The Psychological Challenge of Changing Systemic Racism

Todd Kashdan
4 min readJun 12, 2020


With reluctance, a few thoughts on this long overdue movement to deliver on the promise of fairness and equality across racial (and other demographic) lines.

If you don’t create space for people to present their nuanced views you won’t hear about them. And you’ll think there is more support for an issue then in actuality. And on back porches, in small gatherings, on private phone calls, people will whisper what they really think…and you’ll never know.

Real lasting change that is more about action and less about the social media post of the day requires several rounds of 360 degree perspective taking. Not of like minded ilk but the people that disagree with you.

Words of wisdom on how to disagree effectively from Daniel Dennett:

1. You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.

2. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).

3. You should mention anything you have learned from your target.

4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

It is not a Utopian ideal, it is pragmatic. Do you want someone to be receptive to your message and be an ally? Or do you want to alienate them so that they say all the right things in public and undermine the cause when outside of your purview?

It’s difficult.
It’s emotional.
Don’t be fooled by a bunch of individuals and organizations expressing platitudes as a sleight of hand trick (hoping they don’t have to do heavy lifting and the spotlight moves to the next fellow human). If people and organizations feel compelled to do something you get compliance. But do you want compliance or conversion?

My hope is that people intentionally leave their echo chambers and try to understand the barriers that prevented your ideologically distinct citizens from doing anything before March 2020. My hope is people pass the marshmallow test and show the perseverance and psychological flexibility required over the next year (years). Let’s see what people do once the workplaces and schools reopen and there are more daily (seemingly pressing) distractions.

It will take more than the already converted. Caveat emptor to those that alienate instead of integrate.

MLK Jr knew this in 1955:

How could I make a speech that would be militant enough to keep my people aroused to positive action and yet moderate enough to keep this fervor within controllable and Christian bounds? I knew that many of the Negro people were victims of bitterness that could easily rise to flood proportions. What could I say to keep them courageous and prepared for positive action and yet devoid of hate and resentment? Could the militant and the moderate be combined in a single speech?

Don’t lose sight of the end game. It’s not how many likes and support comments you get. It’s social change.

How many people have you persuaded to action that sat on the sidelines or actively obstructed these goals in the past? Is it larger than the number of people you pushed away (many of whom will be too afraid to say as much)?

How often did you try to understand someone’s vantage point and areas of concern, so you can meet them where they are and work with them? Is it larger than the number of people you silenced and shamed? What do you think happens to the people you unfriend and block and write off — do you think they just disappear and come back enlightened with the views and actions you’d like them to have?

What exactly did you do to improve an actual persons life? Now and in the future.

It’s not hashtags.
It’s not memes.

To fix society let’s do our best to strategically work with potential partners who for whatever reason don’t see the world the same way (life history, background, ideology, etc). Know their story, show interest in their story, and there is a chance to make real headway.

NOTE: only comment below if you have good faith and intentions. I’m not interested in the perverse pleasures of trolls and baiting.

P.S. I had this thought today — for every news organization and platform giving the mic to a person of color I want them to answer this first — why didn’t you invite them on an occasion that did not have to do with their skin color? Especially if they are a musician author poet director c-suite or known for their exceptional work? Same goes for my field of psychology — why are you only now giving keynote slots to a person of color when they published scientific research for years and carried a different perspective than you for a lifetime? Dive into the hard stuff and don’t paint it over with window dressing.

Dr. Todd B. Kashdan is a Professor of Psychology who leads The Well-Being Laboratory at George Mason University. Dr. Kashdan is the author of several books including Curious? and The Upside of Your Dark Side.



Todd Kashdan

Professor, psychologist, well-being researcher. For my latest writings read my Provoked column at: and my new book THE ART OF INSUBORDINATION