“Muscle memory” isn’t the right word, it’s a bias really, but the consequences are as dire

Three things that happened this weekend had me think about why it is so difficult for us humans to change, why our “muscle memory” or bias gets in the way. As we grow up, we learn, we absorb lessons, and we learn most from what people do, how they act, not what they say. As a parent, I see this every day. I also see the hierarchy of credibility. I see my son come home (he’s 4!!!) and how he trusts the stories his friends in school tell him: about things “boys” do, and what “girls” do, from dresses to colors to jobs. As parents, we still have the upper hand, we still have more “cred” than our son’s pals, but not for much longer. We argue constantly for the equality of boys and girls in all aspects of life. The more we see, hear, observe, the better the lesson sits, and if you look around our society, it’s pretty simple to see why progress is slow: our society is still in a pretty bad state, even in progressive countries like my own.

Racism is the theme of this book of mine.

The forces we fight against are powerful, and they’re mostly working in secret. No, I’m not prone to conspiracy theories. The forces I’m talking about are the biases we humans have, mechanism built into our brain that help us navigate life, but that also make it difficult to change. Let me take a couple of examples:

Racism

Most people are not racists. When confronted with their racist behavior (and I include myself in this), we tend to get upset. But let’s be honest for a minute, shall we? When we (and this is geared to any dominating ethnicity) see someone from a disenfranchised group, e.g. blacks or gypsies, we react instinctively: we pull up information about that group from our memory. And what is it we’ve learned? Blacks are… [fill in blanks], gypsies are […] I remember a cruise with one of my best friends who’s black, and how officer after officer walked up to Alex, Sascha (two! at the time) and me and greeted us, but completely and utterly ignored my friend Claudine. She was invisible. Why? Did they merely see our servant? A nanny? Rather than the highly intelligent and senior physician with decades of professional experience? I don’t know, but the scene was harrowing. When confronted, each of the officers denied being a racist, yet they’d acted despicably.

Misogyny

We are still far, far away from equality of the sexes. Sadly, women are as bad as men, which makes progress even more slow. We are so stuck in our ways, in how we view the roles of men and women that we don’t even see just how sexist they are. Here’s an unusual example of sexism.

Misogyny and gender roles, are themes in this novel.

My husband and I are most likely the family in Sweden who’s been approved to foster a child the longest. Five years and running. Still, no placement. Most of the other families in our mandatory course already had their placements ready when we went through the training, we didn’t. Yes, part of it is homophobia, but I seriously doubt that social workers, who are so well educated and trained, are all homophobes. No, but their muscle memory, their bias is sexist. We had asked for the placement of a young child, a placement for a child to grow up with us. Now that we are parents to our own, biological child, that is unchanged. For Sascha to have a sibling, the child to be placed in our care would have to be +/- 3 years. Last time we were in touch with social services they “offered” us an 18 year old! Who needs to foster an adult? As bad as I felt for the young man, a gay man from Iran who apparently needed role models, a placement in an LGBT family wasn’t the solution. Quite the contrary: what message do you send when you do this?

But no young kids. Why? I think that social workers suffer from “mommy” syndrome: when they see a baby or a toddler who needs placed, they automatically think “we need a mother!” Why? Because! Look at society… They are incapable of stopping in their tracks for a split second and considering “why” they think that child needs a mother (or not). It’s quite obvious that we still see women primarily as care takers, and most women will agree, that’s what they’ve been prepared for, trained for, by their own mothers and grandmothers. Generation after generation. I’m no different, neither are you. Just picture the last time you saw a small child all alone on the street or in a park. I bet you looked around to see where its mother was. I’ll be honest to admit that I do. But I’ll be equally relieved to see a dad.

And as long as we equate “care” with “female” and “provide” with “male” society will not change, and Alex and I will never see a foster child, never see a sibling to our son.

Homophobia is a topic in many of my books, but it’s central to my second one, Jonathan’s Hope, and how one man’s internalized homophobia (which is still a very common thing) threatens his son’s life.

Homophobia

I saw this article the other day and was shocked. Then again, things like that are to be expected. I remember the day we came back from India, five weeks after Sascha had been born. Upon entering European soil from another continent with dodgy security procedures, we had to go through a new security control at Frankfurt airport. With a little baby, we were slow. One of the security guards (a female) approached us and wondered where the child’s mother was. Because two men and a baby is so unusual. This belongs more to the misogyny aspect, but trust me, we often get glances from other people about being a gay couple with kids, and when you look at EVERY country discussing marriage equality, kids are always the opposition’s prime argument, because gays = pedophiles. It was something we simply had to get used to. But it’s no less painful. Particularly when you’re at the receiving end of it

How do we move on?

That’s the real question, isn’t it? The challenge is to stop for a moment, before you act, before you speak up. Because we have two enemies: a) our own honesty, and b) the speed at which our brain works. I have had more conversations with people who will swear to everything holy to them that they aren’t “racists” etc, and they would never, ever admit to acting, thinking that way. I know. It’s difficult. Even for me, even though I’m fully aware that I am. I grew up in a society where racism against several minorities was common. I know that my brain has racist tendencies. Imagine the irony when I learned that I was a quarter gypsy, after having been imprinted just how untrustworthy, thieving and stealing a people they were, all my childhood. Ouch!

I was also raised a misogynist, of course, we all are, and I was also raised a homophobe. My brain, even for a split second, reacts MORE when I see a gay couple kiss or hold hands than when I see a het couple lick each other in public. It’s how I was raised. For many people, admitting this is difficult. But necessary!

So what can we do? We have to teach our brains to stop for a split-second after that initial reaction. We may never be able to completely obliterate those neural pathways, but we can learn to take a deep breath and think: why do you react this way? Before we act, before we speak. If we all did that, society would quickly improve, because we all know beyond the shadow of a doubt that behavior is not a factor of our skin color (you’re still very much the same person, even after the sun burn from hell!), our capacity to love and care is not a factor of our genitals and love knows no gender and sexuality/gender isn’t hereditary (or there would be no LGBT people)

Think about that for a few days, try to think of instances in your own life when you’ve acted, spoke “too quickly”, instances where you brain’s “muscle memory”, your biases, got in the way. I still do, even after working on myself for decades. Luckily, I catch my thought lapses before I can act upon them, but I’m still as ashamed for every time my brain jumps to conclusions as I was when I first realized just how badly “trained” my brain was.

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Thanks,

Hans

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