The Middle Way to Racial Equality: The Psychology of Polarization and a More Compassionate Path Forward

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America has made tremendous progress towards racial equality. This is especially true since the movements sparked by George Floyd’s death in the Spring of 2020. We have come a long way in shifting the hearts and minds of people across the globe.

Right?

I am not so sure. Yes, we have made unequivocal progress in shifting social norms, narratives, and laws. Racial and ethnic minorities continue to grow in representation across many sectors of society. Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion initiatives have reshaped education and business culture. Justice, long overdue, is beginning to unfold for many individuals and groups. At first glance we have, and continue to make, growing progress on racial issues.

Yet, how much have we really changed people’s minds, and more importantly, their hearts? If we look beneath the surface of structural change — the social and institutional edifices erected in the name of equality — have we really made progress in fundamentally changing how we perceive, treat, and feel about one another? Have the inner winds of change caught up to the outer?

Alongside our gains, we have simultaneously witnessed a rise in animosity and hate crimes towards racial and ethnic minorities. Despite an increase in social solidarity between many, we are also witnessing polarization across groups: support for Black Lives Matter, for example, has unified many on the Left and simultaneously alienated others in the middle and the Right. The chasm between Democrats and Republicans is expanding, teetering on implosion. People are regressing back towards their tribal identities, finding comfort and security in their “team” (and “othering” the other side). It seems as though we are heading more towards war than peace.

So, despite the outer change we justifiably hang our hope on, are we truly breaking down the inner walls that divide us? If, indeed, we are changing our minds about race, are we changing our hearts? Are we becoming more compassionate people? Are we creating lasting inner change, or simply installing new, ephemeral, and potentially counterproductive, cognitive programming? How do our current strategies influence polarization? Is there a better path forward?

In This Article…

In this article I offer a psychological take on racial issues in our current society. I break down why our current approaches are not working and how we might proceed instead. I weave both the behavioral sciences and Buddhism into this analysis. I argue for neither a “color blind” nor “anti-racist” approach, but a “middle way.”

Fair warning: these ideas might be “triggering.” They contradict some, but not all, of the core tenets of mainstream ideologies, such as the “anti-racist” belief system that currently dominates our cultural narrative and approach to healing. You may disagree with what I write. This is encouraged; we should be able to tolerate and debate different ideas, in order to collaboratively arrive at the best solutions. I don’t necessarily think I am “right” here. Rather, I’d like to offer an alternative way of thinking about these issues. As always, my writing comes from a place of compassion with the goal of seeing a world with less suffering.

I touch on the following topics:

  • How the mind works in opposites, how this manifests on a collective level, and the consequences for social polarization and backlash.
  • Why you can’t train the mind to be less racist by focusing more on race (“when you make something a thing, it becomes a thing”).
  • Why a “middle way,” or a human first, stance towards race is probably a more productive path to compassion and peace, and how this might look on a societal level.
Photo by Robina Weermeijer on Unsplash

The Psyche is Built on Opposites

To understand polarization in society, we must understand polarization in the mind. The collective psyche mirrors the individual.

Duality underlies everything in the universe. This is true for our minds, too. The psyche is built on opposites. The brain is literally split into two halves. Our thoughts and belief systems reflect this duality. Humans’ unique capacity for language makes us especially prone to living in a world of psychological opposites.

Let me explain further. From the moment we learn language, we learn to think in opposites. Think about some of the most basic words you learned as a child. The word “big” implies, by definition, that the concept of “small” must also exist. If something is “near,” then something else must technically be “far.” If something is “short” then something else is “tall.” “In front” means “in back” exists; “on top” means “underneath” exists; and so on. There is a whole psychological science behind this called Relational Frame Theory (RFT), which has been used to explain why and how human beings suffer (see this nice and simple explanation). RFT’s founder, Steve Hayes, developed a behavioral treatment called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) based on RFT and other Western and Eastern principles of human suffering. ACT is a brilliant, effective, and widely used approach to supporting human flourishing.

