Cognitive Dissonance: How the harmful act can be felt in every facet of scoeity

“It is certain, in any case, that ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have.” -James Baldwin  (Courtesy)
By April Eberhardt The Black Lens

The privilege of naïveté is a luxury for those on the upside of a power imbalance. It affords escape from uncomfortable truths, sweeping injury under the rug. Superficial conversations happen, but avoidance occurs when the dialogue gets too hard. The privilege of naïveté turns into outright cognitive dissonance, enabling evasion. You cannot expect those pushed to the margins to endure discomfort while everyone else takes their time to find comfort with race talk. There is no sanitizing that type of disregard; the dirt that gets swept under the rug becomes an inescapable obstacle. Identity politics built this country, and the lie of inclusion says that we will all move ahead when we pretend like that is not true. So, we dance around critical conversations about how rampant historical exclusion has created a trajectory that still impacts us today. Equity policies and benchmarks paint a picture that makes system leaders proud, but who really moves ahead? Growing frustrations become an afterthought to everyone else’s convenience, so long as the boxes get checked. Cognitive dissonance is the force behind performative equity, and it acquiesces to comfort over accountability.

When it comes to race and class in America, many know there is a problem but deny it at the same time. They look the other way or entertain symbolic gestures to keep things quiet. It is a survival response that hooks into our consciousness and informs how we move through the world. Survival feels different for all of us; those with power can make decisions so entrenched in denial that problems get dumbed down. Normalizing the culminating effects of racism (the microaggressions, the gaslighting, the stereotyping, the dog whistling, the gatekeeping, etc.) is a dangerous game that has caused and continues to cause immeasurable harm that devastates our personhood. For those who have grappled with intergenerational, cultural, and racial trauma, cognitive dissonance is the ultimate Jedi mind trick.

Without an honest reckoning with the truth, equity and anti-racism work falls flat. Acknowledgement is not enough. It is paramount to move from courageous and brave dialogue into a place of intentionality. This is the dirty work that takes collectivism and power sharing, amplifying and valuing the voices that don’t come from the status quo. Stakeholder relationships need trust and transparency; they cannot be thwarted when contention arises. Belonging in community, if authentic, requires honest discourse, accountability, collective problem solving, and follow through. It is the undoing of fortified practices that have become standard operating procedure for centuries, in systems that were built to exclude. Part of the deep clean we need is to ask the questions: what are we trying to preserve, at whose expense, and why? Until we confront that, we cannot even begin to uproot, destroy, or rebuild. We simply repeat what has not worked, watch the pendulum swing back and forth, and follow people who are not willing to deviate from the standard operating procedures while power is being safeguarded. Looking at macro-level and micro-level social patterns throughout history is a good barometer for directional transformation.

The effects of cognitive dissonance can be felt in every facet of society. It lives in the label of “angry” or “dramatic” when acts of bias and bigotry are called out. It hides in the statement “assume positive intent” when repeated exposure to microaggressions produce so much angst and distrust that those words feel like an assault. “Good intentions” start to feel like a crutch or disguise for offense. It tries to finesse a false narrative of reconciliation when there has never been real healing. It feigns progress and alienates the voices of those who won’t settle for being placated. It’s the condescension in the question of whether you think there is really a race problem when you have expressed exactly that. It’s so ingrained in America’s psyche that it gets handed down to children and shows up at 1st grade recess when a Black child is told that he is the bad guy because his skin is dark, in a game of chase. It’s in the song that proclaims, “I wish I were in Dixie ‘’ without ever asking what Dixieland was like for the enslaved and their families. It’s in the reclaiming of a word that was never meant for our uplift or survival, a word that was the last thing many heard before being hung from a tree. Cognitive dissonance whitewashes history and never questions how the same person who wrote: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal” also wrote the words: “the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind.”

We cannot soft-kitten-glove our way through racism because racism is certainly not gentle with us. It is destructive, it is insidious, and it erodes humanity. And the game has not changed, only the players have. Unmet needs still prevail. Anti-racism and DEI initiatives cannot work until, as Dr. Cornell West states, we get beneath the deodorized language and do a reset with truth and justice. These are the forerunners to any work done in the name of equity and is the real catalyst for systemic change. Otherwise, nothing changes if nothing changes, and we continue to circle the wagon.

Playing charades is shallow and benefits no one. You cannot play in the faces of people who recognize all the tricks. That approach is like putting lipstick on a pig. Folks are tired of waiting.