Is It Better to Know?

Being able to see what’s happening around us can help us make smart decisions. But knowledge — especially knowledge of how others perceive us — can also hold us back, mire us in needless worry, and keep us from achieving our potential. This week, we look at the paradox of knowledge. 

Additional Resources

Napier, Jaime L., et al. “Denial of Gender Discrimination Is Associated with Better Subjective Well‐Being among Women: A System Justification Account.” Wiley Online Library, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, 6 Sept. 2020.

Napier, Jaime, et al. “The Palliative Effects of System Justification on the Health and Happiness of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender IndividualsSAGE Journals, 24 July 2018.

Napier, Jaime, et al. “Predictors of Attitudes Toward Gay Men and Lesbian Women in 23 Countries.” ResearchGate, Dec. 2019.

Smith, Clint. “How to Raise a Black Son in America.” TED, TED, 2015.

The transcript below may be for an earlier version of this episode. Our transcripts are provided by various partners and may contain errors or deviate slightly from the audio.

Shankar Vedantam: This is Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam. Thai Nguyen when was living in Virginia when he heard some news: halfway around the world in Australia, people on social media were saying awful things about his parents.

Thai Nguyen: So, I'm sitting there on the computer just reading through all of these horrible comments, "You stupid f-ing Asians," and racially laced comments about boycotting their shop.

Shankar Vedantam: Thai's parents owned takeaway fast food shop near Brisbane. The outcry on social media had grown out of what Thai says was a misunderstanding with a customer.

Thai Nguyen: Somehow one of the largest Australian publications picked up on the story, and it just created this absolute storm of negativity on social media.

Australian woman's voice: These dirtbags need to be named and shamed.

Thai Nguyen: Their business page on Google just got bombed with all of these negative reviews.

Australian woman's voice: They are self-absorbed snobs with no respect.

Thai Nguyen: And it caught on... It went viral.

Shankar Vedantam: Feeling sick with anger and worry, Thai called his mom. He expected she was going to be devastated.

Thai Nguyen: And she responded, "No, things are fine, really. I saw the article in the newspaper, but really wasn't able to understand all of it."

Shankar Vedantam: Thai's parents were not native English speakers. They were also not on social media. They didn't know what was happening online. They just kept running their business as they always did.

Thai Nguyen: I think of that saying, "Ignorance is bliss," and usually that's used in a derogative sense, but I think it can be applied in a positive sense, having seen what my parents have gone through, that ignorance is bliss in the sense that it enabled them to really move forward in a way that knowledge would have held them back.

Shankar Vedantam: Thai realized that there were other times ignorance had helped his parents. They had fled Vietnam as refugees without fully exploring all the what-ifs.

Thai Nguyen: I think, had they been fully aware of the number of folks who died trying to escape the country, I think more likely than not would have stayed in Vietnam.

Shankar Vedantam: Being able to clearly see what's happening around us can save our lives, keep us from danger, help us make smart decisions. But knowledge, especially knowledge of how others perceive us, can also sometimes hold us back and keep us from achieving our potential. The paradox of knowledge, this week on Hidden Brain.

Shankar Vedantam: Madinah Slaise first picked up a basketball when she was four.

Madinah Slaise: I saw this thing bouncing, and I was just enamored with the way it looked, with the way it made me feel. And ever since then, my hand was connected to the basketball.

Shankar Vedantam: Basketball felt like an extension of herself, and in elementary school, Madinah got super excited when she found out that the school was going to have a girls basketball team.

Madinah Slaise: This is a really exciting event for us. Finally, we have a place to play as girls. And I talked to my teacher that morning, and she just brushed it away.

Shankar Vedantam: Madinah could have internalized her teacher's attitude, but she shrugged it off. She told herself, "If the teacher doesn't get it, that's her loss." Her feelings about basketball were unchanged, and Madinah made the team. Soon, local newspapers were taking notice of her team's success. But some years later, Madinah encountered another challenge to her love for the sport. She was around 12 and her team got a new coach.

Madinah Slaise: She was a college player from the local university, and she was also a white woman. None of us thought anything about that. We were just 12 year old kids, super excited to just learn how to be good players. And the first thing she said when she saw me was, "It looks like your finger was stuck in an electrical outlet the way your hair looks."

