Speaking Human-First with Mary Knox Miller
EP 1.1 Robert Livingston
Using Metaphor to Combat Racism
Original Air Date
June 22, 2023
Social psychologist Robert Livingston has been studying the science underlying bias and racism for 20 years. But it’s his mastery of language that empowers and inspires.
Dr. Livingston wears many hats. He serves on the faculty of Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, teaching leaders in the public and private sectors how to lead more inclusive organizations. He is the award winning author of The Conversation: How Seeking and Speaking the Truth About Racism Can Radically Transform Individuals and Organizations. And he is a diversity consultant to Fortune 500 companies, public-sector agencies, and non-profit organizations.
But the road to recognition hasn’t come easy. Listen as Dr. Livingston offers hard-won lessons learned in becoming a public figure.
Listen to the full episode to hear:
How Dr. Livingston’s youth in a predominantly Black neighborhood shaped how he responded with intellectual curiosity to racism as a young adult
How the myth of a post-racial America has emerged and altered the dynamics of racism in the last 15 years
An introduction to Dr. Livingston’s P.R.E.S.S model to making profound and sustainable change
The psychological, structural, and historical underpinnings of inequality
How Dr. Livingston uses metaphor and storytelling to distill complex systemic issues into easier-to-understand concepts
Dolphins, ostriches, and sharks in the social landscape and why DEI efforts need to be tailored to each group
Learn more about Dr. Robert Livingston:
Learn more about Mary Knox Miller:
EP 1.1 Robert Livingston
Lecturer at Harvard University, Author of "The Conversation: How Seeking and Speaking the Truth About Racism Can Radically Transform Individuals and Organizations"
Mary Knox Miller:
I'm Mary Knox Miller, and this is Speaking Human-First, the show that explores the art and science of communicating world-changing ideas.
I first met Robert Livingston when he spoke about his research on racial bias, and his book, The Conversation: How Seeking And Speaking The Truth About Racism Can Radically Transform Individuals And Organizations. He waded through thorny, complex topics with ease and without judgment. He shared vibrant stories of growing up in a tight-knit black neighborhood in Kentucky, along with aha moments that he's witnessed as lecturer at Harvard University, and diversity consultant to Fortune 500 companies, public sector agencies and nonprofits.
By the end of the hour, we knew exactly where we fit along the spectrum of human responses to racism and what to aspire towards. I immediately got a copy of his book and lines jumped out at me. Lines like, "Although facts matter, sometimes beliefs matter more." And, "To summarize origins of racism in one word, it would be power. Not hatred, not color, not crime, not segregation."
I wanted to keep learning about this desire for power, and tools to counteract it. And I wanted to soak in hard one lessons that Dr. Livingston has learned in becoming a public figure. Dr. Livingston and I spoke in April of 2023, and we covered a lot of ground. I can't wait for you to hear our conversation, including his thought that, "It's not about how smart I sound, it's about how well the person reading it understands what I'm trying to say." Yeah, I'm going to remember that one. Enjoy.
Dr. Livingston, I'm honored you're here. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me.
Dr. Robert Livingston:
And thank you, Mary Knox, for inviting me.
Before we begin, I want to acknowledge that I am a white, cis able-bodied person who has benefited from many privileges. And as we enter this discussion, please don't hesitate if I misstep, and like so many who may be listening, I still have a lot to learn, but I am here for it. Does that sound good?
That sounds good to me.
All right, fantastic. So if it's okay with you, I'd like to start at the beginning. Where did this fire in your belly to understand the science underlying bias and racism come from?
So if we go way back, I think it comes from lived experience. I think I had a very unique experience growing up and in college. So I grew up in, I would say, an exclusively black, middle class neighborhood. That was a wonderful experience, because it sort of sheltered me in many important ways from virulent racism, because it was one of those, what we often call a village, where you have neighbors and extended family sort of assisting in raising children. So it was always this really safe place, and we had manicured lawns, and I'd ride my bike around and crime was insanely low. It was a really sort of almost utopian place, looking back on it, to grow up in.
And so once I got out into the world and went away for college, I saw that the perceptions that many white people had of black people did not vibe or reflect my own experience growing up, having seen both the achievement of black people, having seen the diversity within the black community, having seen all of this, and completely viewing black people as human, I was shocked, but amused and intrigued by all of these attitudes that I was hearing.
