In the last couple of weeks we have all been challenged to look at ourselves and our society and understand the impacts of structural racism. When attitudes and beliefs are part of the fabric of society that we grow up in, they become part of the furniture and we fail to see them for what they are.
Some years ago, my husband and I rented a house for six months when we were moving into a new area. A relatively new house, built in traditional brick and flint cottage style and painted cream throughout, it was a lovely cosy house and I loved the style of it. Apart from the light shades. It had bright gingery brown lightshades on the main light and wall lights. I hated the colour. Against the cream walls and carpet they stood out like a sore thumb. As we were only there for six months it wasn’t worth changing them – but every time I walked into the sitting room they annoyed me immensely.
Well, for a while anyway. After a while I stopped noticing them and six months later when we moved out, I realised I had got so used to them I hardly noticed them anymore.
In the same way as I got used to the lightshades, I think there are sometimes things that we take for granted as part of the furniture, which have been there so long that we fail to notice them anymore. Coupled with that, attitudes have changed over the years, and what was once deemed socially acceptable is now being justly challenged.
I was born in the 1960s and brought up by parents who had met whilst working in Senegal in West Africa and believed a person was a person, regardless of the colour of their skin. In the 70 and 80s, I read Cosmopolitan and feminist novels and grew up seeing myself as a feminist – being a girl did not limit my education or work ambitions. I see myself as non-racist, feminist and accepting of all people regardless of colour, gender and sexual preference. Which is why it comes as a surprise when someone shines the spotlight on things that you have taken for granted and questions the fabric of life that you have accepted as normal.
A few months ago I got into a discussion with my daughter about a once loved story book from my childhood, “Little Black Sambo”. To me, it was an innocent tale with colourful pictures about a boy and a tiger. To my daughter it was deeply racist and full of cultural stereotypes. To start with I robustly defended it – it was written in 1899 and was at the time seen as non-racist as the main character was black which was very unusual at that time. Was it racist if I didn’t see it like that and it wasn’t intended to be at the time?
In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement I am now beginning to understand how we need to always remain open to challenging our own beliefs and assumptions. It is not up to me to decide if something is racist or not as I am not black and have not had to live with all that that entails in the last 50-something years of my life. But I can be open and kind to other people’s points of view and listen with an open heart and sometimes I will have to change my mind about something I once thought true, or maybe didn’t even notice in the first place.
It always amazes me that the press give such a hard time to politicians when they make a change of policy, screaming “Prime Minister makes a U-turn!!!”. Yes, there is benefit to sticking to a course if it’s based on good values and continues to make sense. But it seems much wiser to me to admit that sometimes we are wrong, or didn’t see the whole picture, or that things have changed and that we need to take a new direction in life.
The ability to adapt, to change our minds and our actions is what makes us humans such a successful species. From a positive psychology perspective, openness is linked to happiness, positivity, optimism and is part of a mindset that doesn’t just make us feel good, but also has a physical effect on us, improving our health and our longevity.
So for our sake and the sake of society, we need to be open and listen to what others have to say. We still might not agree with one another, but the least we can do is to listen and to try to understand where someone else is coming from. If we have children, it’s easy to dismiss their ideas as we think we know best because we are older and wiser. In some cases we may be, but sometimes their fresher view on life holds a mirror up to us and allows us to see things in a different light.
There are times when we should hold on tight to what we know to be right, but also times when changing our minds is good for us and society. The only way we can know which path to take is to be open and to listen and to gently question ourselves and others.