Cultivation of Curiosity: The Missing Piece of the Race-Relations Puzzle

COMMENTARY: The restriction of curiosity is a product of a societal norm that has seemingly only grown over the past few decades.

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As our nation grapples with the recent events that have resulted in massive protests and widespread violence, a distinct, unrecognized reality has emerged.

Stepping back to consider the many reactions that have come forth, it becomes apparent that 99% of them fit into three general categories.

The first is one of strong opinion about myriad matters that relate to this issue. Whether it involves systemic racism, police procedures, governmental actions or other topics, there is no shortage of opinions on all the ways that situations have gone wrong or have been misrepresented.

The second category of communication is of unqualified advocacy and support for those who have been wronged. Yet lost in the first two categories of communication is another, likely the largest voice, and yet the most forgotten one. It is the voice of hush. For all that is put forth publicly, there is an unspoken, yet real response of the silent majority.

As a young white boy growing up in a place of limited ethnic diversity, I was fortunate to have parents who believed and witnessed the idea that all people are created equal and endowed with the basic rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Yet like all of us, they undoubtedly harbored conscious and unconscious stereotypes about culture and ethnicity, and as a growing boy, so mine developed too.

Even beyond these lessons, though, from an early age, I was socialized in various ways to understand a particular admonition when it came to the issue of race (and for that matter, other socially-charged issues). The lesson was largely unspoken, but gradually became as palpable as the keys on which I type here.

It is simple. While curiosity about the natural world and all sorts of topics and endeavors was both encouraged and rewarded, curiosity about human diversity and those of diverse backgrounds largely began and ended in classrooms and museums.

Consider, for example, what happens when a 4-year-old boy says out loud in public, “Look, Mom, see the red bird” versus “Look, Dad, why is that person brown?”

Although understandable, each of us immediately recognizes that the verbal and nonverbal responses given to this young boy are quite different in these scenarios, and thus begins the process by which curiosity regarding race and culture takes on a very different pathway than other topics.

Before you find yourself justifying why this might be the case, consider what happens when curiosity is stifled, and when people become afraid to ask even the simplest of questions for fear of being seen as ignorant or even racist and hateful in what they say.

I must admit that, even as a psychologist who has gone through years of diversity training, and who is the director of a pre-doctoral training program with a primary focus on diversity, I still have these fears. Some of this fault likely lies on me and my upbringing, and as a father of eight children, these recent events force me to ponder what I can do even more to help my children possess a greater degree of comfort with this topic during their lifetime than I have.

But part of this caution, and ultimately restriction of curiosity, is a product of a societal norm that has seemingly only grown over the past few decades. Simply put, it is safer to be part of the silent majority than to raise questions and seek out answers on the topic of race relations.

Yet, our Catholic faith teaches that this is not acceptable, and that we should always strive to know and speak the truth. Consider what the Catechism says:

“Man tends by nature toward the truth. He is obliged to honor and bear witness to it. They are bound to adhere to the truth once they come to know it and direct their whole lives in accordance with the truth” (2467).

And again, “the disciple of Christ consents to ‘live in the truth,’ that is, in the simplicity of a life in conformity with the Lord’s example, abiding in his truth” (2470).

Consider just how many times Jesus in his own life displayed a curiosity about people he came to know, including many who were mistreated and marginalized by society as a whole.

Ask yourself this, for anyone who has ever befriended your neighbor: Does this relationship grow because strong, often divisive opinions are put forth? Or does it grow because abiding, unquestioning support of him or her in all circumstances is broadcast for all to hear? If you are like me, the answer is typically No to both.

For most of us, our love of neighbor begins with a sincere curiosity of just who they are, where they have come from, and what is most important about who they hope to become. Sure, we would all like to think that we possess an unconditional positive regard for humanity, and I believe that many do. But few walk up to their neighbor and pledge unqualified, universal support or call into question central aspects of their being, and expect that the relationship will progress meaningfully from here.

Still, there is also another component of curiosity that is just as essential. Beyond truly seeking to know and understand others, it is what I will call “internal curiosity.” It is inquisitiveness about our own feelings, thoughts, biases, opinions and actions when it comes to another person or group of people.

In regard to both aspects of curiosity, this one actually may be the most difficult, because it may force us to enter into a place of psychological discomfort and unease as we consider that there are aspects of our own psyche that don’t jibe well with what is fair, truthful or desirable. It’s not easy to admit to others, and especially ourselves, that we have prejudiced beliefs. But for people and communities to really thrive in the area of multiculturalism and diversity, all people, regardless of race or ethnicity, should strive to grow in both aspects.

Ultimately, I believe the cultivation of curiosity is the missing piece of the puzzle that is race relations, and for that matter, all the important social justice issues of today. For any truly exploratory research, explanatory documents or reciprocal conversations that occur, there are thousands of voices shouting in discord (or accord) while millions of voices remain in silence, afraid to ask or say anything at all. The blame for this lack of curiosity is on all of us, and it is the responsibility of each and every citizen in a democratic state just as much as it is to express our opinions and ideas in a civil manner.

It is the responsibility of parents, teachers, pastors, mentors, professionals and ultimately ourselves to encourage and foster both types of curiosity.

None of us has all the answers and no one is perfect; it’s time we demonstrate curiosity about why this is the case. In doing so, sometimes we might just have to live with the fear of being called or seen as racist or prejudiced of any kind, something that many of us shutter to even consider. But always, in all situations, we must have patience and understanding for those who truly seek to understand the what and why, even if the questions they ask may not be perfectly said or may reflect underlying stereotypes or beliefs that are perceived as socially undesirable and/or prejudiced. The irony, as I noted here, is that if people and our world were designed to be anything, they were designed to be diverse, thus it seems our degree of curiosity should mirror the life as it is.

The reality is that the current climate of the year 2020 is anything but supportive of filling this missing link although certain positive signs are starting to emerge. But, like all change that matters, it starts with a few people and a few basic conversations founded on a desire to get to know each other (and themselves) better and the situation as it truly is, not on furthering an agenda or proving a point or electing governmental representatives.

At the end of the day, the real solution to reducing racism (I would love to say ending racism, but I am going to be realistic) is getting to know people better for who they really are. Having seen it happen firsthand, I am not naïve to believe that this will eradicate all implicit stereotypes and racist beliefs. But I do believe that nothing changes people’s attitudes like having a repeated experience that contradicts their prejudiced views.

It’s easy to hold to a position or an idea when confirmed from afar; it is altogether more difficult to remain steadfast to a belief when it is challenged up close, in a person or people you come to know.

Advocacy and opinions will only take us so far, and as Catholics, they alone will limit us in truly seeking the truth. If curiosity is truly the mother of invention, then it is due time, in our homes, workplaces, communities and country, to do whatever it takes to cultivate curiosity so that our inventive minds can figure out a better way to improve race relations than what is currently going on now. Surely we can do better. Surely we can.

James Schroeder, Ph.D., is the vice president of the psychology program

at Easterseals Rehabilitation Center in Evansville, Indiana,

He resides in Evansville with his wife, Amy, and their seven children.

He also is a regular guest on Relevant Radio and Son Rise Morning Show.