, most monstrous caricature the authors could create, in order to pretend that perfectly nice, ordinary and decent people are not, in fact, “capable of some shit that will scare you, given the right circumstances.”

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that authors Sue Monk Kidd and Kathryn Stockett are both (to my knowledge) white women. These novels are anthems of self-goodness: declarations to the world that these women, to borrow a cliché, don’t have a racist bone between them.

Now, I don’t know Kidd or Stockett, and I’m certainly not calling them racist: my beef here is not with the authors specifically but rather with their perpetuation of the myth that only cartoonishly bad people are racist, when the truth is that racism–like any other -ism–flourishes precisely because normal, good and moral people accept, permit and yes, even perpetrate it.

If we actually intend to end racism (instead of just trying to look not racist ourselves), we need to acknowledge that the problem is us, not a fictionalized and hyperbolized Them, lurking in fantastical shadows. We need to stop defining racism solely as the atrocious, exceptional, unfathomable acts of atrocious, exceptional and unfathomable people, and examine how our own choices and actions–exposing our students to one-dimensional representations of Native Americans, blacks, and other racial groups; not speaking up when a friend claims that a colleague of color got hired “because of diversity”; and even writing a novel that makes racism seem like an outlier’s affliction–enable everyday racism to persist and flourish.


It’s (past) time

28 Nov

Today’s post is just two action items:

Please watch and share… 

And for more information about the video:

 Thanks to my colleague SK for forwarding.

Saturday quote

26 Nov

“No culture can live, if it attempts to be exclusive.”

–Mahatma Gandhi

It’s time to shop!

25 Nov

If you’re planning to be anywhere but a store today, allow me to bring the shopping to you (you can thank me later :))

This year you can give the gift of learning to yourself or someone else!

OK, that didn’t sound as cool as I’d hoped, but here goes, anyway…

The Greater Good Science Center is offering a free webinar Power, Compassion, and Equality in a Changing World with UC Berkeley psychology professor Dacher Keltner on Fri, 12/16/11 from noon-1pm. Professor Keltner “will detail the latest discoveries on compassion–its neuroscience and practice–and explain how broader social conditions, such as social class and the distribution of power, make for more or less compassionate societies.” For more info:

Note: This webinar is for members of the Greater Good Science Center only. You can join GGSC at:

Facebook is hosting a free daylong conference on Wed 12/7/11 from 8:30am-4pm to explore “how people perceive, relate, and engage with each other… Facebook is hosting researchers and practitioners who work to improve our understanding of the driving forces and benefits of compassion.” Speakers will include:

  • Professor Keltner on “viral compassion,”
  • Marc Brackett from Yale’s Health, Emotion & Behavior Lab on “five key emotion skills,” and
  • others, including me: I’ll be speaking on a panel with teachers from Prospect Sierra School about working with kids and educators to create compassionate communities.

The event (Facebook Building 2, 1050 Page Mill Rd., Palo Alto) is open to the public, and a video will be available on-line afterwards. For more info:

Note: You need a Facebook account to access this link, so if, like me, you don’t Facebook, e-mail me, and I’ll send you a screenshot of the schedule.

Finally, Blink is offering Say What? Standing up to Injustice, a workshop for educators and parents, on Sat 2/4/12 from 9am-12pm at Presidio Hill School in San Francisco, CA. Co-facilitated with my esteemed colleague Anthony Witte from Head Royce School, this workshop begins with the premise that while we may be surprised by an unjust action or attitude, we can also be prepared. Whether we’re confronted by a complaint about students “getting special accommodations” or the persistently casual use of homophobic slurs, we can stand up. Participants are invited to bring their own “say what?” scenarios for discussion. For more info:

Happy Thanksgiving!

24 Nov

Wishing you and your loved ones a happy Thanksgiving!

With gratitude,



The stereotyped canary in the coal mine

24 Nov

A group of white and black students are given a test much like the SAT and told that it is a measure of their aptitude. Their resulting scores demonstrate the effects of stereotype threat and protection: the white students on average score higher than the black students.

Another group of students are given the same test with the same explanation. This group includes white, black and Asian students. Any guesses as to how these three groups performed?