Not only does duality underlie our most basic mental concepts, it also extends to more complex cognitive abilities such as decision making and beliefs. Have you ever struggled with a difficult decision? As long as you could decide this, you could also decide that. As long as I can choose to quit my job, I could also decide to stay at my job. As long as I can decide to move houses, I could also decide not to move. You get the point. The existence of one thing, by definition, inherently creates the potential for its opposite. Beliefs are the same way.

Opposing beliefs are foundational to the psyche. They exist at a very fundamental level, often based on certain “archetypes,” and extend all the way to complex social and political beliefs. In any belief, an opposite will exist. Here are some examples:

  • As long as the belief in a god exists, you must recognize that the possibility that god does not exist.
  • As long as the belief in “good” exists, so does the possibility of “evil.”
  • As long as the idea of “free markets” exists, so does the idea of a centralized economy/government.
  • As long as one could be “pro choice,” one could also be “pro life.”

This reality means that as long as you could possibly hold left-wing beliefs, you could also possibly hold right-wing beliefs. The individual psyche is always grappling with opposites. It is always trying to balance itself out.

The same reality holds true on collective level. The collective psyche — the vast container of mind we all share — also holds the potential for opposites. It, too, is always trying to balance itself out. That means that as long as certain ideas exist on the Left, counter ideas will also exist on the Right. We see this tug-of-war happening right before our eyes: as one side (or belief) becomes more extreme, there is an equal and opposite reaction on the other side. When a new idea or belief system crops up, an opposing one will crop up as well. And the more one side tries to convince, persuade, judge, shame, embarrass, or force the other side to agree, the more counter-resistance there is. This is how polarization increases.

What does this have to do with race and related social issues? Simply take a step back and observe what has been happening in America and across the globe. We continue to ask ourselves, why are we so polarized today? Then we blame it on the other side. In the heat of a tug-of-war, we’re only focused on our opponents, not the fact that we are pulling on the rope, as well.

Photo by Sergio Capuzzimati on Unsplash

Every movement in society sparks the potential for a counter-movement. This is true whether we like it or not (unfortunately) and is due, broadly, to the mind’s inherent duality and, specifically, to humans’ unique capacity for language. Because of this, as soon as a new motto or movement enters our collective lexicon, its opposite will also sprout up. The phrase “Black Lives Matter” (unfortunately and unintentionally) implies the possibility that they don’t matter (its opposite), and ends up breeding diabolical twins: “Blue Lives Matter,” “White Lives Matter,” or “All Lives Matter.”

It’s not just phrases that follow the law of opposites, but the amount of force placed behind them, too: the more momentum one side carries, the more resistance it meets. If you’re still not sure how this works, look at how other movements and countermovements have behaved over the last several years. The #MeToo movement, for all its sincerity, inspiration, and positive social change, does not seem to have fundamentally restructured the hearts and minds, or behavior, of men; if anything, I have heard more men be critical of this movement and its belief system.

Here’s the take away: you can’t change what is in people’s minds by forcing another belief system upon them. Typically, this creates the opposite effect one is trying to achieve. We are better off trying to change people’s hearts. How do we do that? We have to help people see through their belief systems. We can only do this by relating to people compassionately. This means we meet people where they are at. We accept them for who they are. We even accept their beliefs, at least in that moment. This does not mean we have to agree with their beliefs, but we validate and respect their value as human beings. We try to find the good in them. At the very least, we don’t call them stupid or “racist” if they clearly are not intending this. It comes down to pragmatics just as much as ethics.

The compassionate approach holds the best chance of changing someone’s mind. When someone feels accepted, validated, and heard, they might then actually change their beliefs. If you cross a bridge into someone else’s world, they might be willing to step into yours. (You can read more about this in my blog post, “Why Compassion is Different Than Wokeness”).