Shankar Vedantam: Madinah, who is Black, was stunned. What did her hair have to do with basketball?

Madinah Slaise: Everyone kind of chuckled, and I didn't know what a microaggression was. The only thing I knew was that it hurt, and I didn't laugh, I didn't give into it. And soon after, I lost my starting position, and I learned that I had to be way better than everyone else in order to earn my spot.

Shankar Vedantam: If Madinah had been able to understand the coach's comments at the time, she might've told herself, "This is discrimination. The hell with this coach and the hell with basketball." But she didn't do that. She was so passionate, so natively passionate, that the obstacles only served as fuel. If she had to be twice as good as the next player to earn a spot on the team, then she would be twice as good. She practiced so hard and got so skilled, it became impossible to cut her.

Madinah Slaise: I loved basketball. I had a passion for it. I wanted to be the best player in the world. It was innocent. Yeah, these things happen. Yeah, these people are unfair, but I love it. And that just helps me get better. So, everything is perfect.

Shankar Vedantam: Madinah and her team often traveled around the region to compete. Sometimes before one of these road trips, Madinah's mother would remind her of what it meant to be a young Black girl in mostly White, rural Ohio.

Madinah Slaise: My mom would say, "Madinah, be careful. You're traveling to these rural areas. There aren't going to be a lot of Black people. The people in these areas don't come in contact with a lot of Black people. Don't go anywhere by yourself. Just be mindful of the environment that you're in."

Shankar Vedantam: Young Madinah rolled her eyes. Couldn't her mom see that these road games were about something far more important than race? They were about basketball.

Madinah Slaise: As a 12 year old kid, I'm thinking, "Nobody's thinking about these other things. We're just here to win. We're going to beat them by 10 points." And I would say, "Mom, everything's going to be fine. I'm more excited about these new shoes that I have." And I was completely oblivious, completely oblivious.

Shankar Vedantam: Madinah noticed that when she played road games in these small towns, people sometimes reacted strangely to her.

Madinah Slaise: When I would go into the bathrooms, and people would stop what they were doing, look at me, enter the stall, come out of the stall. They wouldn't flat out come out and call me a name but-

Shankar Vedantam: But Madinah knew that something was going through their heads. In her 12 year old sports obsessed mind, she thought she knew what it was. These strangers were petrified about her basketball skills. They knew she was about to destroy their team on the court.

Madinah Slaise: I almost felt as though that was a good thing. I'm in your head. You're thinking about me. You should be studying for the game right now, and instead, you're preoccupied with what I'm doing. So, yay, that's awesome.

Shankar Vedantam: When they stepped on the court, Madinah felt vindicated.

Madinah Slaise: It fueled my competition, my competitive spirit, and I mean doused gasoline directly onto it. I was on fire to just be the best, uncontested. I wanted it to look like child's play.

Shankar Vedantam: Madinah became good enough to get recruited to the University of Cincinnati. It was everything she imagined it would be.

Madinah Slaise: It was just an amazing sisterhood. From amazing coaches, to a university that really stood behind their athletics.

Shankar Vedantam: Plus, the team had talent. They won a lot of games.

Madinah Slaise: One of the players, Amber Stocks, she went on to coach in the WNBA. On that team alone, the coach is a Hall of Fame basketball player, Doris Scott is a Hall of Fame basketball player, I'm a Hall of Fame basketball player.

Shankar Vedantam: That's right. Madinah Slaise is in her university's basketball Hall of Fame. She was that good.

Madinah Slaise: I played shooting guard, and I ended my career in the second all time leading scorer at the university. I was the first woman to be drafted from the university into the WNBA.

Shankar Vedantam: She was drafted by the Detroit Shock.

Detroit Shock Promotional Commercial: Detroit Shock, we got one team, one goal. What are you going to do this year? Bring it!

Madinah Slaise: So, I packed up all my stuff and started my adult life.

Shankar Vedantam: Madinah's childhood dream wasn't a dream any longer. She had become a legitimate basketball star. Many people who love a sport as much as Madinah would find it hard to turn to something else, but after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, she enlisted in the military and rose through the ranks. Over the years, as she gained more professional experience and worked with more and more people, she started to see the world in a different light. She thought back to pivotal moments from her childhood, moments like those awkward interactions in the bathroom during travel basketball games. Those interactions were no longer easy to brush off.

