Consciously Ignorant

It’s been said that real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance. I suppose that makes me pretty knowledgeable. I am quick to admit that I am ignorant on far more topics than I will ever be able to claim expertise.

After 56 years traveling through space on this big blue ball with billions of other human beings, I have come to recognize my personal world view and relatively minuscule life experiences can inadvertently cloud my understanding of how and what other people might think.

Just ask my wife.

None of us will ever see the world exactly alike because no two of us have seen and experienced the same things in the same way.

For that reason, I strive to keep my mind open to new ideas and perspectives. I read and study opposing points of view to be informed rather than merely opinionated. I am careful with my words and thoughts so as to not offend out of ignorance.

On those few occasions when I have been confronted by someone for behaving in a manner that is perceived as rude or even potentially racist, I will typically respond with a comment along the lines of: “You may be right. If I said something to insult or offend you, it was not my intent. I apologize. So that I can better understand your point of view, can you help me understand why my words or actions upset you?”

While saying something like this does help to defuse the situation and make our future conversation more positive, my true intent is to learn from the other person.

So, where am I going with this?

As I read an article in this morning’s Tulsa World reflecting on this past weekend’s ugly events in Charlottesville, Virginia, I was struck by a comment made by a Tulsa teacher, Nate Morris.

Speaking to an audience of about a hundred at a vigil at John Hope Reconciliation Park on Saturday, Morris told audience members to not be swayed by images telling them that’s what racism looks like. It’s more complicated than that, he said.

“While racism donned hoods, waved Nazi flags and ultimately killed someone in Virginia, it can appear in many forms.”

“Racism, systemic racism, implicit biases, these things don’t just look like hoods and capes and flags and fire. They exist in the statement of, ‘Oh you teach where? That must be really hard. I’d never send my kids there,’ or, ‘no, I’ve never been to that part of town. It’s too dangerous.’

He might be right.

While I don’t know where the lines between overt racism and bias and just sheer ignorance are drawn, I had not typically viewed comments like these as potentially harmful. But I understand how they can be interpreted differently by someone viewing them from the other direction.

I regret to say I am guilty of making comments similar to this, even after teaching two years in a Tulsa middle school twenty years ago. Particularly in light of my previous experience working with students from poverty, I know I need to be more conscious of the implications of my thoughts and words.

We all do.

When we talk about the challenges of teaching in urban schools, are we referring to the challenge of educating children from generational poverty in under-resourced communities, or are making inferences about children and their families based on their color, race, or ethnicity?

How often do we make faulty judgments about kids based on gross generalizations: “Asian children are good at math,” “black children are athletic,” “boys are better at science and STEM subjects than girls,” or, even worse, “certain groups of children are lazy?”

We can also falsely ascribe certain harmful characteristics to the parents of children in urban schools – that they are inattentive and lazy, don’t value education, have poor parenting skills, are substance abusers, or don’t care what their kids are doing.

We also unfairly label urban schools collectively as chaotic, dangerous, or dysfunctional – even when many are doing an exemplary job taking care of their students.

A good number of us really don’t understand what it is like to grow up, or to be a parent, or to teach under some of these very complex and challenging conditions. We have also become comfortable in our society rejecting anything we do not understand.

A long history of psycho-social research details the human tendency to imagine our own social and cultural groups as diverse while we imagine “the others,” people belonging to a social or cultural group with which we are less familiar, as being, for all intents and purposes, all the same. Then all it takes are one or two examples to validate or confirm our bias and we deem it true.

And, yes, we often do it out of ignorance. That doesn’t make it okay. The recipe for perpetual ignorance is to be satisfied with one’s opinions and content only with our own knowledge. We are responsible to society to do something to make ourselves less ignorant and better informed.

So, no matter where we stand on our ignorance about race, ethnicity, gender…etc., we can ALL move forward. And, in my humble opinion, if we are to stay united as a free nation, we MUST move forward.

Let me share an imperfect comparison.

In psychology, there is learning model called the four stages of competence, which details the psychological states of people involved in progressing from incompetence to competence in a skill.

The lowest level of achieving competence is stage one, which is unconsciously incompetent (“I don’t know that I don’t know it.”)

This progresses to stage two, consciously incompetent (I am now aware of what I don’t know), then stage three, consciously competent (I can do the “task” but have to think about it), and finally stage four, unconsciously competent (It’s second nature. I can do it and don’t even think about it. Examples include throwing a football, riding a bike or tying your shoes.)

Adapting this model for my personal ignorance about racial issues, I hope that I have matured my way to stage three, consciously competent or perhaps consciously ignorant. I work hard to be unbiased and not judge others based on physical characteristics and life circumstances.

But I will always have room to grow. The capacity to think without racial or ethnic bias interfering with my opinions may never be as easy as riding a bike or tying my shoes, though I wish it was.

When interacting with people from different backgrounds, I may always have to consciously think about what I say and how I say it.

Being consciously ignorant means I know what racism and bigotry and hatred look like. Therefore, I have no excuse for racist or intolerant behavior on my part. In more colorful terms, if I choose to be a pig, I will be keenly aware of my own stench.

It is also important to note – particularly in light of this weekend’s event in Virginia – that this mentality extends to what I choose NOT to say as well. Because silence in the face of bigotry and intolerance is sometimes just as damning.

Let’s not try to fool each other. Racism is alive and well in America. To say otherwise would be ignorant of reality. Sometimes it is subtle and unintentional like the examples cited above. Other times it reveals itself as a group of white men parading swastikas, burning torches, and making Nazi hand symbols. Anyhow it reveals itself, it is a stain on our nation.

The actions and attitudes of white supremacists in Virginia last weekend is repulsive and cannot be condoned. Bigotry and racism are an anathema to the words and intent of our Declaration of Independence: that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.

Here’s something I am not ignorant about – racism has no place in America. In any direction. It never has and never will.

I don’t mind differences of opinion. I do mind hate.

I can’t always change others but I can change myself. In that respect, I REFUSE to allow anyone’s ignorance, hate, drama, or negativity stop me from being the best person I can be.

Including my own.

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