The Psychology Behind a New Era of Civil Rights Challenges

'I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me' declared the protagonist of Ralph Ellison's groundbreaking 1950s novel Invisible Man. "Being seen" is a familiar theme of the American civil rights movement that extends from the early days of abolitionists calling for emancipation to the current chants of Black Lives Matter. The past challenges to "being seen" created clear battleground. Jim Crow laws, barriers to voting, and hate speech highlighted the discriminatory behavior that perpetuated prejudices. These past experiences and accompanying legal victories began to build an American narrative that race does not matter because both White Americans and Americans of color were seen equally. Like any compelling story, the twist is that both those promoting a colorblind society and people fighting for the narrative of one group of color may be achieving the same goal: prejudice that is unseen but ever present.

Prejudice is real. While today it's rare to hear racial slurs spouted at Black or Hispanic Americans directly, the reverberations of these sentiments emerge as implicit bias from personal interactions that suggest a person of color doesn't belong in a neighborhood to institutional policies for higher education, hospitals, and law enforcement that disproportionately impact people of color negatively. If prejudice is the antagonist of the American narrative, implicit bias is its secret identity--it is prejudice that people are not aware of having nor consciously use with the intent to harm others. Therein lies the challenge of a new era of civil rights--fighting what can't be seen to achieve what many believe has already been attained.

Understanding these nuances of the American narrative for people of color requires a level of openness to others' stories that is built on empathy. Yet, empathy is developed by sharing the experiences of others and often the historical narratives of both people of color and White Americans are discounted in ways that create obstacles to overcoming prejudice. At times it is implied that people of color's historical narratives don't align with the American philosophy of building your dreams through a Protestant work ethic that conforms to the American melting pot of all having equal opportunity to achieve. Yet, equally damaging is an assumption that White Americans have no cultural story filled with similar nuances of being immigrants from around the world striving for a better existence.

It is by acknowledging and striving to understand these narratives--the people of color who've struggled pass discrimination and White Americans who have a rich history of immigrants--that we move beyond the limited perspective of an American melting pot that fuses these rich stories into a singular identity that disavows the uniqueness of each groups' contribution. Instead, by creating opportunities for White Americans to explore and better understand their racial identities in addition to appreciating the narrative of others, we begin to cultivate an empathy from both White Americans and people of color that can transform our melting pot into the beautiful American mosaic that we have the potential to achieve.