Madinah Slaise: These people didn't like me when I was a kid. These people weren't just afraid that I was much better than the competition. It was because I was Black. It was probably because I was the only Black person that this person has seen in their entire life. These people saw me as nothing.

Shankar Vedantam: Madinah began to wonder how much of her life had been touched by people who saw her as inferior? And then she asked herself a disturbing question, had her childhood naivety been a good thing or a bad thing?

Madinah Slaise: There are times where I feel as though naiveté kept me safe. There are also times where I felt as though I was extremely vulnerable as a result.

Shankar Vedantam: As a child, Madinah's innocence provided her endless joy in basketball. Just as Thai Nguyen's parents could focus on their shop, because they didn't know about the social media controversy, Madinah was spared the knowledge that others saw her as inferior. But her naiveté also meant she was unprepared when discrimination reared its head. Madinah has asked herself whether she would have stuck with basketball if she had been less naive, if she had recognized discrimination for what it was, as prejudice... Would she have stayed on her middle school team if she had really understood her coach's comment about her hair? Would she have stopped playing in regional tournaments if she understood why strangers stared at her as if she was from another planet? And if she had quit those foundational opportunities, would she have made it to her university's Hall of Fame? The WNBA?

Madinah Slaise: I don't know if knowing would have hindered my future progression or if it would have propelled it, but I know for certain that I would not have been operating from a place of passion with basketball or just energy. It would have been a place of vengeance.

Shankar Vedantam: Madinah reflected back to her upbringing. She realized her mom's way of dealing with prejudice was to overcome disadvantage by simply ignoring it.

Madinah Slaise: I believe that she was trying to prepare me for experiences that she knew would occur as a Black woman living in society. I believe that she wanted to set accountability very early. And even though she knew that the chips would be stacked against me or that I would have to work multiple times harder than my peers, I also feel as though she prescribed to the notion that if it was meant to be, I had to seize the reins of this thing and put the most, the best effort that I had possible into it. I couldn't blame the referees. I had to say, "I have to be that much better so that the referees don't even come into play." I couldn't blame my teachers. I had to be that much better. It had to be irrefutable.

Shankar Vedantam: Would she have been better off if her mother had pursued a different philosophy, if she had sat Madinah down and explained about what might lie ahead?

Madinah Slaise: There's no doubt about it, I was completely in the dark, and I didn't realize how blinding that darkness was until much, much later.

Shankar Vedantam: When I spoke to her, Madinah told me she was now about the same age her mother had been when Madinah was a small child. She's asked herself what she would have done if she had been in her mother's shoes, how would she have raised Madinah?

Madinah Slaise: In hindsight, I believe that I was not equipped to handle that at 12- years-old. How do you tell a child, "This is something you're going to have to fight for the rest of your life, regardless how good you are"? It crushed me as an adult when I finally understood what it was occurring throughout my entire life.

Shankar Vedantam: When we come back, why individuals and even entire nations can sometimes see the world through rose-colored glasses, plus what we gain and what we lose when we ignore discrimination. You're listening to Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam.

Shankar Vedantam: This is Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam. When Madinah Slaise was growing up, she saw examples of unfairness, but not the big picture. She could tell that boys who wanted to play basketball had an easier time doing it than girls. She noticed that people in predominantly White towns looked at her strangely. She recognized that she was sometimes held to a different standard than her peers. But Madinah always came up with alternate frameworks to explain what she saw and what she heard. If anything, obstacles prompted her to work harder. She allowed nothing to diminish her passion for basketball. But later in life, as an adult, this naiveté became dangerous. Madinah's story raises questions about the double-edged sword of knowledge when it comes to discrimination and prejudice. Knowing the ways of the world can help keep you safe, but it can also sometimes hinder you. When is knowledge useful, and when is it not?

Shankar Vedantam: Jaime Napier didn't feel she experienced discrimination when she was in college.

Jaime Napier: I was a math major in college. I had worked in computer programming, and I thought that I was treated like one of the team and completely fair.

Shankar Vedantam: When Jaime became a professor, she noticed her female students felt exactly the way she had felt in college.

Jaime Napier: They thought gender bias was completely uninteresting. It wasn't a problem anymore. It was never going to happen to them.

