When you flip a coin for something, you choose heads or you choose tails, but it’s still the same coin flipping. One coin, two sides. But which side you choose can make all the difference. Maybe you’re flipping to decide if you’re having pizza or pancakes for dinner, or to decide if you’re watching a thriller or romantic comedy before bed, or to decide who’s getting up to change diapers at 2:00am. Either way, you’re still having dinner, you’re still watching a movie, and someone is still getting up to change diapers. One coin, two sides.
I think that perspective is applicable to a lot of different areas of our lives.
When I was in college, I spent some time studying subtle prejudice for one of my courses and how that plays out in our lives, how we can unknowingly hold prejudice in ways we never expected. We were introduced to the concept using studies on accents and conducted a small experiment in class that bore out the results of the studies.
If you live in the United States, it’s likely not a surprise to you to find out that there’s sometimes a subconscious judgment when you hear someone’s accent, namely that southern accents mean the person is less intelligent, or a New York or New Jersey accent means the person is probably a jerk and untrustworthy. In other countries, an American accent is often equated with ignorance and elitism. In fact, opinions of a person can change instantly the moment they start speaking from whatever preconceived opinion existed solely from the person’s appearance. It’s fascinating and disturbing, though it’s something we can work to eradicate; like most change, awareness is the first step.
Another area of prejudice we studied was related to names. Names that were perceived to be black versus white, poor versus rich, educated versus uneducated. The results of the studies were somewhat startling, even though I knew when I dove into the research to expect that prejudice existed. There was one study in particular that I recall reading about a man and a woman submitting applications and resumés to hundreds of jobs with the same requirements and qualifications. Everything they submitted for each was identical except for the names. Only names that were considered “wholesome”—read: white and had endured for the last few generations—received calls back. On the contrary, none of the names that sounded black or were trendy a decade ago or were common in impoverished communities received a call back.
Holy shit, I remember thinking. My foster mom was dead on. She used to talk about the names of people we met, where they might have come from, how difficult she thought that person’s life would be as a result of having the name they did. While I knew she wasn’t wrong, exactly, I used to roll my eyes a bit—why did people need to share a small handful of names? Names have absolutely nothing to do with a person’s intelligence, generosity, kindness, and—in the case of the studies—qualifications for the position. And yet, people unconsciously behaved as if names did define the people to whom they belonged.
The more I thought about it, the more my chest burned in that way it always did when I saw or read or heard or witnessed or otherwise learned about injustice in the world, whether it was toward the special needs kids in our high school, or an entire population of people based on their race or religion or sexual orientation. Injustice just didn’t sit well with me—it still doesn’t.
Frankly, I don’t think it does sit well with many people, despite how much injustice is in the world. And I think I’ve figured out why.
When you learn about something unjust, like name prejudice, you have a choice to make. The choice that many make—the choice evident in the conversations I had with my foster mom on the same topic—is to simply avoid anything that would trigger a prejudice. People judge you by your name? Fine, I’ll give my kid the most wholesome, generic, enduring name I can think of.
However, there’s another choice. You can choose to keep asking why and get at the root of the prejudice and then do everything you can to dismantle it. You can choose to examine your own behaviors and actively work to eradicate any hidden prejudice you were unaware was lurking. You can share with others when you see these prejudices born out in their behaviors, however unintentional it may be. You can work to make sure that no matter what someone names their child, that child is not ever judged based on that name.
This path is harder—significantly so—and one you have to choose to follow. And that choice doesn’t impact only one area, but bleeds into everything you do in your life. I didn’t just roll my eyes about names when I was growing up, I got into arguments with my foster mom about all manner of injustice. Racism. Classism. Homelessness. Hunger. Female genital cutting. Why? Why are things like this? I’d ask, genuinely wanting to know. “It’s just the way it is” or “Life’s not fair” weren’t responses I was ever satisfied with.
But why? I’d persist. Why is that the way things are? Why isn’t life fair?
Why can’t it BE fair?
I understood that I was only one person, and as a single person, I couldn’t individually effect much change—one person can only do so much. But why did that mean I shouldn’t even try? Why did that mean I had to accept the way things were? Why couldn’t I attempt, one person at a time, to get them to see that change was possible if enough of us are willing to stand up for it?
As with so many things in life, I see a series of coins related to prejudice, a series of heads or tails, though we have more control over which side lands facing up.
