We are all, paradoxically, agents of social change operating within forces of social control. The limitless spontaneity of our minds is imprisoned by a variety of internalized social structures, ones we often mistake as the ultimatums of life. As a result, some actions or behaviors are arbitrarily deemed more acceptable than others. We often address the fact that “actions have consequences,” but rarely ever acknowledge that actions themselves are rooted in some limited understanding of the world. Much of our understanding of the world and a majority of our own biases and perspectives come from rigid and internalized social structures. To develop true objectivity, we must not only be aware of the world and its processes but also our own preconceived notions and ideologies.
Our entire lives are a quest for knowledge. In fact, we often measure personal growth in the context of how much we have learned. Applying what we learn, however, is the truest measure of personal growth, and this is often not possible because of the limitations society places on us. We are taught at a young age to treat others the way we wish to be treated, but how has this played out considering we’ve internalized systems of patriarchy, oppression and racism? Recently, two Indian-American New Jersey teens were arrested for repeatedly hurling racial slurs at a group of young African-American middle school girls. Surely, these boys are intelligent enough to know that this action is wrong and has consequences, yet they acted in this way because of an internalized anti-Black sentiment that overpowered judgment.
Teaching people that their actions will lead to consequences is not enough — we must also learn to unlearn. Unlearning consists of recognizing that we have all been imbued with the constructs of heteronormativity, patriarchy and racial superiority and then challenging the dominant values presented to us. No privilege absolves an individual from unlearning, and the responsibility certainly does not fall upon those who have experienced oppression to teach someone else to unlearn. Unlearning is not about forgetting, it is about taking the knowledge we have at hand and learning to interpret it differently and opting for alternative mental paradigms. Acknowledging a history of racism and dismantling internalized prejudices is unlearning, while ignoring a history of racism or acting crudely in spite of it is simply ignorance.
Unlearning may be difficult, as we have a biological predisposition to act in ways that confirm our initial biases. Recognizing these tendencies, normalizing conversations around race and inequality and incorporating in-depth discussions and studies of the work of individuals who have repeatedly challenged these norms in history can all help overcome these biases.
Moreover, the value of unlearning is unlimited. Individuals will be more adaptive to situations, be less inhibited in diversifying their own experiences and will become more empathetic overall once they unlearn harmful constructs. This process recognizes that nothing is black and white, and that we should practice multidimensional recognition.
Unlearning is not a process that can be taught or learned — it comes from self-awareness. As a result, unlearning can be encouraged through diverse teaching materials and policies but must be reinforced and maintained individually. It must be encouraged, not forced.
Divya Gumudavelly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.