Shankar Vedantam: Jaime is now a psychologist at New York University in Abu Dhabi. She studies how and why people arrive at their conclusions about discrimination and how these conclusions affect their wellbeing. She has analyzed survey results from about 20,000 people across 23 countries. She's compared objective measures of gender discrimination in each country, with the extent to which people in those countries believe that there is gender discrimination.

Jaime Napier: People responded on a scale from not at all a problem, to a very bad problem.

Shankar Vedantam: You might expect that in countries where objective measures pointed to greater sexism, people in those countries would say sexism was a real problem.

Jaime Napier: And it's completely the opposite. It's absolutely the inverse. The more gender inequality in a country, the more people in that country are likely to say that gender inequality is not a problem.

Shankar Vedantam: In other words, people in Russia were more likely to think that country was a bastion of gender equality while people in Sweden felt their nation was rife with sexism.

Jaime Napier: When the opposite is true, as we know from more objective indices.

Shankar Vedantam: In the World Economic Forum's 2020 report on the global gender gap, Sweden was ranked the fourth most gender equal country in the world. Russia was ranked 81st. There's a puzzle here. Why would people believe something that isn't true? Now, one explanation is straightforward. If you're a white person in a racist country, denying racism can allow you to avoid making changes to a system that works for you. If you're a man denying sexism conveniently allows you to perpetuate patriarchal attitudes. But the interesting thing Jaime found is that in many countries, some of the people denying prejudice were those on the receiving end of it.

Jaime Napier: Why would women deny gender discrimination? Why would they say gender discrimination's not a problem? And what we found is that it correlates with people's subjective wellbeing, so their feelings of happiness, their feelings of life satisfaction. The more women think that gender discrimination is not a problem anymore, the overall the happier they are and the more satisfied with their lives they are. And we found that was especially true in places where gender inequality is a really big problem.

Shankar Vedantam: Jaime has looked at other groups in other contexts. In one series of studies, conducted before recent changes to US laws that used to discriminate against gay and lesbian people, Jaime looked at the perceptions LGBTQ people had about discrimination.

Jaime Napier: It seemed impossible that a person who identified as a gay man or lesbian woman would say, "Discrimination against my group is not a problem." But what we found is there was substantial amount of variance in how people answer that question. There were a lot of people saying, "No, it's not that bad."

Shankar Vedantam: Exactly as she had found with women in Russia who didn't think sexism was a problem, Jaime found that plenty of gay and lesbian Americans did not think homophobia was a big problem. And these people did better on various measures of subjective well being.

Jaime Napier: They found that those people were also reporting better subjective wellbeing and, in that case, actually better physical health.

Shankar Vedantam: Now, it's possible that members of disadvantaged groups who don't believe there is discrimination may have just gotten lucky. They might not have faced discrimination themselves. But Jaime tested that possibility.

Jaime Napier: You're happier and healthier, regardless of whether or not you've experienced discrimination yourself. In some cases, it was actually even more strong among people who had personally been discriminated against, they were happier and healthier than their counterparts who acknowledged the discrimination against the group was an issue.

Shankar Vedantam: If you've been victimized by an unfair world, it might seem odd that you can't see the unfairness, but Jaime says there could be a reason for that.

Jaime Napier: It's a way for members of disadvantaged groups to legitimize the system, see the world as fair without having to internalize the inequality.

Shankar Vedantam: When Madinah came up with innocent explanations for bias directed at her, when Thai's parents were unaware of the ethnic slurs directed at them, they were spared from suffering. The same thing happens even if you are not a child or don't understand slurs in an unfamiliar language. Anyone on the receiving end of prejudice can derive comfort by looking away. This idea is part of a provocative theory in psychology that's known as "System justification theory."

Jaime Napier: So, system justification theory basically proposes that people are motivated to varying degrees, depending on the situation and maybe their own disposition, to see the system that they live under as fair and legitimate. Because seeing the alternative is really kind of taxing and distressing.

Shankar Vedantam: Think about how devastated Thai was when he read online comments about his parents that were laced with ethnic slurs. He understood what the comments were saying, and it hurt. System justification theory is not just about how victims can find it easier to look away from prejudice. Even if you are not directly harmed, it can be psychologically taxing to observe unfairness in the world. That's because it's hard to see unfairness and not ask the question, "What should I be doing about it?"