While the black students still manifest the effects of stereotype threat, the white students now do, too (although to a lesser degree). The Asian students’ higher scores as a group suggest some stereotype protection.

The bad news is that I’m not making this up. Actual studies (some including all three groups, some combining different racial dyads) bear these effects out.

Now first, let me reiterate: stereotype threat and protection do not doom us to perform based on our race, sex or any other social (and stereotyped) identity. They do have powerful potential to impact us, so awareness and tools to transform both the threat and questionable protection that stereotypes activate are important as we strive for true equity in education and beyond. Antidiscrimination policies are both necessary and limited: in an unintentional way, they can actually reinforce stereotypes about certain groups being underqualified (and thus, needing a policy to protect them). What matters as much as clear institutional intentions and expectations, are our interpersonal interactions.

And stereotypes are often most effectively dealt with on this level. Notice that the students in the tested situations were set up to worry about their performance, their ability to demonstrate how smart they are. And this triggered racial stereotypes because we have a persistent history and living culture of associating intelligence with skin color: we may be past the days when we believed the bell curve accurately depicted human intelligence by racial group, but we certainly still put stock in the bell curve bias. Just watch any show or movie with an Asian youth in it: what stereotype are they pegged to, whether they are conforming to or fighting against?

Part II of the studies on stereotype effects illustrates that a simple change in context can deactivate threat (and possibly protection): once teachers/researchers refuted the relevance of stereotypes, students demonstrated an ability to perform at their individual best on the test at hand.

How did/could teachers do this? By explicitly:

  • Stating that tests universally provoke anxiety. (So it’s not just the “not smart” kids, but all the kids, who are worried.)
  • Reframing the test as hard–and the purpose of the test as identifying where, in the ongoing process of learning, students are (and thus, what the teacher should be teaching more or next).
  • Acknowledging other factors that influence test performance–including the inherent bias of testing situations towards students who perform well in silent, timed occasions.
  • Affirming individual ability (“You wouldn’t be in this class in the first place if you weren’t smart.”)
  • Norming struggle and failure as part of the learning process (because if you’re acing everything, that might indicate that you’re doing more regurgitation than learning and growing).

While none of these reflections are particularly revelatory, and at least some of them might seem self-evident, being explicit with students about them is critical to disrupting stereotype effects, which are potent in no small part because they lurk unnamed but felt–and feared–within and around us.

And that’s key: recognizing that stereotypes are our collective issue, not just the concern of targeted individuals and groups, especially given that stereotype protection can instantly turn into threat with one small shift of context and consciousness (remember the white students, whose “smartness” stereotype was dependent on who else was in the room with them).

The canary in the coal mine is a helpful metaphor for putting stereotype effects into perspective: while we need to support the individual students (aka canaries) whose performance is hampered by worries about group association and representation, we also need to attend to the fact of the coal mine. It turns out that there’s a lot in the environment of testing–attitudes, beliefs, myths and practices–that isn’t healthy, no matter what groups you may identify or be identified with. The misconception that tests are some true measure of intelligence and learning (as opposed to being gauges of an ability to perform specific tasks in very specific circumstances) is about the coal mine, not the canary. Thus it’s not just the stereotype-threatened canary that suffers; the stereotype-protected and immune miners  are breathing the same air, and internalizing the same mistaken notions about what tests really test.

What does it matter (after all, the miners are doing just fine)? Whether or not I perform well on tests, I am still subject to the stresses of a testing culture that says if I “fail” it is because of some deficiency in my intelligence, as opposed to a skill set I could develop or a limitation in the test itself. But if we bust open the coal mine and get some fresh air in there, students–canaries and miners alike–can embrace multiple intelligences, divergent learning styles and alternative assessments to better discern what they do understand and what else they need to learn (including how to take a test). Meanwhile, we, their teachers, can examine in broad daylight the perceptions and effects that testing activates–including, but not limited to, stereotype threat. And then we can integrate those understandings into more intentionally equitable learning experiences that interrupt the deleterious effects of bias, prejudice and stereotypes in our classrooms.

While it may always be the case that we only notice there’s something wrong because the canary gives us the early warning, we can develop a habit of looking both to the canary and the coal mine to discover opportunities to transform our cultures and institutions so that everyone–even those who seem immune and perfectly fine the way things are–can thrive, better and more.