And I often describe it as a three-year-old telling you there's a dragon under the bed. It's somewhat amusing because there's no monster under the bed, but you sort of say, "So what does this monster look like? Is it green? Is it scaly? Does it breathe fire?" Because this is clearly the anxiety of a three-year- old that's creating this imaginative creature that they see as a threat that's lurking just under the bed.
And I kind of saw white perceptions in that same way. But I knew there was no monster under the bed, so I personally wasn't threatened by it. I was intrigued by it, and I wanted to understand it. So I think that kind of started my, let's call it intellectual curiosity, about the nature of racism, because it was something that was sort of intriguing to me, and I wanted to understand it, and I also wanted to do something about it. So there was both this intellectual side of it, and this practice as well.
And as you think about that little child who grew up to become this incredibly brilliant man who studies the science behind racism, and who studies the science behind bias, what do you say today that your work is in response to? What is it about how racism and racial inequity is currently being addressed that makes you stand up and say, "Hey, what if we thought about it instead?"
So I think there's two issues going on. And first, I've been doing this work for over two decades. So there's been a lot of sort of ebb and flow in society, and there have been a lot of dynamics, there's been a lot of events that have occurred over the last 25 years, so the nature of the study and what the field emphasizes at any given moment in time, and what society is focused on at any given moment in time changes. But one of the main issues that I see in, let's say, the last five to 10 years, is this sort of regression, if you will, this sort of backlash that I think began right before, or during the presidency of Barack Obama.
And I think the reason is, during Barack Obama's presidency, many people entertained this notion that we were somehow post-racial. That this election somehow signaled the death of racism in our country and the dawn of a new era, presumably an era of black dominance. So many white people thought the pendulum had swung in the complete opposite direction. And that does a lot of things, to sort of change the dynamics of racism. And so what I think I spend a lot more time on today that I didn't spend time on, let's say, 15, 20 years ago, is the first step of my model. So I have this model called PRESS, which is five steps towards making profound and sustainable change. And it's an acronym for each of the five steps, P-R-E-S-S.
Well, the first step is P, problem awareness. And I feel like we have to spend a lot of time just proving that racism is real in a way that people didn't have to do in the 1960s, in a way that people didn't even have to do in the 1990s, because there's so much of a denial of the existence of racism. And not only that, this sort of claim or conviction that it's really white people who are bearing the brunt of racial hostility these days.
And so you don't just go straight to the problem and say, "What can I do to fix it?" Which is strategy. You have to begin with the problem itself and say, "Is there a problem? What is it? How do we know that racism exists? And where does it come from?" Which is the second stage of my model, which is R, root cause analysis. So I spend a lot of time on problem awareness and root cause analysis and getting into systems. And you have to do that, because if you jump straight to strategy, and you create, let's say, diversity initiatives, and people don't believe that racism is a real thing, then they will see the initiatives as the problem. They will see the "solution" as being reverse racism, thereby creating this problem.
So I think this approach of starting with... And I always ask questions in a very intellectually curious way. So I don't go into the room and say, "Yes, there's a problem, and let me..." I ask, "Is there a problem? And how would we know? And what kind of research could we conduct to see if racism is a real thing?" Well, maybe we could take an identical resume and put the name Lakeisha on one and the name Emily on another, and send them out to hundreds or thousands of jobs, and see if the world responds differently to those.
Oh, well, wow. Emily is 50% more likely to get a job interview than Lakeisha. So maybe that's racism, or maybe not. Maybe it's just they don't like the name Lakeisha. So let's do another study where we send people out, we'll call them both Lisa, we'll send a black person out to apply for a job and a white person out to apply for a job. Oh, the white person is also preferred in that situation. And if you do studies like this a hundred times in a hundred different scenarios, then you very, very quickly begin to rule out alternative explanations for differential treatment between people of color and white people. So that's kind of how I approach the situation now.
So you've been steeped in this work for 20 years. That's a really long time to be exploring, questioning, researching, thinking, delivering, responding, as people respond to your work. At the root cause of all of this, why do you think it is so difficult for us to see each other as equals? And why does racial equity feel so far away?
Well, wow, that's a deep question, and it's a big question, and I could spend an hour or two answering that question, so I'll try to condense my response to two or three minutes. But simply put, I think it's based on psychological factors, just the way our brains work, that makes us not see each other as equals. And I think it's based on structural factors, which includes history, it includes economic, it includes political and social sort of large scale macro factors. So the simplest answer, going to structural first and then ending with psychological, is history and slavery and the fact that by law, black people were not accorded the same rights and the same dignity as white people on purpose.