Jaime Napier: When you see problems with the current system, it makes you need to act on those. So, this idea of wanting to see the world as fair, that people get what they deserve and deserve what they get, and that makes us feel better about things. And so, there's this unconscious drive to perceive the system as fair.

Shankar Vedantam: So, in other words, if I pass a homeless person on the street, if I tell myself, "I am responsible for this homeless person," it puts me in a difficult spot because it asks me how much am I willing to help this homeless person. But if I tell myself, "Well, this homeless person is there because they made bad choices, and if they had only made better choices, they wouldn't be in the situation they're in," in some ways it allows me to wash my hands.

Jaime Napier: Yeah. I mean, that's actually a perfect example. And we actually have work from our research team that has shown that people who are high on system justification, so we have a scale that measures it, actually show less physiological reaction when you show them clips of homeless people.

Shankar Vedantam: If we can turn a blind eye to injustice or, better yet, if we can tell ourselves a story that the injustice is not injustice at all, we can feel better about the world. Our stories about the world, in other words, can serve as an unconscious defense mechanism. This is true not just for people who are victimized by the system, it can be true for people who benefit from it, as well.

Jaime Napier: So, when you see inequality, you want to come up with an explanation for that that makes that inequality seem legitimate. Okay, maybe women don't like to work in science. It's not the system. It's not a system level bias.

Shankar Vedantam: Now, to be clear, this does not mean that just because you can't see prejudice in a given situation that you're involved in system justification. It's entirely possible that in a particular situation, prejudice might not be the best explanation. But Jaime told me there tends to be a pattern in the way people come up with system justifying views.

Jaime Napier: A system justifying response that you see very often is people really harping on that one example that legitimates their worldview. Right? So, if they know of a homeless person who did make some terrible life choices or was a terrible person, that example will come up a lot and they'll remember that example much more, and they'll tend to misremember other examples that don't conform to that worldview.

Shankar Vedantam: The incident Madinah experienced in the bathroom gives us a snapshot of how discrimination and our perceptions of discrimination can shape our wellbeing. What would it have felt like for Madinah to recognize that the people staring at her saw her as inferior? I put the question to Jaime.

Jaime Napier: If she would have made the connection that they were looking at her because she was Black, it would have affected her performance, it would have been distressing, so it ended up not only saving her mental health in the moment, but probably also her behavior, performance, and all of that.

Shankar Vedantam: As you can see, there is a tension here between what works for us as individuals and what works for us as a society. Individuals who look unflinchingly at the failings of their societies can pay a terrible personal price. You are spared that if you look away, but looking away is not cost-free. When lots of people look away, prejudice festers.

Jaime Napier: One of the things that we tend to find are what might be good for the individual is probably not good for societies, so if you think that gender discrimination is not a problem, you're not going to engage in collective action, you're not going to be attuned to helping your other female colleagues, that kind of thing, and it's going to allow the gender inequality to perpetuate.

Shankar Vedantam: At the same time, it's hard to be critical of some of the individuals who are living in an authoritarian country with very few options to change the system and asking someone to hold views that reveal to them on a regular basis how unfair the system is, how vulnerable they are. You can also see from an individual's point of view why that would be really painful and difficult to do.

Jaime Napier: That's absolutely true, and so, yeah, there is an adaptive function to this, for sure. But not everyone lives in authoritarian regimes, and we find these effects within the United States. Women in the US are much more likely to deny gender discrimination than you would see compared to other disadvantaged groups denying discrimination against their own groups.

Shankar Vedantam: If being clear-eyed about the world produces hurt and disappointment, does this mean we're asking people to choose between personal/mental wellbeing and societal well being?

Jaime Napier: It's such a hard question. Obviously, we don't want anyone to be unhappy or distressed, but at the same time, the first step in fighting inequality is to recognize it.

Shankar Vedantam: It's important to take seriously both ends of this equation. It's not enough to say people should choose the hard path because that's good for society. Sometimes when you're exhausted and overwhelmed, you don't feel like fighting, you want to throw up your hands and throw in the towel.