**Yesterday’s and today’s posts are based largely on the work of Claude Steele, pioneer of stereotype threat and protection research. For more, straight from the researcher’s mouth, I recommend his latest book Whistling Vivaldi: And Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us, and this shorter article in The Atlantic:

The Diversitrician

23 Nov
  • It’s a polarizing issue.
  • The effects on children are often misleadingly posed as a moral question: Is it good or bad for children? Should adults–or even the government–control children’s exposure?
  • It’s “the air kids breathe. And in many cases, we have no real idea how it’s affecting them.”
  • It isn’t ever going to disappear.

So says Harvard Professor Michael Rich in an interview with Harvard Magazine ( While Rich–otherwise known as the Mediatrician–is referring to media, I think the perspective he brings to the controversy over media and its impact on youth is a helpful lens for rethinking diversity.

What I mean is:

  • Diversity is a polarizing issue.
  • The effects of recognizing and naming it are often misleadingly posed as a moral question: Is diversity good or bad for children to learn about? Should adults control children’s exposure? (Implied is the fallacy that if we don’t bring diversity up, kids won’t notice it.)
  • Yet, diversity is “the air kids breathe. And in many cases, we have no real idea how it’s affecting them.”
  • And let’s face it: diversity isn’t ever going to disappear.

To Rich, media is quite simply a public health issue “with physical, mental, and social consequences.” The question is not so much whether media is inherently good or bad, but rather how media can affect kids, for good and for bad… and how “we can harness [its] power and use it.”

The Diversitrician in me wonders: if we reframe diversity as a persistent fact, and accept our issues and discomforts with it as our own opportunities to grow (and not an excuse to inter diversity in the don’t ask-don’t tell graveyard), what could we learn about the social consequences of diversity? And what could we harness to help all children to thrive?

Here’s one example:

Stereotype threat (Steele & Aronson, 1995) describes the fear of being seen and judged according to a negative stereotype about one’s group, and the concern that one might do something to confirm that stereotype. Individuals who are susceptible to stereotype threat:

  • belong to an identity group about whom a stereotype has been formed (ex. girls: not good at math, black boys: poor students, white people: racist); and
  • are invested in doing well at a task that is perceived to be or is actually associated with a stereotype.

Studies (Roberson & Kulik, 2007) indicate that in a context that reinforces a stereotyped identity (ex. for girls a math test, for black students an “aptitude” test like the SAT, for white folks a conversation with a person of color about race), individuals evidence:

  • disrupted performance
  • lost time and energy (consumed by self-monitoring)
  • tendency to discount performance feedback
  • physiological stress reactions (ex. increased blood pressure)
  • lower satisfaction with the task at hand
  • disengagement from the task or role that is so taxing for them

These symptoms are consistent regardless of how these individuals perform: that is to say that even when stereotype threat spurs someone to exceed expectations, they do so under duress.

The complement of stereotype threat is stereotype protection: the implicit assurance of a positive stereotype about one’s group, and unconscious freedom from a responsibility to represent one’s group. In the previous examples, stereotype protected groups would include boys doing math, Asian students in school and people of color talking about race. But despite the relief that stereotype protection implies, it is critical to note that protection does not always translate into freedom and ease of mind: in fact, the pressure to live up to a “positive” stereotype can induce the same manifestations of stress that fear of fulfilling a negative stereotype can provoke. Thus, a “positively” stereotyped individual is not guaranteed success anymore than a “negatively” stereotyped individual is predestined to fail.

Although stereotype threat and protection do not predict performance, they do predict what Rich might call the “physical, mental, and social consequences” of diversity. So what can we harness from this awareness of the power of diversity? What possible good is there for us to use to help children flourish at school and beyond?

Awareness and understanding of stereotype effects gives us the power to deactivate them. It can be as simple as reframing a math test from being a measure of ability to being a check-in regarding what we should be learning next, or explicitly acknowledging that when we talk about race, all of us struggle to find the “right” way to say what we mean (so let’s all be willing to take risks, listen with compassion, ask questions to clarify, reserve judgment, and keep confidentiality). Sometimes, just naming the stereotype (and its untruth) helps to disarm it.

