Tolerance and Service

Today the New York Times reports findings that “Mutual trust between members of different races can catch on just as quickly, and spread just as fast, as suspicion.” The study has a few implications for service corps.

Working together with a person of another race increases your ease around others of that race. In the article “Tolerance Over Race Can Spread, Study Finds,” author Benedict Carey describes a study that shows that

In some new studies, psychologists have been able to establish a close relationship between diverse pairs — black and white, Latino and Asian, black and Latino — in a matter of hours.

The study involves pairs of people from different races in a variety of activities for four hours.

First they answer a series of questions, designed to get to the bottom of some big issues quickly (like “If you could change anything about the way you were raised, what would it be?”). Next they play on the same team, competing against another pair in “timed parlor games.” In the third section, they talk about issues like what it means to be a part of their ethnic or racial group. And finally they work together in a classic trust exercise, where one person, blindfolded, is led through a maze by the other person.

By the end of their time together, the pair’s relationship “is as close as any relationship the person has,” according to the social psychologist who developed the exercises, Art Aron.

That relationship immediately reduces conscious and unconscious bias in both people, and also significantly reduces prejudice toward the other group in each individual’s close friends.

This extended-contact effect, as it is called, travels like a benign virus through an entire peer group, counteracting subtle or not so subtle mistrust.

Similar increases in tolerance are seen when people of mixed races are working or talking together in a room — others in the room ease up around members of the race group that is different from them.

One reason for the swift increases in tolerance is that we are all motivated to be part of the in-group, whether the in-group includes people of our own race or not.

The study has immediate and diverse implications for service corps.

For service corps programs engaging participants of different races, the activities outlined in the tolerance study may serve as a blue-print for team-building and cross-cultural engagement, where no one person is singled out as “different” but where everyone’s differences are expressed and put to work. The importance of building trust and confidence across race is crucial, for getting things done, as well as for team building.

Further, the study may explain why people who engage in international service have a tendency to come home with a bit of an identity crisis (e.g., I still feel Chinese on the inside though I am not Chinese ethnically) — and why they often express tolerance for racial and cultural differences once they have returned home. Other members of service corps who serve constituents across race or in mixed-race communities tend to experience similar growth in perspective.

Many service corps value diversity and offer opportunities for corps members to dialogue about race and culture.

One resource that groups turn to is books, like that of Eboo Patel, founder and Executive Director of Interfaith Youth Corps. He writes about tolerance and intolerance in his book Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim and the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation.

When I attended a professional development conference called Northwest Leader Corps in 2004-05, we watched and talked about the film The Color of Fear, a very powerful, honest documentary about the role of race in the lives of nine men.

Relationship-building exercises described above would take such a workshop to the next level — it’d be not just educational but also transformational.

Watch the Color of Fear trailer:

Also check out this Lesson Plans blog post by Christina Shunnarah, a teacher in a cross-cultural learning environment.

The tolerance study sounds like great news to me, and I look forward to more good news on race relations to come out over the next several years now that people are paying attention to race in a different way than ever before.