So that sets the stage for centuries of inequality. It sets the stage for economic disparities both in income and in wealth. It sets the stage for unequal public education. It sets the stage for healthcare disparities. It sets the stage for vast differences in how people of color and white people are treated by the criminal justice system. There are whole documentaries on this, 13th by Ava DuVernay, for example, that talks about how the criminal justice system really picked up where slavery left off, due to a loophole in the 13th amendment that no person could be enslaved except as punishment for a crime.
So there's all of these factors that create these differences in outcomes, and in the situation of white people and people of color in society. But then there's also the way our brains work, and the way that we sort of navigate our world through a process of categorization. So whenever you come across a chair, you don't have to say, "What is this thing that I'm looking at?" You sort of know that it's a chair even if you haven't seen it before, because it's similar to other chairs that you've seen.
But in the social realm, that goes a step further, that people who are categorized in these artificial groups, so I should start off saying that, there's nothing inherent. So when I talk about these psychological factors, I'm not saying they're biological or innate, I'm saying people's perceptions of the world create these discreet categories that make people see things within the categories more similar than they are, and things in different categories as more different than they are. So we call this in-group out-group differences, or in-group bias, or out-group homogeneity effects, so there's lots of different terms for it, but that's what happens.
And I think all of these things together create the illusion of differences that don't really exist. There's also different levels of empathy between groups. So there's a lot that goes into perceptions of these differences, but I always say what's more important is behavior than perceptions. It doesn't matter as much what people think, what matters is what they do. So even if you can't help but see these things as being different, on a deeper level, you know that they're not different, and you have the power to not allow biases to affect your actual judgments, decisions and behaviors
Why is it, do you think, following up from what you just mentioned, why do we want to put each other in boxes? Why do we want to have the labels to easily categorize fellow human beings?
Well, the simple answer, and you use this term, it's easier. So you can more easily process information. And some people are all about efficiency. They don't want to expend the time, effort, energy, resources necessary, for any number of reasons. They may not care, they may not know how, they may not really have the habit of processing information more carefully, so it's easier. And there's a theory called the cognitive miser principle that sort of shows that when you use categories and when you use stereotypes, it actually saves cognitive energy and resources. So that's the sort of upside. The downside is it creates social injustice, because you've made these snap inferences.
And there's a great book about this by Daniel Kahneman called Thinking, Fast and Slow. This is an example of thinking fast, using categories. And so it's something that people do quite routinely, but we have to realize that it creates all sorts of problems as well. And for me, the problem comes in when people don't acknowledge it. Because it would be one thing for someone to say, "You know what? I use categories, I think very quickly, and therefore it leads to these unfair conclusions about group A versus group B," but that's not what people say. They say, "I'm fair. I'm not biased, I'm not racist, I don't do that." And so then we end up with this really sort of difficult situation of a crime with no criminal.
Thank you. That really helps me understand how you're looking at things, as well as why we are in the situation that we are.
So Dr. Livingston, one of the things that I admire about your work is how you distill, you've been doing it so far in this interview, really complex problems into concepts that we can all understand.
In your 2021 award-winning book, The Conversation: How Seeking And Speaking The Truth About Racism Can Radically Transform Individuals And Organizations, you describe racism through the metaphor of salmon swimming upstream. I have not been able to get this visual out of my head, because it's so resonant. Not just the fish and the stream, but the mountains and the currents, and all the things. Would you mind walking us through that to help people understand?
Yeah, so one of the reasons I came up with that metaphor was I wanted to simultaneously express the contribution of individual effort, and the contribution of systemic forces and dynamics on behavior. So people often think of racism as, let's say, fish in a pond, that you're in this stagnant body of water, and all you have to do is swim in the direction that you want to go. So if you're, let's say, a black fish, and you want to go to a certain part of the pond, then you just go there. And there's nothing holding you back except your own force of will and your own desire to get to that corner of the pond. So that's in... We can call that pond a level playing field. But then there's the whole metaphor of the stream, which is there are currents that, independent of the actions of any fish, are exerting a force, on all of the organisms living in that ecosystem.
