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Diversity conference keynote speaker cites 'cognitive dissonance' behind attitudes toward race

The images were from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, showing the flooded streets of New Orleans in 2005.

One showed a black man hauling groceries through chest-deep water. Another showed a white couple doing the same thing. Their actions were the same, but the captions on their photos were different. The white couple had found food at a neighborhood grocery store. The black man had “looted” a store.

The discrepancy reflects assumptions triggered by race, attitudes of which people often are unaware, said Joy DeGruy, who displayed those images during her keynote address today to a diversity conference at Columbus State University’s Cunningham Center.

DeGruy may be best known as the author of “Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome – America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing,” but she also is a corporate trainer called in when institutions have discrimination issues.

This morning she talked about the “cognitive dissonance” America has used to reconcile its ideals of equality and justice with its treatment of ethnic minorities such as African-Americans and American Indians, and the lingering effects.

In the beginning America justified slavery by categorizing blacks as less than human, Thomas Jefferson describing them as “dumb, cowardly and incapable of feeling grief,” the latter contention rationalizing treating them like livestock.

The Rev. John Newton, who penned the hymn “Amazing Grace,” described slaves as “lesser creatures without human souls.”

That attitude persisted beyond slavery’s end, with the Bronx Zoo in 1906 keeping in a monkey cage a pygmy named Benga Ota, who later committed suicide.

One way to deal with cognitive dissonance is to “relabel people to fit your behavior toward them,” DeGruy said.

And like the black man branded a looter for wading through a flood with food, people can be relabeled to take the blame for the circumstances in which they find themselves.

DeGruy cited televangelist Pat Robertson’s take on the January 2010 earthquake that devastated Haiti, a majority-black country. Robertson said the Haitians were subject to God’s wrath because of their dabbling in voodoo. Thus their misery was deserved.

Some professionals let those same attitudes affect their conduct at work, said DeGruy, who told the story of conducting diversity training with 400 firefighters whose agency had lost discrimination lawsuits based on race, age and gender.

A lawsuit is usually what prompts clients to call her in, and often she is not welcome, she said. During her work with the firefighters, a captain stood and in front of his workers said she had no business telling them how to behave: They had worked together for years and considered each other brothers. In fact he had a longtime Hispanic coworker he usually teased by calling him a “dirty Mexican” and a “wetback,” but, “I love him like a brother,” the captain said.

It just so happened DeGruy earlier that day had gone around a room full of firefighters and had them introduce themselves. One was so “drop-dead gorgeous” that her composure slipped for a moment, and instead of asking his name, she said, “So where are you from?”

“I’m not a Mexican!” he shouted at her. “So where are you from?” she asked again.

“I’m from El Salvador,” he said.

So when the captain bragged about calling a coworker a Mexican and a wetback, DeGruy decided she knew exactly whom he was referring to. She suggested he go check to make sure the man he loved like a brother was OK with such comments.

When the training resumed, the captain came in crying. The coworker he’d been teasing had bowed his head and walked away when asked about it. The captain feared he’d lost a friend.

The captain became a different man after that, she said: He removed all men’s magazines from the fire station and began to discipline firefighters for inappropriate conduct.

The world is a different place now, with a global, decentralized, information-based economy, and 7 billion people who racially are 54 percent Asian, 15 percent black, 15 percent white, 8 percent Hispanic and 8 percent Middle-Eastern, she said.

But genetically the difference between those people is negligible, nearly nonexistent, she said. The human species has no significant genetic variation that justifies the concept of race, she said. The difference is how different people perceive each other.

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