Of Cognitive Dissonance and Anti-Racism

Sharing key insights from a recent event

Hello friends,

Here’s something a bit different. I recently took part in a LinkedIn audio event (hosted by Asmara Kazmi) about cognitive dissonance. Of course, I talked about the topic in relation to anti-racism. Here are some of the issues we discussed:

Cognitive dissonance and skin colour

First, Asmara quoted a story from my book I’m Tired of Racism, where I talked about the cognitive dissonance brought about by pink plasters. I shared the following:

“I was born in England, but I grew up in the Caribbean. And I remember that when you had to go and get a Band Aid, the colour that was marked as “skin” did not look like my skin. That was an experience that I continued to have throughout my life. As a young kid, I did not have the terminology to describe that as cognitive dissonance. But there was something jarring in the realisation that the skin in which I moved through the world was not seen as skin by the people that were producing these products… it's very odd, that realisation that who you are is not seen as part of the norm. .. and I'm sure I'm not the only one that this has happened to.”

Who’s allowed to take up space?

“I remember in one of our ARLA sessions, we talked about the concept of taking up space as a Black person… Let me bring it down to my own experience. I am 5 foot 10. I am dark skinned. You would think that I would be visible, but the number of spaces in which white folks barge past me as if I don't exist is really quite amazing. And so it's, again, that thing is like you're visible, but you're not seen at the same time.

And so I was relating this experience to people within a facilitation space, and you could almost see the wheels turning, because this was something they had never had to think about. This idea of who takes up space, who stands their ground, who moves aside? Right, and that was definitely a very powerful moment of cognitive dissonance that made people decide, okay, I'm going to make an effort to be aware of this, to be aware of my complicity in this, to try to change how I show up and the space that I create for others to take up space.”

Negative responses to cognitive dissonance in anti-racism work

“Some [white] people are so upset by the idea that they may not be able to steam through the world doing exactly as they please with no consequences at all, even if they are doing harm to deliberately disadvantaged or minoritized people, that they cannot cope with any opinion that runs counter to this and they lash out. And that is something that I think people do when experiencing cognitive dissonance.”

On cognitive dissonance as a catalyst for change

“I'm actually relating that to anti-racism work again. Because there are some people that believe that if they're not doing it, so called "right" or they make a mistake, then it's time to back away altogether. Because of that moment of cognitive dissonance, this idea that they're not who they thought they were, whereas my attitude is, do something rather than nothing. Accept that you might occasionally get it wrong. When you do get it wrong, apologise, repair the harm, and keep going because it's something that we have to keep working on. And so we can use those moments of cognitive dissonance as catalysts for growing our awareness and moving to act in a different way.”

On thinking differently

“I'm glad you mentioned you mentioned the Black Paper that Mission Equality put out because one of the things that we say in there is the question that we often ask inside Mission Equality is what if: what if we did it differently? And, you know, moments of cognitive dissonance, I think invite us to think differently about everything, about all the systems and processes that we're enmeshed in, and think about how we could make things different or better or change them. You know, I think it's an invitation. I think it's an opportunity.”

On self-awareness and growth

“I've had many, many moments. of cognitive dissonance in this work. One of the earliest ones was when someone referred to me as an activist and I was there just doing my thing, you know, I was there writing my articles and putting out my newsletter and I thought, wait, wait, wait, is that who I am? …

And then you think, okay, here's the work that I'm doing. Here's, here's how I think about these things. So okay, I accept that as another another aspect of who Sharon is… but also in in writing the newsletter, in writing the book, in doing the work at Mission Equality, there are many moments when you think, okay, what does this experience mean? How can it how can it be a catalyst for others? How can you transmute this experience that was that was painful and difficult into something that creates positive action?”

It was truly a rich conversation, and I’m grateful to Asmara for hosting the space. Be sure to follow her and check out the rest of this series, and look out for another event based on a topic raised by one of the audience members. If you want to hear more, the full audio recording and transcript is available on Otter.

Thanks for reading,


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© Sharon Hurley Hall, 2023. All Rights Reserved.

Cover photo courtesy of Canva.

I am an anti-racism educator and activist, Co-Founder of Mission Equality the author of “I’m Tired of Racism”, and co-host of The Introvert Sisters podcast.

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