Folks, I'd like to share with you today some of the most important insights I've picked up in my world travels. Please feel free to add, agree, disagree, whatevs, in the comments.
1. People don't realize how little they empathize with people who are different
Here I'm not just talking about people of a different color, but also of another gender, age, economic class, education level, belief system, language, and others.
It's interesting how natural it is for the human brain to create a simple shorthand, perceiving different groups in terms of a handful of stereotypes. It's not surprising, really -- I think that the ability to identify with other individuals at all is the exceptional trait. It's not clear whether any other species is capable of it.
It seems, however, that human empathy has some limitations. Obviously it takes more work to relate to people whose experiences are very different than your own. What is counter-intuitive is how hard it is to grasp that foreign/other groups are as varied as your own group. To explain what I mean, let me use a couple of examples. First, the "Smurfette effect."
Smurfs come in all these different categories: the wise elder, the jokester, the artist, the girl, etc. Feminists have long noted that girls are as varied as guys, hence "girl" shouldn't be a role/trait on the same level with "baker" or "brainy-know-it-all."
But the thing is that the "Smurfette effect" isn't merely something that happens when men think about women. People (unintentionally) limit their picture of other groups in the same way. For example, take the category of "the French person." As I noted earlier, he nearly always dresses up as Marcel Marceau (and tends to have a particular -- stereotyped -- set of traits).
When I first moved to France, then, it was a bit of an epiphany. It's not that I thought French people all fit the stereotype (and dressed like Marcel Marceau...). Yet it was still a learning experience to really get that they have the same range of human types -- little kids, old people, really nerdy computer guys, etc. -- not just the small subset of educated, cosmopolitan young adult French folks that I'd met in the U.S.
(Maybe I should be ashamed to admit this, but) the first time I saw a black lady scolding her daughter in French, I was actually mildly startled to hear a black person speaking anything other than English. On an intellectual level it was no surprise, but it made me realize that (on an unconscious level) I had a rather limited mental picture both of French people and of black people.
(Another counter-intuitive point is that learning a new culture tends to merely increase your mental "us" category, but doesn't stop you from stereotyping other other groups. It helps, but learning a new culture doesn't automatically confer some sort of blanket enlightenment.)
2. One shouldn't be ashamed to admit to ignorance and uncertainty, one should be ashamed to not want to learn.
As far as racism and bigotry are concerned, I think it's important to recognize what we're up against. Even wanting to avoid racism/bigotry/stereotyping is a non-trivial step -- one that should be commended. On the other hand, I doubt there's a single person on the planet who has completely overcome the tendency to stereotype other groups.
Every time you notice an unfounded prejudice that you hold, you should be glad that you noticed it -- because it is only by noticing it that you can root it out. Having empathy for all humanity is something you can work on for your whole life and never truly succeed. Yet, some things are worth doing even though they're very hard.
It's also important to keep in mind that racism exists in every human culture. It's wrong (and ironic) to dismiss an entire culture as "those guys are the bigots, unlike our enlightened tradition." Ignorance and hate need to be fought within every culture.
3. People don't recognize how heavily their sense of what is "right" and "fair" is skewed towards favoring their own group.
I'd like to build a little on what I said in be the good guys and stand by your home-grown tyrant.
Humans value fairness as a virtue for society to strive for. At the same time -- if you read any human literature or stories -- you see immediately that a "good/happy" outcome is one where the protagonist comes out ahead. Humans simultaneously believe "good = fair" and "good = we win." That's why I don't like stories that have a classic villain who does evil just out of a pure love of evil. I think that type of story encourages people to view rivals as being motivated by evil -- as opposed to understanding that typically a rival is just someone else who wants what you want just like you.
In order to determine what is fair, you have to understand your rivals' needs, desires, and motivations. And in order to decide how to treat others, you have to try to see from their perspective -- not just project your own 2-D mental cartoon images onto them.