There’s something wonderful about family reunions during the holiday season.
Catching up with loved ones over a bountiful feast.
Getting shocked at how much taller the kids have grown.
Reliving fond memories. Creating new ones.
And the slightly racist comment from your somewhat racist relative that leaves everyone in an uncomfortable, awkward silence.
Now I’m not suggesting everyone has a “racist relative”.
But I’m certain we all have that one colleague or friend or acquaintance that may have certain views about the world that could be seen as a little racist.
Question is, what do you do when you’re in a situation where they openly share their views?
Do you condemn them, attack their point of view, and try to explain why they’re wrong with facts and figures?
Or would you turn a blind eye and try to divert the conversation elsewhere because you rather not confront the issue?
Both reactions are understandable.
But I believe there is a better option — Engage with empathy.
Before I reveal what I mean by this, let me first explain why I’m sharing this with you. And why I feel this is so important in the world today.
The recent election in America basically divided the country into two. I have friends who are passionate about Hillary but cannot understand how their parents voted for Trump. And I have friends who adore Trump — and can’t understand why their kids think he’s a racist.
I admit I live in a liberal bubble. So especially now I’m seeing tons of messages on my Facebook timeline from people I know lashing out at Trump supporters or talking about how they need to ‘unfriend’ certain ‘racist’ friends.
I believe, however, that this reaction is wrong. In fact, after this election, I’m come to realize that calling anyone a racist is wrong.
It’s hard though. This past month, even I got extremely upset at a few friends who their comments on Facebook. But I learned a better way of dealing with the issue.
Here’s what happened…
Recently, there has been a wave of anti-Islamic sentiments sweeping across America.
And it’s personally been very shocking to me because I live two lives.
I run an American company, Mindvalley, and spend half my life in America. But I also spend the other half of my life living in a Malaysia, a Muslim-majority country.
I’ve never felt unsafe or out of place living in Malaysia. In fact, 20% of our staff in Mindvalley are muslims hailing from all corners of the world — Nigeria, Sudan, Syria, Ukraine, Iran, Maldives, Malaysia and more.
And if you ever meet any one of our Muslim staff, you’d realize that they are no different than the average American millennial in our office.
I mean take a look at one of our recent team pictures. There are around 35 nationalities represented here. Can you tell anyone apart by their religion?
But back to our “racist relative.”
What I’m about to share may be a little controversial and some of you may disagree with me altogether. If you do, I urge you to please keep an open mind and continue reading for the full explanation.
Now we’ve all seen similar images like the one below.
It’s undoubtedly a beautiful message that inspires and uplifts the spirit.
But this may not be entirely true according to famed historian and author of the book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Hariri.
You may not realize this but…
We are all born a little bit racist.
Or at the very least, we are predisposed to have certain racist tendencies.
Hariri explains that fearing people who look different is a trait we developed in our evolutionary biology as a survival mechanism.
Going back to the times when humanity was largely made of hunter-gatherer tribes, competition for land and food was fierce and constant. If an outsider came into your village who looked a little different, they would most likely be an invader or an attacker. Unless you were ready to attack back, you could easily be killed.
So it was an innate reaction to fear them.
We were hard-wired to be like that. And it’s a trait that we (unfortunately) carry to this day.
Hariri suggests that this “racism” is one of the few unfortunate, inherent qualities in human beings that we have to train our children to release.
That’s why it can be so dangerous when people use racism for political gain because they are actively tapping into a “bug” in the human brain. Our goal should be to patch that “bug.” Not tap into it and manipulate it, which is what many politicians do.
Now I too, have family members who have certain irrational prejudices.
I love them.
But I do know they have some seriously outdated views of the world.
However, when I took the time and learned why they have those views, I could understand how and where they got these ideas from.
You see, I come from an Indian heritage. And a lot of my family are originally from the west of India and lived through the 1947 Partition of India where the old British Indian Empire was divided into India and Pakistan. A Hindu nation and a Muslim nation. In the aftermath of the split and mass migrations of Muslims into Pakistan and Hindus into India, over 1 million people were killed in ethnic clashes in 1947.
Understandably, this history led to certain members of my family from that generation harboring a deep irrational mistrust for Muslims to this very day.
But until I had learned about the source of their prejudice, it would have been very easy to simply accuse them of prejudice and bigotry.