What doesn’t help is silence, aversion or denial. Because diversity? It’s in the air we breathe. And sooner or later, we’re gonna have to exhale.

… More on stereotype threat and protection tomorrow.


22 Nov

In his newly released book Beauty Pays, University of Texas economist Daniel Hamermesh argues, “Being good-looking is useful in so many ways” (

That sounds about right.

In case you want specifics, Hamermesh elaborates:

“In addition to whatever personal pleasure it gives you, being attractive also helps you earn more money, find a higher-earning spouse (and one who looks better, too!) and get better deals on mortgages. Each of these facts has been demonstrated over the past 20 years by many economists and other researchers. The effects are not small: one study showed that an American worker who was among the bottom one-seventh in looks, as assessed by randomly chosen observers, earned 10 to 15 percent less per year than a similar worker whose looks were assessed in the top one-third — a lifetime difference, in a typical case, of about $230,000.”

The effects of attractiveness hold when you look at specific “attractive” features, for instance height:

  • Since 1896, the US has not elected a president who is below average height. (McKinley, at 5’7″, was derided as “a little boy.”)
  • A 2004 study found that controlling for sex, age and weight, people standing at 6’2″ could expect to make $166,000 more over a 30 yr career than their 5’5″ colleagues (Judge & Cable).

The studies are diverse but consistent: being tall (but not too tall–juries tend to like their prosecutors commanding, but not intimidating) enhances social esteem, authority and perceived (and sometimes actualized) competence. Similar studies and effects have been noted regarding height’s attractiveness complement: weight. In the US, slender people tend to be viewed more positively than heavy people, and they reap real and practical benefits as a result.

So Hamermesh is on to something that we’ve suspected anecdotally and now have considerable research to back up. Not content just to observe this widespread social discrimination, he asks, “why not offer legal protections to the ugly, as we do with racial, ethnic and religious minorities, women and handicapped individuals?” (He notes that parts of California and the District of Columbia already prohibit discrimination on the basis of appearance.)

Hamermesh answers his own question by fleetingly noting the challenges of classifying the “looks-challenged” (although he also points out that there is demonstrated consistency when people are asked to assign individuals to “classes of beauty”). However, the real issue, he posits, is that “[w]ith increasingly tight limits on government resources, expanding rights to yet another protected group would reduce protection for groups that have commanded our legislative and other attention for over 50 years.”

Really? The “one legitimate concern” that would keep us from intervening in discriminatory, enduringly impactful behavior is limited government resources?

I’m so glad times were flush when we hashed out women’s suffrage. Tickled that we could afford the 13th and 14th Amendments. Thrilled that the gay marriage controversy started before the recession (a few years later and we would have had to wait for a full economic recovery to take on that expense!)

Hamermesh completely loses me at this point, and his appearance on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart ( does not help. By framing the question as a matter of “sharing a piece of the social justice pie” (as The Daily Show interprets Hamermesh’s position), Hamermesh invites a spirit of competition that reminds me of Rome’s gladiator games, with historically oppressed groups pitted against each other in a fight to the death while the masses watch from a safe distance, until finally one victor emerges to claim the spoils (which all too rarely include actual freedom).

I reject the notion that social justice is a zero-sum pie, wherein I lose some of my right to justice because you deserve justice, too. Social justice is only possible when our mutual rights to thrive are valued, when our diverse and sometimes conflicting interests are reconciled, and when a gain for any one or group of us has liberatory, transformative potential for us all. Women’s suffrage was good even for the men and women who opposed it, as much as they would have said otherwise at the time. That’s the thing about social justice: it’s not about what (I think) makes me happy right now, but rather what empowers me, you and all of us as a community to grow and be vibrant.

By that measure, I don’t think ranking -isms is helpful. I don’t think acknowledging injustice but claiming we don’t have the budget or time to deal with it is helpful. And I don’t think asking people if they mind moving their social justice item over just a tad to make space for someone else’s is helpful.

I do think we need to reframe social justice as an all or none–as in, we either strive for inclusive and unconditional justice, or we accept that justice for some is no justice at all. What that means is asking groups and individuals to be intentional about how their striving for social justice necessarily includes and helps others. Because as much as we can’t afford to add new expenses right now, we can’t afford selective justice, which comes at a really high cost to each of us.