So if you're fishing, you do nothing, then the current will carry you downstream and out to sea. If you swim with the current, let's call that racism, you're swimming with this systemic current, then your destination will be the same. You'll just get there faster out to sea. But note that the destination of fish that are doing nothing, and the fish that are actually swimming with the current, is the same. So to me, anti-racism is like becoming a salmon and swimming against this current. The first thing is, you have to be aware that there's a current there, and this is part of the problem awareness that I was talking about, and you have to be willing to actually counteract that current. So this is sort of individuals countering the system. And you become like the salmon, and it's not an easy journey. It's exhausting, it's dangerous, there's grizzly bears along the way looking to pick you off, but that's what you have to do in order to reach this promise land, let's call it the pristine headwaters upstream where you spawn.
So people ask, "Well, where does the system come from? Who's creating this system? Is someone upstream with a fire hose pumping water in the stream?" No, the stream, the current, is created all by itself in a way. The only thing that has to happen is snow melts in the spring, or it rains, and because the mountain has this cylindrical shape or this... Well, it's pyramid shape, that water runs downhill because of gravity. No one actually has to do anything. And it's similar in our own system. No one has to do anything. There are structures that are in place that create these trickle down outcomes, sort of like the mountain creating the stream. Nobody has to do anything. The structure sort of gives rise to it. And if we want to stop it, then we need a structural solution, which is building a dam to stop the stream altogether.
So I think because I studied literature long before I studied psychology, in fact, I almost have a PhD in literature as well from UCLA before I started my program in social psychology, I'm able to think about things in very symbolic and allegorical and metaphorical ways, and take these concepts and kind of tell a story or create an image around it. And so I'm very blessed to be able to have that skill, because I think the ultimate outcome that we're all looking for is learning. And to the extent that these metaphors help people understand complex concepts better, I'm happy to be able to provide them.
Maybe it's my English major coming out in me, but as soon as I read through this description, I could see it, I could feel it, it resonated, so bring on the metaphors, bring on the similes, the allegories, all the things to help us understand and learn.
Okay, so we've pulled back the curtain on racism as an entity, as this current, but as you know, anytime humans get into the mix, things can get a little messy. So to understand human behavior, you've also offered another metaphor, one of ostriches, sharks and dolphins. Can you tell us about that one?
Going back to the PRESS model, there's five stages, problem awareness, P, R, root cause analysis, E, empathy or concern, S one, strategy, S two, sacrifice. Do you know what to do, and are you willing to do it? But in the middle of all that is the E, the empathy. Because even if there's a problem, many people seem to think of... Or they often think of challenges in terms of problems and solutions. Can you identify the problem? Do you know what to do? But I think there's something in the middle that is really, really important that's often overlooked, which is, do you care? So that's the empathy part. Even if you know that racism is a real thing and you understand where it comes from structurally, psychologically, economically, all these other things, do you care enough to want to do something about it? Because people say, "Well, what can I do?" The real question is, are you willing to do it? Do you care enough?
So focusing on that sort of centerpiece of it, the concern, the empathy, do you even care about what happens to other people? The answer is no, not everyone cares. And there are sort of three types of people. Dolphins, ostriches and sharks. Dolphins really do care about other people, about community, they're pro social, they're deeply engaged in sort of the social wellbeing of other cetaceans, say dolphins, sometimes they argue, sometimes they bump beaks, but they're generally committed to the general welfare of everybody in the pod. Then you've got ostriches, and they're indifferent. They kind of buried their heads in the sand. If you want social justice, great. If you don't want social justice, great. My question is, what's in it for me? So ostriches are pretty much self-interested, they're apathetic. They're neither here nor there.
Sharks actually want a social hierarchy. They're actually anti justice. They're actually pro dominance. They want there to be a food chain, as long as they're the apex predators. They don't want equality, because if everything's a great white shark, they have nothing to eat. They have nothing to consume. They have nothing to dominate and exploit and plunder. So they actually prefer a hierarchical system. So we've got people who are pro justice, people who are indifferent, and people who are anti-justice. And there's all kinds of ways you can measure this, and I sort of talk about in my book, studies that have been done that can identify dolphins, ostriches, and sharks, I talk about the percentages in the world of dolphins, ostriches and sharks, and I actually talk about the consequences of being a dolphin, ostrich and shark, and how you engage them differently when you're trying to promote diversity, equity and inclusion.
So for example, many people in organizations, or many individuals, will assume that if you just point out to people the error of their ways, or you say, "Oh my gosh, look at how we've been treating people of color. Or look at the situation with George Floyd." And people say, "Oh my gosh, I didn't know that police brutality was a real thing. I didn't know about the systemic injustice, but now that I know, I'm going to do something about it, I'm going to fight, I'm going to march, I'm going to kneel." Well, that's really only effective for dolphins, because dolphins are intrinsically motivated to promote social equality and social justice. Again, ostriches don't care. And for sharks, they actually want there to be oppression.