Jaime Napier: And it's not that we want people to walk around all the time, seeing all the problems in the world, because that's not going to help either. We need people to feel motivated enough to fight inequality. So, when you think about things like the Me Too Movement, I mean, these women recognize that they were treated unfairly, but they also had the strength and the belief in themselves and the confidence to be like, "Well, that wasn't right," and to fight it. I'm sure that their subjective well being took a hit while they were having to go through that process, but what you can hope is that to the extent that they have success, that they can regain that self-esteem because they are restoring justice in the right way, not by denying the injustice, but actually by making things more fair in reality.

Shankar Vedantam: When we come back, is there a way to get the benefits of knowledge while minimizing its costs? You're listening to Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam

Shankar Vedantam: This is Hidden Brain. I'm Shankar Vedantam. Psychologist Jaime Napier has found that people who experienced discrimination can personally benefit from putting on blinders. You can feel better about the world and how the world treats you if you ignore the hurtful things the world does to you. But what happens when prejudice is so blatant, so obvious, and so common that looking away is not an option?

Shankar Vedantam: Clint Smith, a poet and staff writer at The Atlantic, struggled with this very question. Clint is Black. In 2015, he decided to write a letter to his son.

Clint Smith: Son, I want to tell you how difficult it is to tell someone they're both beautiful and endangered, so worthy of life yet so despised for living. I do not intend to scare you.

Shankar Vedantam: Clint did not have a son. He was writing this letter to the child he imagined he would have one day.

Clint Smith: My father, your grandfather taught me how to follow a certain set of rules before I even knew their purpose. He told me that these rules would not apply to everyone, that they would not even apply it to all my own friends, but they were rules to abide by it nonetheless.

Shankar Vedantam: Clint felt the need to tell his future son what it would be like to grow up as a Black boy in the United States.

Clint Smith: My hope is that it would instill with him a sense of how the world might see him, but also to remind him that he should not, in his interior, feel defined by that, or should not feel predetermined by that.

Shankar Vedantam: Clint was not always someone who would write a letter like this. In fact, if anything, he had things in common with the people Jaime Napier has studied, the people who see prejudice and want to look away. Clint's understanding of how race affected his life involved a complex journey. Before he wrote the letter, Clint had been a high school English teacher in Maryland. Most of the students lived in poor communities, most were Black or brown. Clint had a clear vision of what he wanted the kids to get out of the classroom.

Clint Smith: I had this sense that I was going to make my classroom a sanctuary and a sort of island that was protected from so much of what my students experienced outside of the classroom. It didn't matter what was going on at home, it didn't matter what was going on outside of these four walls, my classroom could be a place where we would lose ourselves in literature, where we wouldn't have to think about the difficulties we were experiencing at home or the violence that might be taking place on the streets, or the lack of job opportunities that may exist in the community, or whatever the case may be. My hope was that, as literature has done for me, and as it does for so many, that it can transport us to a place where it gives us a sense of escape.

Shankar Vedantam: A sense of escape. Clint was drawn to books that allowed his students to leave their everyday difficulties behind, to look away from their lives.

Clint Smith: A lot of what I tried to bring into my classroom were fantasy books, or books around magical realism, or books that quite literally would take you out of this world that were about people who were from different or alternative realities, with Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Walt Whitman. I think I sort of was running away from any type of writing or reading or discussion that might connect too, specifically, to the incidents that my young students were experiencing outside of the classroom.

Shankar Vedantam: Often, these attempts fell short. There was so much going on in the lives of the students that trying to keep them focused on Walt Whitman was like trying to keep dry in the middle of a hurricane. Finally, at one point, it no longer became possible to keep the outside world at bay.

Clint Smith: There was a drive-by shooting in which one of our students was killed. And I remember the next day, our students came to school and people were distressed and distraught and overwhelmed with sadness at the loss of this young man's life. But there was also, with some students, this sense of that this was a thing that they expected to happen in some ways. And I remember talking to one of my students and them saying, "Mr. Smith, this is just how it is here. This is just what Black people do." And this was a young Black student who was saying this. And I remember feeling so devastated and heartbroken by that because this young person had apparently been told that the reason there is a 16 or 17-year-old kid would be shot on their front porch, or the reason that the communities they live in are saturated with poverty, that is somehow a reflection of Black people, rather than things that have been done to Black people to create those social conditions.

Shankar Vedantam: And what did you tell the student when he said this is just the way things are? How did you respond?