Photo by Mattia Faloretti on Unsplash

When Something is a Thing, It is a Thing: Science, Buddhism, and the Paradox of Suppression

The mind is always battling with ideas. Another principle of RFT and ACT is that suppression of thoughts creates more suffering: suppressed thoughts tend to increase in frequency, duration, and/or intensity. There is a solid research on this. This notion aligns with Buddhist thought. The Buddha taught us that craving and aversion lead to more suffering. Being attached to a thought, either through craving or aversion, does not dissolve the thought — it just continues to make it a “thing.” Trying to make it stay (craving) or go away (aversion) only increases our identification with it; it creates more attachment and suffering. In the same way, RFT and ACT teach us that experiential avoidance — or, I might say, wrestling with “what is” — lies at the heart of human suffering. What you resist persists. Engaging with something — whether you want more or less of it — is not the path to ending suffering. Instead, compassionately witnessing our experience leads to less suffering and (ultimately) the wisest, and most productive, actions. These actions end up being for the good of the whole.

In other words, it best serves us to first view our experience nonjudgmentally, with curiosity and kindness, without trying to instantly make them change or go away. This is how human beings create lasting, deep change. Just think about something you have personally struggled with… How helpful has it been to shame, blame, criticize, or quickly change yourself into the person you should be? We change when we stop trying to change. As Carl Rogers said, “the curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I change.”

What does all this mean for overcoming racist beliefs? We all have racist beliefs due to our conditioning. The most productive way of dealing with a thought or belief is to treat it with mindfulness and compassion. We should approach our biases in the same way. If we try too quickly to “eradicate” our own racist beliefs, we run the risk of simply suppressing them. This means they are still there, but we are not paying attention to them. We instead behave, more and more, in ways that justify our conscious beliefs (“I am not a racist”) and suppress our unconscious ones. This pleases the superego — the moral “conscience” in the mind — but it is not a recipe for transforming on a deeper level.

Suppression is dangerous because the beliefs must go somewhere. Where do they wind up?

Or our beliefs might get projected onto other people. Other people become the racists. Dare I wonder: has this happened with the Black Lives Matter movement, particularly us white folks attached to it? It seems suspicious that we could change overnight. Where did our beliefs go? We are still fighting them — now just through other people. This pleases the ego. As long as it can be on the “good” team, the ego will gladly fight the “fight against racism.” However, when ego wins, compassion loses. In the name of “bringing people together” we end up missing opportunities for deeper unity and connection.

Suppressed beliefs typically come back stronger and uglier than their original form. This might happen in the individual: we find ourselves accidentally behaving in ways that offend our conscious beliefs. Or suppressed beliefs offend our psyche through the collective: they come through “the other side” (i.e., other political party), luring us into an ugly battle with our disowned psyche. If one side decides to disown its racism without truly transforming it, that’s a hell of a lot to be met on the other side.

The current approach to eradicating racism — the mentality of “defeat;” forced correction of speech; shaming, blaming, and “othering” the other “team” — risks reifying racial differences in the individual and collective psyche. It teaches us to see more of race, not less of it. It makes race more of a “thing.”

In Bari Weiss’ substack article, “The Miseducation of America’s Elites,” she quotes a high school student whose anti-racist school curriculum has “made me think about race more.” She describes talking with students and parents who feel these pedagogies conflict with their core values. They worry these programs will backfire, or perhaps are already seeing that happen. What are we really teaching our children (and adults, for the matter) to do when we teach them what to think? Are we really changing their minds or tangling them up in more thought? Are we simply teaching ourselves to be good boys and girls so as not to be called a “racist?” All of this makes me wonder if there is a better way.

Photo by Stephen Leonardi on Unsplash

The Middle way

You might be wondering, “if I don’t adopt an anti-racist approach,” how can I contribute to the cause? If I take a “neutral” approach to race, and “not make a thing,” as you say, isn’t this the equivalent to being a passive bystander, and therefore allowing racism to persist? I am not arguing for a passive approach. I am arguing for a “middle path,” which can be just as engaged, but, I believe, ultimately more productive in creating the equality and equanimity we strive for.

The “middle path” is rooted in compassion. This means we start from a place of remembering our interconnectedness and common humanity. We remember and celebrate our differences — both superficial and deep — however we have the vision of heart to see beyond superficial differences; we see ourselves in the other person, knowing we are one and the same — both humans with a shared wish to be happy and free of suffering.