And what percentage would you say is each category? Because I think even in your book you talk about... Because I'm sure people would be interested as they're self-identifying as they're listening to this.
So I want people to think about that for a moment. What would you guess the percentages are? And I can tell you when I ask people in a room, and there's measure that you can do, most people say that they would be a dolphin. Somewhere between 95 and 99%. But data suggests that about 46% of the population are dolphins. So slightly less than half. Roughly 40% are ostriches, and about 12 to 14% are sharks. But of course the representation of sharks is much higher when you look at a cross section of society and you look at top leadership positions. So this makes sense, because if you want power, you crave it, and that's what you go after. So sharks tend to be overrepresented in top leadership positions, which means they have a disproportionate impact on the culture of society.
But nevertheless, the way to approach dolphins is through a better angels appeal. Point out all the injustice in society, and they'll say, "Oh my gosh, I didn't realize that was happening. Let's do something about it." For ostriches, it doesn't work, because they don't really care. What you have to do is make it relevant to them. So this is the business case for diversity. You sort of say, "Okay, I know you don't care about social justice per se, but if we have greater inclusion and equity and diversity, it will increase our company's innovation, creativity, performance, possibly productivity, possibly profit, and that may mean a bigger bonus for you at the end of the year." Now the ostrich is a soul, right? You've given them a carrot, there's something in it for them.
And then sharks, research has shown they won't cooperate no matter what, because for them, the carrot is the inequality. And they're actually willing to take a hit or incur a cost in order to preserve inequality. So for sharks, you need a stick. You need some sort of policy or law that says, if you behave in this way, you'll be fined or you'll be fired or you'll be punished or imprisoned. So you have to use formal laws and policies to create a straight jacket of sorts, to dissuade sharks from engaging in bad behavior. So that's one of the reasons that I think it's not just to label, it's not just to come up with these funny animal metaphors, it's actually because they respond to diversity efforts in very different ways. And the strategies that you employ when dealing with dolphin, ostriches and sharks is very different.
So knowing that we are all comprised of very many different ideas, beliefs, opinions, you've labeled the book, The Conversation. It's the main title. Why is it that conversation is our best ally?
Well, I don't know if it's our best ally, I think it's one important ally. I actually think laws and policies, and sort of formal practices, can go a long way towards moving the needle, well beyond talking.
But I think it's also important for people to talk and to understand and to sort of engage in social exchange. I have this line in the book that, "Social change requires social exchange," And that, "Human relationships provide a portal for learning to occur and facts to enter." And most of the learning that occurs in our lives is through the context of social relationships.
And so conversation is a fundamental way for humans to connect, but I think they have to be undertaken in a certain way. Not all things that are labeled as conversations are actually conversations. Shouting matches are not conversations. For one reason, often when you see those, people are not there to learn. They're approaching the situation with what I call conviction rather than curiosity.
In other words, it's more like a prosecution versus the defense in a courtroom. They're not really trying to talk to each other when you have prosecution and defense. They're not trying to learn new things unless it's how to beat the opponent. They're not really engaged in a conversation.
They're engaged in a strategic cherry-picking of data, in order to achieve a certain verdict. In fact, in some cases, the defense may even know that their client is guilty, and they will deliberately choose evidence that shows their client's innocence.
So we're not talking about the truth when we talk about the prosecution versus the defense. They're deliberately biased, and they're deliberately trying to argue one side. But when you're a juror or a judge, you are trying to get a balance, and you are trying to discover what is the truth. And so I think conversations have to be more based on curiosity, and what's often called inquiry, rather than advocacy.
And so when people have a conversation, it's much more productive when they approach it from a position of inquiry. Let me listen to the other person. I may not agree, but I want to hear what they think, and they will want to listen to me. And we're going to have an exchange of information. I think conversations are also important when you focus on the problem and not the person. Too often they can degenerate into ad hominem attacks. So there's four people in the group, and one wants to go north, one south, one east, and one west. Instead of focusing on the problem, which is we're lost, they may focus on the person, and say, "You're an idiot for wanting to go north."
If that's the case, then you actually create a counterproductive situation rather than a productive situation. And it doesn't mean that conflict is necessarily counterproductive. In fact, there's research that shows that conflict can be good, but as long as it's task-based conflict, which means it's conflict around the best way to solve the problem. Not conflict that's involving insults toward a person. So there's a difference between person based conflict and task based conflict. So those are just a couple of things that I think highlight A, the importance of conversation, and B, how best to approach conversation.