Clint Smith: In that moment, I don't think I responded in the way that I would've wanted to. In that moment I think I just said, "That's not true," and I think I said, "It's time to get to class," because the bell was ringing. And I wish now that I spent more time, that I'd said, "It's okay for me to be a few minutes late to class. It's okay for him to be a few minutes late to class. We need to really unpack this."

Shankar Vedantam: In the aftermath of this conversation, Clint questioned his entire philosophy of teaching.

Clint Smith: I think I recognized in many ways in that moment that was doing a disservice to my students. An hour and a half in my classroom each day is not going to somehow erase the experiences they have when they go home. And this is not to say that my students' lives were saturated in an unending spiral of trauma. But it is to say that many of them did experience trauma and violence and poverty. So, what that moment did was helped me realize that I could no longer pretend as if the things happening outside of school didn't matter inside of school.

Shankar Vedantam: Clint had experiences growing up that mirrored that of his own students, and like his students, he found he did not possess a vocabulary to respond when white friends brought up issues such as Black on Black violence.

Clint Smith: I didn't have the toolkit to pull from in the way that I do now. I couldn't then say, "Per the latest FBI Bureau of Justice statistics, more than 80% of White people were killed by other White people, but no one ever is out here talking about White on White crime." Right? Because part of what we know is the nature of housing segregation in communities across the United States over the course of several decades have made it so that people of certain demographics live in proximity to people in that same demographic. I didn't know how to talk about the fact that Black people protest against intra-community violence within our community all of the time. Church groups are doing this work. There are Stop the Violence marches in every city across the country.

Shankar Vedantam: Clint's high school students experienced something similar. They were well aware of the stereotypes against people like them, but didn't have the information they needed to push back against stereotypes. Clint decided to change this.

Clint Smith: I think about how important it is to give young people the language so that they are not feeling a sense of paralysis, a sort of emotional paralysis in the way that I felt.

Shankar Vedantam: He decided to come up with an intellectual toolkit. Clint had used the same toolkit while volunteering in a Washington DC jail. One of his students there had read the book, The Color of the Law. The book follows the history of housing segregation in the United States.

Clint Smith: And how it has impacted Black people, and also how it has created intergenerational white wealth in ways that are reflective not of anyone's hard work, but instead are reflective of opportunities that were given to white Americans that simply were not given to Black Americans, whether it be through the GI Bill, the different facets of the New Deal, or other ways in the early 20th century. I remember us having a conversation about it before class. I remember him saying, "Nobody ever taught me this. Nobody ever told me anything about this."

Shankar Vedantam: The book transformed the way the young man understood his community and why someone like him had ended up in jail.

Clint Smith: It's not to absolve him of what he did. It's not to say that he doesn't have free will or agency over the sorts of decisions that he makes, but it is to help him and to help us better understand the context in which freewill and agency are able to manifest themselves. And to better understand that "I didn't find myself entangled in crime simply because I'm a bad person. I had found myself entangled in this world because I was born into a community that for decades had been plundered and decimated by decisions that my municipal, state, and federal government had been making, and that that is part of the reason why my neighborhood and my community and my city look the way that they do." That book was transformative for him. It was transformative for him in understanding his community, and it was also transformative for him in understanding himself and his relationship to the world.

Shankar Vedantam: Clint told me he struggled with the double-edged sword of knowledge. When I spoke with him, we talked about the viral video that set off nationwide protests in 2020.

Sounds of protesters chanting: I can't breath. I can't breathe. I can't breathe.

Shankar Vedantam: The murder of George Floyd.

Clint Smith: I mean, I still haven't watched the George Floyd recording all these months later. I don't know how beneficial it would be for me to watch another person be killed on camera. I've seen it happen so many times, I don't think that watching it happen would do anything other than cause me to fall into a spiral of despair.

Shankar Vedantam: I'm so struck by what you're saying because, of course, this seems completely understandable to me that at a certain point, you just feel, "I can't take anymore, and just listening to it or watching it is going to prompt me to despair and, in fact, to inaction." I want to talk about what this is between these two kinds of knowledge. You go to a prison and you tell people in prison, "I want to give you a new understanding of why it is you're in prison. You're not just in prison because of what you did and the fact that the cops caught you and you had a trial and you ended up here," but it's, in fact, a deeper, larger story. And understanding that deeper, larger story, that history, that structure, that context feels empowering. It feels empowering as I'm hearing you tell the story, to say, "Yes, it helps me understand the bigger picture of why it is that I'm here, and maybe there's something I can do about the larger story." And then you have this other kind of knowledge, which is also knowledge, which it says, "Let me watch how George Floyd was killed. Let me watch the next video and the next video and the next video." And each of them is a piece of knowledge, but collectively, the effect that it has on you is not empowering but, in fact, the opposite. Why do you think that is, that the same thing, knowing something, can produce these effects that are so diametrically opposing to one another?

