Walk a Mile in your Shoes

There is much talk about “Woke-ism.” However, there is not even a consensus about what it means. The “popular” notion as defined In the Webster dictionary means being “aware of and actively attentive to important facts and issues (especially issues of racial and social justice).” Governor DeSantis has defined it as “the belief there are systemic injustices in American Society and need to address them.” (sic)

The Left has adopted the former, interpreted to mean that prejudice drives discrimination in virtually every decision (including personal, political and economic) and it must be rectified. The Right rejects the implication that all policy should be formulated from that perspective.

Both approaches appear to have some merit, yet there has been no moderation. In fact, the respective sides, like boxers in a ring, have retreated to their corners leaving a vast void in which broaching any notion of compromise evokes anger and castigation, if not outright alienation.

How do we “square the circle?” Is it possible to find common ground?

First, let’s face it, we all create generalities and shortcuts about our environment.  “Stereotypes are not always a bad thing, and yes, we all make them. A way to process and categorize information, they are part of our brain’s design to help us understand a complicated world that goes by quickly.” Many are useful (e.g., “A flying insect might sting”).

However, when it comes to people, stereotypes often lead to prejudice and ultimately to discrimination. Breaking them is difficult. It is all well and good to declare that we should treat each person as an individual, as Martin Luther King stated, that people “will not be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” but it is hard, time-consuming work. Sadly, it is probably not widely practical.

This is where I believe that some of the notions inherent in the “Woke” philosophy have merit (in “concept,” not in the extreme – this is an assessment, not a defense of that viewpoint). We may look at a person, their dress, their actions and instantly arouse our primitive mind, making snap judgements. But we do not truly understand where they came from.

I have seen a beat-up pickup driving around flying both a confederate flag and an American flag and shake my head. Doesn’t he know that they represented mortal enemies? Perhaps his view is different. Possibly, they are loyal citizens who love their county, but see corruption and heavy-handedness in the government against whom they rebel. Maybe to them, the confederate flag is just another way to say, “Don’t tread on me.” Am I to run that guy down and ask him, “Hey dude, what are you trying to say?” Simply not possible, so I am stuck with my prejudices…unless I purposefully try to understand the multifaceted nature of the issue.

This brings us to the controversial concept of “intersectionality” or “the notion that the complex aspects of a person’s individual, social and political identity affects how the world interacts with them.” The extreme form posits that this is what drives discrimination against every minority (all of which have now become “protected classes”). I am skeptical of that interpretation, but I do think that the combination of characteristics does impact how we initially view people (drive our stereotypes and prejudices). For example, we would likely treat a well-dressed white businessman in an office and a black man dressed like a “gangsta” standing on a corner in a rundown neighborhood differently. Persons in different context. Moreover, who we are (with our own specific traits) drives different perceptions of those exact people.

Does this mean that there is “systemic prejudice” that oppress every different category of people? Certainly, there are widespread categorizations that “everyone” utilizes on a constant basis. If these are grouped together, it may appear that there is a “systemic” approach. The real problem is when pervasive prejudices lead to widespread discrimination. Sadly, as we dumb ourselves down through social media (Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram), things have become worse. We “follow” only those whose ideas correspond to our own. We isolate ourselves in our myopic views which drives us ever deeper into our own preconceptions.

How do we break the cycle? My former pastor, Greg DePriest, stated it best when he said that with respect to our dealings with people different from ourselves (be it by race, sex, or orientation), we must be “intentional.” So, how do we do this?

Our first reaction is to react to the stereotype. They are necessary but we must be cognizant that it has happened. Understand that we have just kicked in the Reptilian Brain. The ingrained (almost innate) patterns of self-preservation and enrichment are at the forefront. However, humans are much more than primal animals. We have the power of reason and compassion. To activate these, we must behave with specific intent (intentionality). We cannot be lazy and let simple emotions control our behavior.

Are there widespread stereotypes? Yes. Are there systemic prejudices? Likely. Is there universal discrimination? Possibly. This cuts both ways. To break the cycle, we must listen to What Abraham Lincoln termed, “the better Angels of our nature.”

No one really knows me, the successes and trials I have faced. Likewise, I do not know your path or the content of your heart. I will never truly be able to “walk a mile in your shoes,” but if I try, I might be able to see some of your footprints. I owe it to you to at least give it a shot to find out.


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