Absolutely, because a lot of people are really smart out there. A lot of people know a lot of things, they're experts in their field, but it sounds like in the book, you've mentioned several different examples, but that you've had enough experiences where you've learned that just pumping people full of information doesn't do it. It's just not enough. That storytelling, that speaking with folks on their own level, empathizing and figuring out what connects us is a great way to start to try to have that conversation.
So we're going to switch gears a little bit, and we are going to have a very quick lightning round of questions to loosen this up. All right. So who is someone past or present, from any discipline, who is inspiring you right now?
Your go-to activity to relax and not think.
Home design. HGTV.
What do you wish someone had told you before you became a public figure?
That's a good question. That no matter what you do, not everyone will agree with you, and not everyone will appreciate what you're trying to do.
Ooh, that's good. Really good. So on that note, we're just going to keep going. I would love to help everyone who is walking in your footsteps by talking about the experiences that have led you to this point. Is that okay?
Okay, great. So stepping into the spotlight, not so easy. Really hard. You're so well-spoken, and you speak with such conviction. So how did you find your voice? Where did this confidence come from? Is it just repetition of saying things over and over again? Where does it come from?
I think it starts at home. And I'm very blessed and fortunate to have been raised by, and I used this term before, a village, of very strong black women, including my grandmother, who was sort of the matriarch, and parents and aunts and uncles and even older cousins. It was just this... And I had a conversation... I'm going to digress a little bit and then come back to this. I had a conversation with a Harvard professor named Bob Kegan who has a theory of adult development, and there's sort of five levels, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. And the vast majority of people get stuck at three, which is called the socialized mind, that they live their lives according to what other people think they should be doing, and a big, big chunk, maybe 80% of people are there.
A small percentage go to level four, which he calls self-authoring, which is, you make your own decisions about what's right or wrong, and what you're going to do and not do, and you're willing to be a salmon, in a way, and swim against the current. And then there's level five, which is like Mandela, which just transcends all... This is someone who's approaching almost this divine level of grace, and there are very, very few people.
But I asked Bob Kegan, "What determines who goes from a level three to a level four, this sort of socialized mind where you let other people's perceptions of things govern and dictate how you live your life, versus people who sort of progressed to the self-authoring stage?" And his answer was very quick and it was very decisive. And he said, "Oh, it is the optimal combination of adversity or challenge or hardship and support or love." And I thought that's really interesting, because if you have only support and love and encouragement, but you encounter no hardships in life, then you don't develop the resilience necessary to be able to take that salmon's journey.
If you only have hardship and adversity without any sort of support and love, then you crumble, in a way, because you don't have enough confidence, self-esteem, belief in yourself, you've never been built up, to sort of believe that you can achieve amazing things. You only see the negative in life. And it's having just the right combination of those two things that enables people to go out into the world and do great things. So if we think about Nelson Mandela, and I actually wrote a Harvard case about him, because as I said, he's one of my heroes and he's someone who's fascinating to me. He grew up, he was the descendant of royal family, he was the favorite child, the golden child, he had this big family of women that just pampered him from the day that he was born, he could do no evil, the sun rose and set on Nelson Mandela. So he had this incredible fortitude, this incredible sense of self, and he went out into the world to do these things, and the world beat him up. Knocked him around a bit. Literally, he spent almost 30 years in prison.
But he still had this strong sense of who he was and his worth and his value from the first couple of decades of life. So although life could kind of bruise him, it couldn't completely beat him down because he had this really, really solid foundation. We need to have struggle in life. And not just humans, but in nature. Plants sometimes become resilient when they struggle, when everything is not easy, because if the soil's perfect, the sun is perfect, the first time there's a drought, they die because they haven't had to struggle at all. And I think we need to understand that there are benefits to both.
So let's go back to your path, and to your struggles, and the things that you had to learn along the way. So hindsight, of course, 20/20, but paths are rarely straight. What did you try, and perhaps fail at, before you started gaining traction with your ideas, before you started becoming known as an expert?
Gosh, a lot of things. There's been so many changes and so many setbacks. And I told you about some of them, that I began one program and I had to sort of start another one, and then I changed programs again, and I've sort of changed schools, from psychology departments to business schools, so I've had a very circuitous journey. But when I look back on it, it's all been sort of focused on the same thing, which is understanding what creates social injustice, and understanding how to rectify it. And I think along the way, I have never been afraid to speak truth to power.
