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Why We Have Systemic-isms

Did it feel like this discussion about systemic racism came out of left field?  I suspect it took many of us off guard, not unlike the discussion about gay marriage several years ago.  One day, everyone is saying WTF?, and then the next we’re all acting like the change is a no-brainer.

These left field surprises are actually par for the course psychologically.  If one considers theories about how adults develop cognitively, it helps us to understand this process, and better yet, help us to be better anticipate and/or be prepared next time we get caught off guard.

A leader in adult cognitive development theory is Bob Kegan, a Harvard professor.  According to Kegan, adults can advance through cognitive stages, expanding their capacity to understand and manage complexity.  We start as young adults with more potential than ability in this regard, but our capacity can increase depending on how we respond to challenge.  If we learn and grow in response to challenge (growth mindset), we can gradually amplify our cognitive capacity and become better able to deal with life’s complexity.  We can also choose not to learn from our challenges (fixed mindset) and we are then unlikely to grow our ability to competently make sense of the world.

One process involved in expanding cognitive capacity is making more facets of life known to us, or making them object.  When ideas or realities remain in our blind spot, those concepts remain subject.  As we move things from subject to object, we understand more about our world, and therefore have an improved chance of successfully managing them.

For many of us, as we age and grow through these stages, we realize that the more we learn, the more we realize how little of the world we actually understand.  We become less certain, and more able to see and understand nuance.  We’re more open to different perspectives.

Even still, so much of our perception of the known universe is so much dictated by personal experience.  After all, I was raised in the suburbs, in a middle-class, educated, immigrant family.  I’ve never walked in the shoes of a male, white or black, poor or upper-class, rural, single-parent, religious, Midwestern, or international person.  I can only imagine what that experience is like, and likely very poorly.  This is why so many people enjoy travel, because it allows one to experience first-hand how people of diverse backgrounds and cultures live and view the world.  We move more things from subject to object when we are open to learning about others’ experiences.

If I’m in early stages of cognitive development, I might be quite sure that any reality beyond my own experience or that of my tribe doesn’t really exist, or is invalid. I am also more likely to believe that there is only one right perspective, and everything else is wrong.  I can’t imagine the opposite perspective, or if I can, I can’t believe that it has any significant value or validity.   Nor could I imagine that there might even be a million perspectives in between the extremes.   From this vantage point, life is simple, fact and truth are concrete and non-negotiable, and I’m the master of knowing how life works. As we developmentally expand, we start to see increasing amounts of nuance, complexity, subjectivity, relativism, and the unity of right/wrong, good/bad, light/dark.

What people of color understand is that systemic racism is a fact of life (also true for others who experience other -isms). We live and breathe it, and it is our daily reality. To many in the majority, this reality is subject.  They tell us that we’re over-reacting, we’re making things up, we’re whining, we’re trying to make others feel bad.  Forcing the current race conversation is requiring the majority to begin to understand that this is reality for many even if it’s not been their personal experience. Perhaps many are starting to recognize the truth, since the signs have been there all along.

What Black Lives Matter is telling us is that the insidious and often subconscious belief in white superiority results in disparities and mistreatment of minoritized groups.  These aggressions, whether intentional, overt, and physical, or subconscious, subtle, and economic/educational/environmental/social/medical, can have profound repercussions on the wellbeing of entire populations which then affects everyone.  We’ve been in denial about these injustices, and what is becoming object to many is the damage it has been doing to us all.

As challenging as this has been (and it’s going to continue for some time because we’re only scratching the surface), there are other -isms lurking beneath our awareness.  Sexism. Gender-ism. Anti-Semitism.  Islamophobia.  Bigotry. Ableism.  Classism.  Size-ism. Ageism.  Nationalism.  Anthropomorphism.


Anthropomorphism is the belief in the centrism/superiority/dominion of the human species in Earth’s ecology.  Like racism, humanity acts with a belief in human superiority over everything else on Earth, including all species, water, air, and mineral.  This belief, so ingrained in our capitalistic and Christian culture, is causing us to aggress systemically against everything else on Earth.

Like with systemic racism, climate change and the pandemic are starting to force a reckoning with Earth.  Quarantining in place has somewhat opened our eyes to how our mindless consumption and addiction to productivity impacts nature. But the topic of climate change has taken a back seat to what feels like more immediate crises, and we have not truly come to terms with the imperative to find solutions for declining environmental health and loosening of environmental protections.

My hope is that the pandemic and BLM movement are challenges that invite our learning and growth, helping us to see how our blind spots can cause well-intentioned people to do harm.   We can see that now with racism.  Can we open our eyes to other -isms, especially systemic anthropomorphism?  Or do we have to wait until it’s too late, and environmental damage becomes irreversible or cataclysmic?

We are wiser than that.  We are better than that.  We are courageous, and smart, and strong.  We have it in our hearts to do the right thing.

I’m not one that believes that we can easily return to pre-COVID life, so while we’re figuring out solutions for our new reality, why don’t we consider how to start caring for Earth now too?  After all, we don’t want her to do some serious rioting to get our attention.  She’s already been screaming for attention; let’s not continue to test her patience.