Building a Better Society
The Person You Mean to Be

Building a Better Society

Most folks want to be good people. Yet often, being seen as a good person can become more important than actually being a good person. When this happens, your efforts to make a positive difference can backfire.

In 2018, Malcolm Gladwell, Adam Grant, Susan Cain and Daniel Pink selected this as one of the “six books to have on your bookshelf.” It’s probably gotten only more important since then. 

In her timely and highly engaging exposition, award-winning social psychologist Dolly Chugh demonstrates how uncovering your hidden motives and adopting a growth mind-set will help you to act as a “builder” – rather than just a “believer”  in the fight against discrimination and inequality. Based on her research and experience, Chugh explores how the “psychology of good people” can reinforce bias, racism and inequality. But her mission isn’t to point the finger and put people down. Instead, she wants to offers you the tools you need to tackle inertia, ignorance or fear of failure and to bring about the change that you want to see. 

A Willingness to Learn

Chugh explains that people feel that their identity is threatened if their behavior contradicts their perceptions of themselves, and that makes them defensive. For that reason, she recommends thinking of yourself as someone who “is trying to be better” rather than a “good person.” This fresh attitude will allow you to move from a fixed mind-set to a growth mind-set and will open you up to learning.

People with a fixed mind-set are likely to worry constantly that they might do or say the wrong thing. This concern focuses their attention on themselves instead of on the people they’re trying to support. A fixed mind-set also prevents you from learning from your mistakes, since – operating from fixed position – you would be likely to deny that you made an error in the first place.

The difference between a fixed mind-set and a growth mind-set lies in whether we believe we have blind spots.Dolly Chugh

The human brain uses mental shortcuts to process almost all the information it receives at an unconscious level. This means that people’s explicit and implicit beliefs can differ significantly. For example, you may be aware of diversity and equality issues and work to fight for fairness, but you might still unconsciously associate women with family and home instead of career and work. Such unconscious associations often translate into behavior that is unintentionally racist or sexist. Chugh suggests taking an online implicit association test to become more aware of any unconscious biases that might affect your everyday decision-making, behavior and interactions.

Acknowledging Head- and Tailwinds

Chugh recapitulates that your identity will put you at a systemic advantage or disadvantage. Being white, for example, immediately provides you with a number of privileges that will make your life easier compared to that of a Black person. These privileges are invisible, but work like tailwinds enabling you to reach a destination more quickly. In the same way, systemic headwinds make reaching the same destination harder or even impossible for someone from another group.

Chugh argues that inequality is the result of systemic disadvantages that have accumulated over decades. The widely held belief that hard-working people regardless of race, gender, belief or class can achieve whatever they set their mind to is simply wrong.

We like to think our mind is like an impartial judge in search of the truth, but it is more like an attorney searching for evidence to support her case.Dolly Chugh

Chugh warns against falling into the trap of thinking that less privileged people have failed to achieve something because they are lazy or less intelligent. Instead, she calls on readers to acknowledge their routine privileges and use them to the benefit of those less privileged. She acknowledges that becoming deliberately aware of your ordinary privileges and biases can be difficult. It requires a conscious effort to listen and not to shy away from the pain of realizing that you might not be as tolerant or color-blind as you thought you were. Admittedly, Chugh isn’t covering new ground here, but to benefit from her approach, understanding the foundations of her thinking is crucial. While other reviewers have applauded the book as suitable for both long-term activists and recent converts, the latter will probably benefit more. If you’ve already done your due diligence on this topic, much of what Chugh covers will sound familiar. 

Overcoming Unhelpful Behaviors

To build inclusivity, you need to speak up when you see discrimination, even if acting feels uncomfortable or risky. In these situations, Chugh suggests abiding by the 20/60/20 rule. It suggests that people, generally, divide into the “easy 20” (those who are open and willing to learn), the “stuck 20” (those who refuse to listen and change their point of view) and the “middle 60” (those who are mostly silent, passive and easily influenced by social norms). To determine how to engage with people, understand what group a person belongs to: When you are talking to an easy 20, provide facts and stories; the middle 60s tend to respond best to stories and emotional connections; and when you encounter a stuck 20, position whatever you say to benefit any middle 60s who might be watching and listening.

The Black Lives Matter movement has sparked a surge of interest in books on inequality and racism written by authors who are seeking ways to tackle systemic discrimination. Chugh’s science-based and practical approach makes this endeavor seem achievable. She stresses again and again that meaningful support requires the will to engage. Her candid accounts of her own failures to live up to her ideal and the stumbling steps she has taken toward becoming a “good-ish” person take the sting out of the hard truths readers may face as they read this book.

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