And I think if you want to have an easy life, that's not something you should do. If you want to have an easy life, you tell people what they want to hear, when they want to hear it, especially if they're powerful and you do what people want you to do when you want them to do it, and you sort of play a game. So there are people who decide they're going to play that game and it's sort of similar to what I was talking about with level three, or the socialized mind, that you sort of give people what they want when they want it. That's not leadership.
But I think in order to be a leader, you incur certain amount of risk, like Nelson Mendela. Like, I don't know, whoever. Dr. King, like Gandhi, anyone who's really... If people are religious, Jesus Christ. Anyone who historically or politically has changed the world, has endured a lot of aggression, a lot of sacrifice, a lot of tribulations. And I think it's certainly worth it to me, because if you have a voice, you have a mission, you have a passion, and you have enough talent to realize all of those things, to bring them to fruition, then the cream always rises to the top.
And I love watching documentaries about X artists or Y artists, or even the life of Abraham Lincoln. He lost 25 elections before he... So it's not how many times, and there are lots of cliche sayings like this, it's not how many times you get knocked down, it's how many times you get back up. And I think that's where that resilience comes in.
So for all of us salmon out there, for all of us who are trying to swim upstream, how do you block out the noise, the self-doubt, the naysayers? How do you keep going? A lot of fly fishing? I know you like to fly fish.
I mean, that's where you go.
No. I think it's all about the school, meaning the other salmon that you surround yourself with. I don't think it's a journey that you take alone. I think it's extremely important to find your people. And I think it's important to take them along on the journey, or have them sort of support you in different ways.
So I'm mixing metaphors, but it's almost like the Boston Marathon. There has to be people along the way who are going to give you water as you're running, and are going to cheer you on and maybe run alongside of you for a few hundred yards or so, just to keep you going. It's critical. You need that support, you need that love, you need that encouragement.
And one thing I've been fortunate enough to have is a very inspiring school of allies and friends and family and colleagues who are all swimming in the same direction.
So I'm super curious about, we've talked about networks, we've talked about support systems, we've talked about having conviction and resilience, but I feel like there's something else here about how you in particular show up in the world, what capacities you have at any given moment, how you decide that writing was your mode of choice in terms of communication. Is there anything that you've learned along the way about yourself through trial and error when it comes to, "Well, this is how I want to show up and this is how I want to express my ideas"?
Yeah. So my thing, and again, there's no right or wrong when it comes to this, and different people have different styles and approaches, and I read lots of books, and some books are all about conviction. Someone says, "This is the way it is," and there's not an ounce of data, but they're saying, "This is the way I see it, this is my life experience, this is my observation." And I think that's great. Others, it's very autobiographical to say, "This is what I've lived, and I think you can learn a lot from that." But I think something that's unique about my approach is that I try to get as close to the "objective truth", and I'll put that in quotations, because I think that the truth is something that's ever elusive. All you can never do is investigate the truth. You never actually find it, and the truth itself can change and alter.
But what I try to do is ask the question, and again, this is inquiry mode, this is curiosity, always, "What is going on with X?" And X, you fill in the blank. And to try to perform an investigation to get at that truth in the most impartial, objective and straightforward way that I can. And then once I've kind of done that to express that in the clearest, so I don't use stilted pedantic language, I could, not only from the literature days, but... I speak several languages, and most of them are Latin-based, so I know a lot of $10 words in English just because they're $2 words in French or Spanish or Portuguese, but it's not about out how smart I sound. It's about how well the person reading it understands what I'm trying to say. And so once I've arrived at what I think could be an approximation of the truth, is then how do I express that or convey that to someone so that they're able to receive and digest it, and be empowered and inspired by that?
And so what it means is, in a way, I try to be as apolitical as possible. And in a way, and you've asked me several questions, I try to insert myself as little as possible into it, because it's not about me or my life, and it's not about what I would like to be true, and it's not even about my political ideologies or beliefs. It's about, let's ask the question and then see where the answer takes us. So one chapter of my book, chapter seven, is titled, Is It Racism or Is It Race? And basically I give all this information on the disparities, some of which I mentioned during this podcast, Emily versus Lakeisha, if Lisa goes and she's black, if Lisa goes and she's white, and there's just all this discrimination.
But then I get to this point to say, well, maybe it's not racism. Maybe it's just this rational decision that white people are making because white people are just more competent than people of color. Maybe they're just smarter. Maybe they're just better. So how would we investigate that?
