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Human Icebergs: What We're Missing Beneath the Surface

November 20, 2014

Human Icebergs: What We're Missing Beneath the Surface
by Tyler Sonnemaker

Special thanks to Cyn Njideka PZ '15 for her help editing this piece. 

I am a white male, born to two white, upper-middle class parents, and raised in a predominantly white, affluent suburb. These adjectives do not define me, but they did shape the reality I lived in for the first 18 years of my life. I was never harassed, threatened, thought less of or in any way prejudiced against because of my skin color, gender, or how I dressed, because of merely how I appeared on the surface. In addition to never experiencing these biases myself, I was completely unaware of how they affected those who do identify with marginalized groups.

I attended Central Catholic High School, a private school in Portland, Oregon, a region I had always thought wasn’t very prejudicial about these demographic divides. 

Then one day, a close friend of mine (who is black) reluctantly admitted that when he left the house at night, he made sure to wear Central Catholic gear as to “prove” to any police he might encounter that he wasn’t up to something sketchy (our school more or less has a “good” reputation). The first time he said this, I laughed. I simply had no idea, and had never even given thought to how these stereotypes actually affected people. But for him, this was reality: before leaving his own home, he had to think about possible encounters with police and how he would assure them that he had nothing to do with some non-existent crime. And yet we claim that our criminal justice system presumes innocence before guilt.

I wasn’t alone in being unaware of what it meant to have certain “privileges" that others did not. I put this in quotes because, to the privileged, these things never seemed like privileges. To many of us, these were just basic rights. They weren’t even acknowledged as rights. They were concepts so basic that no one ever taught us about them—not in school, not in church, not by our peers, not even by our parents. Sure, we may have done a brief unit on the Civil Rights Movement at one point. However, it was taught as a history course—it was an era from our past, and we were made to think that the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 dealt some coup de grâce to the atrocious racism that has infected our country since its founding more than 200 years ago.

But this is the present. And these seemingly basic, unalienable rights of human equality are currently being denied to far too many people in America, and it’s disheartening.


With the extensive publicity this summer of the police shootings of unarmed blacks in Ferguson, Missouri, and the ensuing unrest in that community, it’s become difficult to ignore this issue. While these cases in particular have received much attention, they only scratch the surface of a nationwide, systemic problem of racial and socioeconomic injustice. It’s not just Michael Brown and Kajieme Powell whose lives have been taken, but those of Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, and many others. Further, there are countless citizens who lie in the middle of the spectrum, somewhere between “treated as an equal” and “shot and killed by police while unarmed.” In this country, we have prejudices so deep-seated that, not only have they gotten a person killed over a couple of sodas, but they’ve managed to prevent social mobility for entire classes of people. This epidemic isn’t just seen in the cases of Brown and Powell. But these events have served as a harsh (but gravely needed) wake up call.

Just to be clear, this isn't a debate about whether or not Brown had his hands up or whether Powell was raising a knife. Likewise, it's not about whether Officer Darren Wilson was justified in his right to defend himself, or whether the officers who shot Powell were following protocol, or even whether they themselves were racially profiling. These killings are just two recent manifestations of the problem. To nitpick about these facts is to distract ourselves from the larger issues, ones that won't just go away if and when any of these officers are held formally or criminally accountable.

I’m not a community leader in Ferguson, not an established civil rights activist, not a professional journalist, not even an anthropology, sociology, psychology, or any other major that might have offered me some scholarly insights into some solution to this issue. But I do have one attribute that qualifies me to talk, and qualifies everyone to listen. In fact, we all have the same fundamental attribute that lies at the core of the solution: being a human being.


On the last day of my summer internship, our company had scheduled several hours during the first half of the day for “cultural sensitivity” training. They had found a woman who consults businesses on how to build inclusive workplaces, and we were all required to attend the four-hour session. Admittedly, I was a bit skeptical. At first glance, this seemed like it would be one of those “don’t say stupid shit, be nice to people, and let’s all get along” type of deals. I thought to myself, check, I think I do a decent job with that. But embedded in those four hours was an idea so powerful and so elegantly simple that it truly changed the way I view other people.

