Ever notice that when you think you already know something, you have no room to hear anything different? Our tolerance for being wrong is hotly contested and fiercely limited by our fragile human egos. As a result, in the space of evidence contrary to what we think we know, we quickly and effectively (often without conscious awareness) disqualify any differing proof in order to stay ‘right’. For example, if we have decided someone is a “liar”, we tend to scrutinize their every thought, word and deed seeking to confirm our unfavorable perceptions. Likewise, if we have determined someone is a “loser” … then when they do the ‘right’ thing, we chalk it up to an unlikely exception. As well, the beliefs we hold about ourselves are equally insidious. If we believe we are “stupid” or “not good enough” , then any smart or worthy moments are often minimized, dismissed or overlooked. This kind of discounting has the capacity to derail any dreams/visions that are not consistent with our self-limiting perceptions. Sadly, when you think you already know … you are no longer open to learning or seeing anything new or different.
One of the greatest blessings of my post secondary studies in anti-oppressive practice was that we were invited to critically assess how we were thinking about things rather than being taught what to think. We were invited to unpack the things we thought we already knew. We got to ‘embrace our inner idiots‘ and UN-learn so much of what we had involuntarily come to accept as ‘the’ truth rather than simply ‘a’ truth.. This powerful exercise in critical thinking rendered visible the beliefs that were simply socialized into me … by those who raised me, schooled me and befriended me. Their opinions became my truths because I never thought to question them … or … learned it was not OK for me to question them.
Learning to embrace my inner idiot took me to places I had no idea I needed to go. I will spare you all the details but what I learned is this:
- unlearning can be painful. (What does it mean about me and my perceptions if I am wrong about this, that or next thing?)
- unlearning can be deeply humbling. (It hits you right between the eyes when you recognize that the culprits you have been judging harshly might also need to include YOU.)
Let me offer one example of my unlearning. As a well-intended, socially conscious, educated white woman, I have always contended that ‘I do NOT condone racism’. I blushed with a deep sense of shame when I learned, instead, that I don’t even have to do anything obviously “racist” to condone racism … I benefit from it by sheer default. Sadly, we live in a socially constructed system where one part of our humanity counts for more than the ‘others‘ … and … having white skin puts me on the ‘favorite’ team in a world that plays favorites. As a result, I get all kinds of unseen, unearned perks:
- I don’t have to worry about whether people will rent accommodations to me
- I don’t have to worry that the job will have “just been filled” as I arrive for the interview.
- I don’t have to worry about whether someone will sit beside me on public transportation
- I don’t have to worry about my children being stereotyped at school
- I don’t have to worry about being followed in a department store
- I don’t have to worry that my speech patterns, body type or food and dress will be mocked and/or ridiculed
Guess what my skin color gives me the unmitigated privilege of worrying about? Sunburn. Yep … that’s it. If only a slather of SPF30 could so easily protect people from prejudice, marginalization and oppression. As White people, we typically author the educational curricula and, therefore, we have not been taught how we are complicit in perpetuating racism given the advantages we reap from it. You might be tempted to leave this blog right now … but I hope you won’t. I hope you will be willing to consider that if we are not actively and persistently resisting racism, we are silently condoning it. I am not suggesting I have figured out how to best use the power and privilege attached to my White skin to counter racism … but increasing mainstream awareness is certainly the first step.
If what I am saying is making you squirm, you are ripe for a moment of unlearning and embracing your inner idiot. I hope you will be brave enough stay with me here because the struggle to comprehend a ‘truth’ outside our comfort zone is a point of real awakening. We can’t be expected to know what we don’t know … until we do. And, once you do know … you can’t pretend you don’t. And when we are open to the profound power of unlearning … we begin to realize that the more we know … the more we know we don’t know!
From that humble space, I become aware that my mainstream sexual orientation does not preclude people’s comfort with me being around their children. The folks in the GLBT community are not so fortunate. I also notice that I managed well in a traditional school setting because it favored my left-brained, sequential kind of thinking. The right-brained, kinesthetic learners have not been so lucky. My married, double income status earns public respect and has afforded my children many advantages. Single parents endure public censure and many luxuries are beyond their reach. My able body means I get to go places without worrying about access. My office is located in a ‘public health unit’ that has a ramp but no button to pull open the door! Argh! Some how this all continues to be tolerated in our society.
When I embrace my inner idiot, I have to seriously question everything I think I already know. I must also consciously consider whether my personal and professional ‘successes’ have truly been earned by me … or … if I simply got a head start and an extra advantage over ‘others’ because they are outside the margins of the ‘favorite’ global team. I now know that the essential unlearning of what we think we already know is the critical portal from which true compassion and empathy can emerge … not just for ‘others’ but also for myself! It takes a whole lot of courage to unpack our own misunderstandings and misconceptions.
I have learned that by allowing myself to see what I was unable, unwilling or unprepared to see … I have opened the door to a world of miraculous shifts in perspective. Much to my pleasant surprise, it is from a place of not knowing that I have been humbly granted the capacity to see what might have been there all along … even when I thought I already knew.
Let’s continue to embrace our inner idiots, because as my amazing mentor Debbie Ford always told us “Knowing is the booby prize …”
Still unlearning, Karen