* Thanks to EB for the Daily Show link.

Social justice: an action verb

21 Nov

This is a version of a talk I gave yesterday on a panel for the East Bay Independent Schools Association (EBISA) 2011 symposium “Educating, Teaching and Leading as a Political Act: Stay the Course”: 

If someone said something that sounded sexist in front of you, would you say anything?

In a 1999 Penn State study, 50% of students said they would “make a stink if someone made a sexist remark in their presence” ( However, when researchers put students in that situation, only 16% spoke up. 

Why don’t people–people who by all accounts are socially aware and caring–do anything when something wrong  happens right in front of us? Why don’t we speak up when someone makes a sexist comment? Or even when we are confronted with evidence that children are being abused? 

In his analysis of the public reaction to the Penn State sex abuse scandal, columnist David Brooks warns us against our own “vanity”: our conviction that we would have behaved differently than head coach Joe Paterno, had we been standing in his sneakers.

Brooks offers some interesting research on human behavior to explain our striking tendency to act counter to our stated beliefs and intentions to do the right thing:

  • Normalcy bias is the belief that because something rarely–or, in our minds, never–happens, it will not happen and certainly is not happening right now. That something could be a blatantly discriminatory remark, child abuse, a hurricane (think Katrina) or a terrorist attack. Normalcy bias causes us not only to dismiss any warning signs or evidence of what is right in front of us, but consequently leaves us inadequately prepared practically and emotionally to deal with exceptional situations when they arise.
  • Motivational blindness is “the tendency to not notice the unethical actions of others when it is against our own best interests to notice” (Blind Spots: Why We Fail to Do What’s Right and What to Do about It, Max Bazerman & Ann Tenbrunsel). Like normalcy bias, this is a shockingly powerful and effective instinct to preserve oneself and one’s sense of safety in the world.
  • Bystander effect (Genovese syndrome) is the social phenomenon of collective passivity in an emergency situation: the theory is that the mere presence of another witness allows me to rationalize that there’s no real problem or reason to intervene (because surely they would do something, if something really needed to be done. Right?) The bystander effect is evidenced in 2008 National Crime Victimization Survey statistics that reveal that 68% of all physical assaults are witnessed by a third-party. In a gross contradiction of odds, the more bystanders, the more likely no one will do anything, according to research. 

Normalcy bias, motivational blindness and the bystander effect: these all speak to our powerful motivations to social maintenance, rather than justice–not because we are evil, but because we are human, biased and all too often unconscious of our conflicted values, motives and intentions.

If you’re thoroughly depressed at the light in which these phenomena cast your self-concept, the good news is: awareness makes possible transformation. At least, I like to think so. Knowing that we’re subject to these influences, we can notice them at work and discern when it’s necessary and safe to shake off their lulling effects and act. 

To that end, I would like bring at least one more influencing factor to awareness: our habit of making social justice an occasion, rather than an everyday practice. We tend to think of social justice in terms of high-profile events (Occupy Wall Street, Arab Spring) and extreme causes (child slavery, genocide). But the truth is that we also live opportunities for social justice every day: in  meetings where the same voices always dominate, in partnerships where responsibility falls lopsidedly, and in conversations where a bigoted remark slips in.

It is in these everyday moments that social justice becomes habit and reflex, not just an emotional reaction, slogan or articulate (but impotent) idea. The fact is, whether or not we choose to make these everyday lessons in social justice matter, they do. We are learning and teaching about what is right every time we include or exclude voices in a meeting, every time we allow or protest an inequitable distribution of responsibility or profit, and every time we “make a stink” or just smile and nod when bigotry rears it head. And we learn and teach about social justice every time we get outraged at others but fail to act ourselves.

This is a radical relearning of social justice: not an abandonment of Occupy or Arab Spring, but a preparation for them, through daily, self-taught lessons that ingrain social justice as the ability to discern and act in a way empowers ourselves, others and our community as a whole to thrive. If we really mean to behave better than Joe Paterno or 84% of students when faced with something we know is wrong, we’ll need daily practice to get our mental, moral, social, emotional and physical muscles in shape.

* Thanks to my friend EB for the article.