But because I do understand their story, I don’t call them out on their fears.
But I don’t ignore the issue either.
Instead, I learned to engage them with empathy.
Here’s another example of how I did that with a friend I truly respect.
Firstly, my friend is a fantastic entrepreneur. I follow his work and I have read his books. But recently, he posted something on Facebook that took me by surprise.
It was a post where he expressed his fear of Muslims and of refugees coming to America, and how their culture would negatively influence Americans. His post also suggested that Muslims were anti-West and would destroy American culture.
I fundamentally disagreed with him and I felt his fears were irrational. Plus, I had the statistics and facts to prove to him wrong.
But I decided to keep those facts aside.
I chose not to condemn him.
And I certainly did not unfriend him on Facebook just because our views clashed (which I know many people have been doing lately, but I believe it is one of the most counterproductive things you could do in a situation like this).
Instead, I left a comment on his post, which I’ve paraphrased below.
“I understand why you may feel this way, but living in a muslim country, I’ve noticed something completely different. Since we’re in similar industries, I would love to invite you to come to Malaysia and spend a week here. I’ll even host you. And if you want, I’ll take you out for dinner with some of my Muslim team members from all around the world and when you meet them, it will really be eye-opening. Plus, I think we could have some wonderful brainstorms and we can help each other with business advice.”
My friend wrote back to me and he told me he would love to do it.
And now every time we see one another, the mutual respect we have is still intact, and although I acknowledge he may have some fears, I know that he is open enough to engage them without judgment.
Looking back, I doubt my friend and I would have come to this civil conclusion if I had instead bombarded him with facts and figures to prove him “wrong.” Or worse, called him ‘racist’.
And this is the big mistake some members of liberal parties in America and Europe have failed to recognize in their own actions towards those who are traditionally more conservative.
You see, I recently had a profound discussion with a good friend of mine, Tom Chi, the former co-founder of Google X and one of the smartest men I know (he holds 75 patents), about this topic. Tom explained that a lot of people who we may see as having irrational fears — or are acting out of rage — are only doing so from a place a deep disempowerment.
For example, the many Americans who are NOT at all fearful of Mexicans or Muslims or African-Americans — but have much deeper concerns for their wellbeing and the wellbeing of their families, which may have compelled them to vote for an unconventional politician like Donald Trump.
“The folks that lash out the strongest are the ones that truly feel that there is no other place they can express themselves. There is no other pathway they can go. It’s easy to blame. To tell people, look, you’re a horrible person, this is not how society is supposed to work. It’s true. But you also need to look at WHY do they feel so disempowered.”
Tom went on.
“There are a lot of liberals questioning — whats WRONG with you. But there isn’t that much liberal questioning of WHAT is it that’s created so much disempowerement in your life that the only way you can express yourself is through this scream. That’s the sort of compassion that we need to open up again.”
So when certain liberals write off all Trump supporters as “bigots” and “racists,” many well-meaning people who supported Trump (for reasons other than his divisive rhetoric) felt like they were being wrongfully attacked or marginalized, and therefore lash back in retaliation.
This creates a vicious cycle — like a never-ending “shouting match” of accusation and blame.
The voice that is missing, as Tom puts it, are the questions like…
“What is the underlying source/reason for your frustration, hurt, and pain? How did it start?”
It is only through these sort of questions can we open up a constructive discourse to truly understand the source of someone’s pain so we can work together to heal these wounds.
Now I do want to make something clear here.
Is racism, bigotry and prejudice something we should all make a concerted effort to stamp out?
Is condemnation and ostracizing someone the solution?
So the next time you have a family gathering, and a relative or friend makes an unsavoury, racist or prejudiced comment, maybe it’s worth taking the time to sit next to them with a little bit of compassion and an open heart, and just engage them with empathy.
It may not necessarily be easy.
But it’ll be worth it.
Note: for those of you interested in hearing Tom’s full interview with me where he discusses the topic of “Engagement with Empathy” and suggests how Americans can come together to heal rifts, you can listen to the full 13 mins video on my Facebook page here. It’s an informal interview while we were hanging our on a beach in Mexico, which is why it’s just filmed on an iPhone and Tom is in swimming trunks. But the content is profound 😉
What are your thoughts? Leave a comment below.