Emotional maturity, Part 2: Subconscious beliefs

In the last post I talked about how most of your feelings are hidden, buried in your subconscious mind until you dredge them up. But feelings aren’t the only things in your subconscious. You also have a lot of ideas and beliefs about who you are and how the world works. Some of them have never even consciously occurred to you. And a lot of these ideas are probably wrong. After all, how can you criticize or evaluate an idea that you’re not even aware of?

This is where your beliefs about culture usually live. I don’t say, “sit down at the dinner table, because that follows a cultural pattern found throughout middle-class households in 21st century America, and conforming to this standard makes social interactions go more smoothly,” I just say, “sit down at the dinner table, that’s what you’re supposed to do.” My subconscious is doing all the work of deciding what is appropriate and why.

Subconscious belief systems are essential for getting through everyday life, but they have a dark side. If there’s something unhealthy in our culture, you’ll internalize it into your subconscious, and use it to make your decisions, without even being aware of it. For instance: you are almost certainly racist. And sexist. Not consciously! But in your subconscious, you have beliefs about how the world works that are instilled in you by others.

This is an uncomfortable truth (a red pill?), but it seems to be supported by a considerable amount of research. Just about every study on racial bias involves (mostly) subjects who are not consciously racist, but the results of their actions doesn’t lie. These subconscious beliefs act on us, regardless of whether we take the time to find them and become aware of them.

I think it’s important to openly admit that each of us is subconsciously racist (and sexist), and then begin the work of understanding why, in order to counteract it. Because until that happens, we’ll just be racist. We’re social creatures who live in a racist culture; we simply can’t avoid being racist unless we actively work against it. This is why it’s a good idea in social activism contexts to focus on the active process of being anti-racist rather than simply demeaning people for being racist. (Caveat: when someone is openly racist/sexist/etc, of course this is something we should condemn. We still have to remember that the beliefs of the open racist are connected to our own subconscious beliefs, and we can only work on fixing one if we also work on fixing the other.)

When it comes to conversations about social justice, I feel uneasy about attempts to stir up outrage by labeling this or that person as racist or sexist, therefore despicable and to be avoided. Again, it’s good to condemn open, conscious oppression, but we shouldn’t do it just to shield ourselves from the uncomfortable truth that the roots of this oppression have also grown into our own minds.


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