Clint Smith: My initial sense is that there's a threshold, if you will, a sort of emotional and psychological threshold that once you cross, it is not helpful, and in many ways, it is unhelpful to continue to expose yourself to images of violence that feel so profoundly intimate. That feel as if they could be you, that feel as if you might be watching yourself or your son or your daughter or your friend or the people you love. It's a sort of emotional over-saturation, and that over-saturation can turn into a sort of paralysis. That is something that's very different than the intellectual toolkit that one can obtain from reading history, from reading policy, from reading sociology, from reading the stories of those who have experienced these things. And to be clear, there can also be a sort of over-saturation with that. If the only thing that one ever reads is all of the different ways that America and the world have oppressed Black people, that too can reach a point of over-saturation, that too can destabilize you. As much as I read about incarceration, about slavery, as much as I read about Jim Crow, it is also important for me to watch Netflix shows of Black people who are dancing and who are singing and who are following dreams of becoming a superhero. Right? All of those are important because if you only ever consume the despair, then you are more likely to embody and feel that sense of despair rather than the fullness of what it means to be human.

Shankar Vedantam: I'm also wondering, Clint, as you're talking, let me run an idea by you. Is part of the distinction about the difference between the what and the why? It's obviously important to know about the what. It's important to know what happened. It's important to know what happened to George Floyd. It's important to know what's happening in the news with the Breonna Taylor case. But it's also the case that at a certain point, the what actually becomes so repetitive that it actually is not opening our minds, it actually has this effect of accretion where it just feels like you're being buried under this pile of stones. But the why, when I hear you tell the story about what you did in the classroom, or what you did in the prison, to me that knowledge is less about the what and it's more about the why. Is it possible that there's a difference between those two things?

Clint Smith: Absolutely. No, I think that that is a huge part of it. It's just so important, and it's so essential because you can no longer think of yourself as a static human being, that who you are is who you will always be, in that who you are was who you were destined to be because of what you look like, or because of the community you were born into. And you're able to contextualize it for yourself in a way that, again, I just think is really liberating and has the potential to be emancipatory and transformative for how a person sees themselves in the world and moves throughout it.

Shankar Vedantam: Too often, we confuse knowledge with information. It's certainly important to know what has happened, to learn facts. But on their own, facts can sometimes deaden us or leave us feeling hopeless. Far from motivating us to change, they can spur us toward inaction. The news media often shows us the what without explaining the why. As we watch video after disturbing video, or scroll past tweet after disturbing tweet, we might think we are educating ourselves, but all too often, we are really just painting ourselves into a corner of despair. Clint's letter to his son made clear that the point of knowledge is action, transformation.

Clint Smith: Do not for a moment think you cannot change what exists. This world is a social construction. It can be reconstructed. This world was built, it can be rebuilt. Use everything that you accrue to reimagine the world.

Shankar Vedantam: Hidden Brain is produced by Hidden Brain Media. Our audio production team includes Bridget McCarthy, Laura Kwerel, Autumn Barnes, Ryan Katz, Kristin Wong, and Andrew Chadwick. Tara Boyle is our executive producer. I'm Hidden Brain's executive editor. Special thanks this week to former Hidden Brain producer, Rhaina Cohen, who played an important role in today's show. We also want to thank the NPR library for their research support and the WNBA for providing us with archival footage. Our unsung hero today is Alison Craiglow, the executive producer of the Freakonomics Radio Network. Alison has been a vital partner in the launch of our new production company, offering insights on everything from podcast advertising to hiring. Alison, we know how precious your time is. Thank you for being so generous with your advice and your help. For more Hidden Brain, you can subscribe to our newsletter at news.hiddenbrain.org. If you'd like to support our show, please go to hiddenbrain.org and click on support. I'm Shankar Vedantam. See you next week.

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