And I asked that question, because it's a question and it's an assumption that many people had had in the backs of their mind for centuries. So I dive into molecular genetics and biology and evolution and all of these things, in the Human Genome Project, and what do we know about human differences in groups? And I put it all out there.
So for me, there's no question that's really off limits, and there's no distance that I won't go to sort of discover what the truth is, because I think you cannot have justice without truth. And so the truth, I think, is at the center of everything that I try to do.
Speaking of questions that you are not afraid to ask, what is it that I have not asked you? What is it that you would like to add, or anything that I'm stepping over or ignoring?
One thing that you haven't asked that may be relevant to all this is whether my work is in vain. So will we ever get better? Or do I think the prospect of some sort of justice or reconciliation or better world in the future is something that is attainable? Or is it not? Are we doomed to constantly engage in this inner group conflict that we've seen throughout human history?
So I literally had a question written down, I'm worried about time, but I literally had a question down of how do you keep going when what you are doing, you may never see the fruits of your labor? The full complete envisioning of it.
I think there's two things that keep me going. One is I think there has been, and objectively, not just that I think, the truth is that there has been some improvement. So the way that I think about it is, if I think about my ancestors, my great-great-great great-grandparents who were enslaved people here in the United States, and they looked at their descendant, me, would they be proud? Would they have tears in their eyes to say, "Whoa, I never dreamt that one of our descendants could sort of achieve this level of X." Whether it's education, whether it's impact in the world, whether it's... And I think they would be. They would be completely overwhelmed, shocked, surprised, because the brutality of their world never gave any indication that me living in this world that I inhabit, and whether it's Harvard, and whether it's the many places I've traveled to, the freedoms that I have that they never had, probably would've been inconceivable 250 years ago. So there has been.
Knowing what you know now, what would you tell your younger self about changing the world with your ideas, and how to get humans to listen?
I would say don't worry so much about the future. That's what I would tell. I would say everything's going to be okay. And I think that's a lesson for everyone in life. We all go through life with so much anxiety and so much dread about what could happen or what... And in most cases, it never ends up coming to fruition. It never ends up happening. And how it's much more important to focus on who you are, focus on your mission, understand that you are okay just the way you are, and understanding that you do have power, power to learn, power to grow, power to change, power to influence people. And I think it's... And maybe it's not something to tell the younger self, because the younger self would have to discover that on its own. It's kind of like being the caterpillar in the cocoon, and you discover through living life that these things are self-evident and true. But I think that's something that I would tell not only myself, but a lot of young people who are struggling to find their place and find themselves in the world.
And anything you want to add about how to get humans to listen? Because that can be tricky.
I think it's important to be mindful of one's own fallibility. I think it's a lot easier to listen when you realize that you yourself are the culprit of something, and you yourself don't understand certain things and you yourself, you... Because it's very... It becomes easier to point the finger, and to cancel or tune people out, when there's a sense of moral or intellectual superiority. And I think when you realize that you yourself are a sinner in many ways, and you yourself are ignorant in many ways about many things, then it becomes, I think, easier to listen to what someone else has to say, because you realize that you don't have all the answers.
Well, Dr. Livingston, it has been an absolute joy to listen to you. Thank you again for speaking with me, for taking the time and for your tireless dedication to racial equity.
No, thank you. I kind of feel like we've talked more about philosophy
That's how I like it.
Deep existential discussion about that. But I hope it's been helpful regardless of the content, and it's certainly been a pleasure.
Absolutely. Thank you again.
Okay. Key takeaways. Among his many talents, Dr. Livingston uses the literary device of metaphor to distill the science behind racial bias into simple concepts. Maybe it's because I was an English major who spent hours studying literature, but I think metaphor is a powerful way to communicate ideas. It quickly resonates and paints a picture in your mind. What's more, Dr. Livingston leads with curiosity and objective questions, with the goal of engaging people in conversation. So does this spark any ideas in you? If so, message me on LinkedIn, or even better, leave a review so others can get a taste of the gems you found. And if you'd like to learn more about Dr. Livingston, he's on LinkedIn and online at RobertWLivingston.com.
Speaking Human-First is a production of Thought Leader Media, a boutique communications agency for socially impact driven thought leaders. It's produced by the amazing team at Yellow House Media, and is recorded on the ancestral lands of the Nipmuc Nation. Many indigenous peoples continue to thrive in this place, alive and strong.