In other words, this is a human first approach as compared to a race first approach. The latter approach, as I outlined above, runs the risk of generating greater tension and backlash in the individual and collective psyche; it keeps the mind locked into a tug-of-war of race-related beliefs, maintaining the status quo, or worse. The human first approach is more consistent with the psychological principles of reducing suffering and creating deep, lasting change. It is fighting fire with water, rather than more fire; hate with peace, rather than more hate; disconnection with connection, rather than more disconnection. The “middle way” of compassion disarms the other side because there is nothing to fight against. If we are not pulling on our side of the rope, there is no need for the other side to pull theirs (see my blog post on “Compassion versus Wokeness” for more on this).

When we bring compassionate awareness to our experience, our wisest, most compassionate selves naturally emerge. Our behavior then falls in line with the highest good. The “middle way” implores us to show up compassionately, as a collective, to our current experience. Doing this allows us to be naturally guided towards the next best step.. When we step out of the ego’s dance, we can step in line with our deeper, more compassionate nature. We don’t need to convince, shame, blame, or reeducate ourselves on being kind; I believe we already are. We don’t need to use these strategies with others, either, because they are already kind, too. We just need to help people get there by breaking down, instead of building up, the ego/language-based structures of the mind. We do this by showing up to them compassionately, regardless of who they are, where they are, and what they say. The greatest leaders don’t tell people “the way” — they show people the way. They embody the qualities they wish to inspire in others.

This, I believe, is the type of activism that will produce more lasting change. Rather than trying to change people’s minds, we need to change their hearts. If the investment and resources we spend on “anti-racist” curriculums went into training compassion (especially in kids — we don’t need to teach them what to think, we need to teach them how to relate to themselves and others), we wouldn’t need to try so hard to change people’s minds. Of course, “training people to be more compassionate” sounds pollyannaish. But I think it would have a greater return on investment than the strategies we are using now.

So the “middle way” is neither a “color blind” nor “anti-racist” approach. Of course we are going to see race. No one is color blind as long as we can see color; as long as we can distinguish the color of someone’s hair, eyes, and so on, we will also inevitably see the color of someone’s skin. And, of course, we should acknowledge, respect, and honor the realities associated with one’s race and culture — we shouldn’t pretend one’s history and current circumstances, especially for those oppressed or disadvantaged, does not exist and influence that person today. Yes, our most compassionate selves must fully bear witness to these realities. Yet we have to ask ourselves if race, and the intricate stories surrounding it, should be the primary feature we care about in human beings. Where should it stand on the hierarchy of qualities, both visible and invisible, that we value in others? How should we train our minds to unconsciously, and consciously, attend to it?

Perhaps the primary thing about a human being should be just that: that they are a human being. What if we helped people prize this over other prejudicial qualities? I could be wrong, but isn’t that the outcome we claim to wish to see? Seeing through to our common humanity is the fastest track to compassion — not the cognitive maneuvers associated with “reeducating” ourselves. This only keeps us stuck in the “mind” — in ego — in duality — in the status quo of our beliefs, or potentially worse. If we train our minds in this way, we may miss out on a much simpler, more beautiful opportunity to see each other on deeper level. If we train ourselves to see race everywhere, we may find it hard to undo this conditioning. The collective psyche will continue to grapple, back and forth, with this duality. This, I believe, is why we have only “appeared” to make progress. We have rightly focused on outer change, hoping it would create inner change. Yet, we are still haunted by the same demons from our past. Instead, we must reach for people’s hearts. We must cultivate compassion in ourselves and show up to others in this same way. The “middle way” is not neutral, it is a path of radical compassion and just may produce radically different results.

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Matthew S. Goodman, Ph.D.

Matthew S. Goodman, Ph.D.

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Clinical Psychologist. Clinical Assistant Professor @ USC. Founder/CEO of The Middle Way. Writing on interconnectedness and compassion in self and society.