The Middle Way to Racial Equality: The Psychology of Polarization and a More Compassionate 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.”

  • 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.

  • 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.”
Photo by Sergio Capuzzimati on Unsplash
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.

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.

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Matthew S. Goodman, Ph.D.

Matthew S. Goodman, Ph.D.

Clinical Psychologist and Clinical Assistant Professor at USC. Host of The Middle Way podcast. Writing on interconnectedness and compassion.