The first coin—do you agree with prejudice or not? And if not, we move on to the second coin—how do you deal with prejudice? Do you turn a blind eye, or are you vocal? From the example above, this is the difference between choosing a “wholesome” name for your child or choosing the name you want even if it’s different, unique.
There’s a third coin, here, too, that I think is just as critical: what kind of vocal are you? I talked earlier about my propensity for asking “why” about unfairness and injustice, trying to get to the root of the problem, understanding that while one person can only do so much, one person can do more than none can. We can call this the compassionate side of the vocal coin. On the other side of that coin is the abrasive side, one I landed on from time to time when the emotion behind what was happening got the better of me.
Like when, as an adult, I visited my husband’s grandfather, only the third time I’d ever seen him in my entire life.
I’m not sure what prompted the warning, but my mother-in-law told me as we climbed the stairs in her father’s apartment building to make sure I didn’t mention anything about being biracial, that if he asked I should only claim being white. Baffled, I drew my head back and stared at her.
“What?” I’d asked.
“Daddy’s racist—he hates the blacks,” she responded.
I stared at her for a moment, that familiar burn in my chest starting. And why would she have thought my race would come up? I’d met the man before, and most people just assumed I was “white with a tan.” I remembered back to when I was fourteen and was about to meet my boyfriend-at-the-time’s parents. As we approached the door, he told me not to mention that I was biracial. When I asked if his parents were racist, he’d assured me they weren’t, that they didn’t have any issues with “people of color”—they just didn’t want him dating one.
As we walked through the door and greetings began, I seethed. I stood in the back of our small group, my infant daughter in my arms, furious about being there in that moment. I hadn’t really wanted to go to begin with; this was a man who’d commented to me on the size of my “rack” the first time I’d met him when I was sixteen. And then talked to other men about my breasts right in front of me when I saw him again when I was twenty.
My mother-in-law and my husband finished their hugs and hellos, and then my husband’s grandfather was approaching me. I flashed a broad smile and spoke loudly, almost shouting.
“Hi, I’m biracial—as in, half black.” My husband and mother-in-law froze, and I continued. “And this is your great-granddaughter, who’s also a little bit black since she’s my daughter.”
At the time, I was acting out of anger, being as abrasive as I possibly could. And there was a part of me that enjoyed putting this man on the spot, enjoyed making everyone feel uncomfortable and uncertain about what would happen next. Good, I’d thought darkly. Now they can feel how I do.
That incident was out of character for me because I understood the damage that kind of abrasiveness could cause. Is it okay to discriminate against folks because of the color of their skin? Their gender? Their sexual orientation or country of origin or religious beliefs or anything else?
What’s the long-term goal, though? Is it to feel like you got a little revenge? Is it to cause the same type of pain you’ve experienced on the receiving end of prejudice? If so, abrasive is definitely the way to go.
But if you want the world to change, if you want that person to see things differently, to understand what they believe or how they act or what they say is prejudiced and hurtful, you have to behave with kindness. With compassion. You have to remember that beliefs—good or bad—all come from somewhere. That’s the value of persisting in asking “why?”
If you’ve ever pulled weeds in a garden and just ripped off the top that’s showing above the ground, the weed continued to grow, reappeared. That’s because the root was left intact. Asking “why?” helps you get to the root of the prejudice, and that’s the only way to eradicate it permanently.
Reacting with anger is understandable, but it isn’t helpful. Our bodies are wired to secrete stress hormones that send us into a protective mode, like fight or flight, when we feel threatened in any way—not just physically. So when someone makes an insensitive comment or a tasteless joke or a sexist observation or repeats a racial slur or cultural stereotype or patriarchal “rule” and we go on the attack, that person immediately becomes defensive. And when someone is defensive, there’s zero chance of changing their mind, zero chance of getting them to understand what they’ve done is wrong.
This doesn’t mean that taking a compassionate approach guarantees success, but it levees the possibility of success. And I’ll take that possibility over guaranteed failure every day.
Life is filled with different perspectives, different choices. Different coins. It’s how we choose to act and react to what happens around us that shapes the way society functions. One coin, two sides. The only question is:
Which side will you choose?
Katherine Turner is an award-winning author, editor, and a life-long reader and writer. She grew up in foster care from the age of eight and is passionate about improving the world through literature, empathy, and understanding. In addition to writing books, Katherine blogs about mental health, trauma, and ways we can be more compassionate as a society on her website www.kturnerwrites.com. Sign up for her newsletter to stay up to date and get a free copy of her book moments of extraordinary courage.