Race Relations and the Wisdom of the Chinese Finger Trap


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Race Relations and the Wisdom of the Chinese Finger Trap 

by Dr. Claudia Owens Shields, Chair of the Clinical Psy.D. Department, Los Angeles Campus


(LOS ANGELES) (July 22, 2013) The shooting death of Trayvon Martin, and the subsequent acquittal of his shooter, called forth many images from my own youth.  One might expect that it reminded me, an afro-wearing child of the 1960’s, of times when I too had been racially profiled.  Certainly it did, but a more unlikely memory surfaced. It will serve as an analogy that will help me explain an idea I have for increasing understanding across the seemingly ever-widening racial divide.

A playmate had handed me a small multicolored cylinder, about three inches long, and woven out of straw-like paper.  “Put your fingers in it,” he said.  I obeyed, putting an index finger in each end.  Then he giggled, “Now take them out.”  I attempted to pull my fingers out, but the harder I tugged, the tighter it got.  I panicked thinking that my fingers might be forever trapped.   It wasn’t until I pushed my fingers together that the cylinder expanded enough for me to remove my fingers.  This was completely counter intuitive.  Why would I push my fingers further in, when what I wanted to do was get them out?  It will serve as an analogy that will help me explain an idea I have for increasing understanding across the seemingly ever-widening racial divide.

A similar paradox often exists when people disagree.  When we want to convince someone of our beliefs, it seems natural to explain our position.  When we get disagreement, we explain a bit more passionately and maybe offer some evidence. But the more we try to explain, the more the other person insists on her/his point of view.  Of course the more the other person insists on her/his point of view, the more we may try to explain ours. It isn’t long before both sides become frustrated and feel misunderstood – even angry.

In the wake of the Zimmerman verdict, we find ourselves embroiled in a national debate.  Lately we see elements of this every news cycle – in the form protests, pundits arguing, or clips from the trial itself – and then there are the less visible one-on-one arguments at the workplace water cooler or around the dinner table. In each case, the discussions tend to be polarizing. The more one side attempts to make its case, the angrier the other side becomes.  It’s sort of like the experience I had when trying to pull my fingers out of the little trap.  Just I had to move my fingers toward each other, so do we need to move toward those with whom we most disagree.  Of course this feels very unnatural, and some are likely to be offended at the very thought.

Humanistic psychologists believe that it is more often as a result of active listening (without interruption or judgment) rather than through advice or lecturing, that we gently move a person toward change.  More accurately, we aren’t moving the person toward change, but we are simply being with them and working hard to genuinely understand (though not necessarily agree with) their perspective.  In so doing, we find ourselves drawn more closely to them.  They become more human to us, more familiar, less disagreeable and soon we can see and even deeply feel their pain.  In this way, we move closer to them and they to us.  Though initially resistant to anything we may have had to offer, they may soon be drawn to us – feeling understood.  The more we experience and demonstrate unconditional acceptance of who they are, the more they find themselves changing – and we change too.  Contrarily, the more we attempt to force change, the more they shut down and shut us out and the greater the distance becomes between us, as we remain trapped in a tug of war.  This is what I see happening to our nation.

So, I’d like to suggest an experiment.  I’d like to suggest that, as part of this national racialized conversation, we each find someone with an opposing view and that we make a commitment to listen fully to them, and that we do so without interruption, and with deep genuine curiosity (rather than cynicism) to the life experiences that shaped their views.  As we listen, we must hold tightly to the truth that, no matter how horrifying their viewpoints may seem to us, the person came to them because of a set of real life experiences.  If we can listen with curiosity (rather than judgment) and attempt to learn what led the person to their beliefs, then when it is our turn to speak, they will be much more likely to listen how we arrived at our views.  This will work best when both parties are committed to listening with mutual respect.

This will NOT be easy.  We will no doubt feel frustration, anger and even pain during the process.  Consider the Civil Rights activists of the 60’s, like my father, who through non-violent resistance, waged peace and emerged victorious even when clouds of tear gas blinded them and cut their breath, and even when attacked by vicious police dogs, and when torrential blasts from fire hoses slammed their faces into the pavement.  While this will not be easy, I wonder if we might draw some inspiration from those who made sacrifices for our Civil Rights.  It will cost us dearly, but my hypothesis is that at the end of the experiment, both sides -- like fingers released from the Chinese finger trap – will know freedom.

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(Image from http://yantheosteopath.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/chinese-finger-trap.jpg)

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