How to Stop Systemic Racism One “Collision” at a Time – The Power of Mindset

Assume Innocence and Good Will

A “collision” as defined in the business world is a chance encounter. I’ve been searching for a better word and would welcome your coming up with one for me if you can.

Caveat emptor – What follows is not necessarily applicable or even recommended when encountering or interacting with someone suspected of committing a crime

What underlies racism is frequently ill will toward someone different than you.

It is frequently fueled by an unconscious belief that those others mean you harm. Your ill will is an expression of you preemptively being on guard or on the attack toward them, because you feel the need to protect yourself. The reason you may believe they mean you harm is that you may be projecting onto them the hostile feelings you would have if you were them, being treated by you the way you view and treat them.

To my knowledge and self-knowledge, and people who know me will attest to this, I do not have any racial, gender, generational or cultural biases. Don’t think of me as a saint, because many people – who have biases – would consider me as naïve, too trusting, too forgiving, not paranoid enough, too unguarded and even foolish for being that way.

[But it wasn’t always that way: Outing My Inner Racist]

From their points of view and biases, they may be true, but that doesn’t matter to me, because I feel relatively free to go anywhere in the world and so I’m sticking to it.

What enables me to do this is a particular mindset I have which informs what I see and look for in the world which then directs me in how I act and interact with it.

Simply stated, when I am out in the world and run into, collide with, bump into, or have a chance encounter with people, I assume innocence and good will… until I can’t.

How can I do that?

In my estimate there really aren’t that many truly, dyed in the wool evil people in our personal lives. If and when they appear, my philosophy is to: identify, stop, protect the people I love or just get away from evil at the earliest opportunity. Regarding everyone else, they’re flawed, just like you and me.

And then as I said, I assume innocence and good will… until I can’t.

What does that mean?

It means that whenever anyone acts up at me, becomes hostile, accusatory or directs any negative anything at me, I assume innocence and good will and that they’re just taking out on me something someone did to them recently, or even way back in the past. I then let them finish, pause for two seconds (which shows I have listened, heard them and considered what they said), look them directly in their eyes and calmly say, “What was that about?”

In most cases they’re surprised and thrown off guard and will respond with, “Huh?” or “What?”

I then say, “Yes, you seem very frustrated about something so what was it that I did or failed to do that caused that, or was it something else that happened to you? Or maybe was it that I just remind you of someone else that you’re ticked off at?”

If they re-escalate the conversation, I pause again, let them finish, wait another two seconds and say, “And that too. What was that about?”

If they keep going at it, I say, “Look, I’m obviously not making this situation better and I certainly don’t want to make it worse, so I’m just going to give this conversation a break and we can take it up at another time, when you feel you and we can speak about it more calmly. I just don’t want to talk any more about this until then, so I’m going to say goodbye for now.”

What does this have to do with systemic racism you might be asking?

What underlies systemic racism is a collective systemic mindset that is either unable or unwilling to assume innocence and good will from others who are different.

That could be based on what they learned as children, what their peers believe, what the media has caused them to believe and also their worry that if they don’t agree with those biased others that they will be criticized, ridiculed or ostracized.

That may be a possibility, but when I differ with such biased people, or they attack me for not agreeing with them, I again pause, wait for two seconds and say, “I can understand that you’re passionate about what you believe, which is your right.  But as for me, I assume innocence and good will towards the people you’re angry with and it seems to have worked out well for me. I’m sorry if you don’t see it that way.”

Addendum: And I mean it has really worked out well for me.

Several years ago I spoke for six hours to 500 Russian managers and CEO’s in Moscow on a one day, just me event where I gave a presentation on my book, “Just Listen,” whose Russian title, “I hear you through and through” became a best seller.

Just before I began my daylong presentation, the event organizer told me, “I hope you’re not planning to do too much interactive activity with the audience. You’re a thought leader on communication in our country, they are going to hear you in Russian and they usually don’t interact with speakers.”

I looked back at him and said, “Most of what I do is interactive.”

He looked at me with trepidation, realized it was too late for me to change, shrugged his shoulders and said, “Well then, good luck.”

And interactive it was.

After I built rapport with the audience sufficiently to enable the event planner to not have an anxiety attack, I did one particular exercise where I had people partner with the person next to them and where each person briefly told the other person something they were excited about.

I told them, “Okay, I’ll go first, I’m excited that I get to be in Moscow speaking to 500 managers and leaders about becoming more successful by becoming better listeners. That’s my mission in life and it doesn’t get much more exciting than that.”

As they began the exercise, the energy in the room immediately elevated along with smiles and laughter.

After that part of the exercise I asked them how that felt, and many responded, “Great!” with smiles on their faces.

I then said, “Now I’d like you to tell each other something you are embarrassed about.”

Crickets.

I then said, “I really mean that and there is a reason behind what I’m asking.”

Then I paused and said, “Hmm, okay I’m going to go first and I’m hesitant to say what I’m about to say, because it could backfire.”

I paused again for about five seconds to think if should do that, and then said, “You know what? After what I just said, I’m going to have to say it, but you know what?” (whereupon I raised both of my arms and smiled), “I believe I’m among friends (i.e assumed innocence and good will) and you didn’t spend your hard earned money and take a day to come here just to see me make a fool out of myself, although maybe a few of you did. Something I’m embarrassed about and it’s actually getting worse is that I’m a name dropper. I know a bunch of famous people and they know me and I mention them too much. People have told me, ‘Mark it’s okay, at least you know those people, most people name drop people they’ve never met.’ So even though I usually get away with it, and I’ve already done it several times today, I usually get angry at myself for trying to impress people by doing that when all it’s doing is showing my insecurity.”

After that, the audience opened up to each other. When they finished and I asked them how that was for them? Several people responded, “Better.”

I then explained, the reason you felt that way is that the first part of the exercise you felt excited about something, which you can get from a sporting event or video game, and that felt good.

But in the second part of the exercise, you felt closer to the person you were speaking to and for so many of you that feel alone or even lonely in your lives, the few minutes of relief that you felt were so unusual and something you’re hungry for that you actually felt better.

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