Paraphrasing what she was teaching us about, I’ll call it the “iceberg analogy.” Briefly put, the concept is that people are much like icebergs: very little of who we are is visible from the surface—so much remains concealed until we look deeper. We had just finished an exercise where we were asked to reflect on the many “adjectives" that define us, the myriad dimensions that make up who we are. There’s race, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, education, geographical identity, socioeconomic status, marital status, and parental status, among countless others. The point is that nobody is defined merely by one adjective—nobody is one-dimensional. Then, she had us recall a time where we had made a snap judgment about somebody else based only on what we could visibly observe. Everybody in the room, myself included, was able to come up with an example pretty quickly. This just went to illustrate how naturally and (often) how subconsciously we complete a sentence about someone without ever bothering to look beyond just what we see.

I’m sure that at some point in our social evolution, this mental shortcut was helpful for discerning friend from foe, an ally versus an unknown and potential threat. But we don’t need to do that anymore, or at least not in the same way: we have legal rules, moral codes, and social norms that help us handle uncertainty better—that is, with rationality and trust, not rashness and fear. The takeaway from the iceberg analogy is that if we make the effort to look beyond someone’s appearance, we find so much more. Hidden beneath their skin color or the clothes they wear are all of those dimensions, and while we’re bound to find differences, we’re also likely to find similarities. Even if you don’t find any overlap (though I’m putting the challenge out, let me know if you find someone who you are 100%, completely different than), you’ll always have your humanity in common. And that is a quality we should recognize and value EQUALLY in everyone.

Regardless of what adjectives you identify with, you deserve to be valued equally as a human being. The "golden rule” says to treat others as you wish to be treated, not only others that look, think, and act like you. However you choose to interpret a maxim like this, it all starts with empathy. If we all take the time to be more empathetic towards one another, to look past what’s on the surface, we will start to see the complexity of humanity that exists within every person, and we can begin to dissolve the prejudices that we currently hold.


However, what Ferguson shows us is just how short we are currently falling in the empathy department. And, sadly, for those born into disadvantaged “surface” categories (in this case, being black or poor), the inability of many Americans born into the advantaged ones to look past those shallow dimensions has resulted in unimaginable and wide-reaching oppression. As someone born into the advantaged group in almost every sense, I truly can’t imagine the degree to which this is felt. But I don’t need a certain skin color to show compassion to another human being. I don’t need to be an expert to recognize suffering, or to want it to end.

Yet, we often don’t even see this suffering. I’m sure many Claremont students followed the news closely this summer, and even for those who didn’t, our Facebook feeds probably ensured that we saw more than a few posts trying to tell us about the mayhem in Ferguson. But seeing and hearing secondhand digital accounts can only expose us to so much.

For four years (and for many of us, the 18 years prior), we sit naively within our bubble of academia, nestled in the pleasant little enclave of Claremont, surrounded by green grass and trees and quaint shops. As students, we typically encounter police (no, I don’t mean our pseudo-pacifist Campus Safety) when they come to break up the rare drunken brawl. This may seem a generous characterization of our city, and of course we have our share of issues, but in this case, it is all relative: when was the last time we had to square off with an assault rifle-laden SWAT team? And if a response is to claim that the citizens of Ferguson’s protests “turned violent,” when was the last time we had to literally put ourselves in harm’s way—let alone harm from our own police force—to protest an injustice?

Inside our bubble, our response to this injustice often looks very different. We tap out of the discussion whenever it inconveniences us—a liberty others don’t enjoy—and forget that, just past the borders of our tranquil city of Claremont is Pomona, no stranger to racial inequality and police brutality. Not far past that is Los Angeles, a city that has felt the force of these problems dating back to the heinous Rodney King beating, the Watts riots, and of course long before those as well. But even these communities are just far enough away that we often forget that systemic injustice is something they deal with every day. True, some of us are from these communities and this may seem very close to home. However, many of us have no close connections with the people dealing directly with these issues, and as a result, we underestimate how significantly their lives are impacted.

But we’ve received our wake up calls. We’ve seen enough evidence, enough studies, enough articles, enough stories, and enough senseless killings of our very own citizens—not to mention, by the very people that are supposed to protect and serve them. I don’t want to wake up another day in a world where people live in fear of those that look different from them. I love so many things about this country, but the way we treat certain groups of people, based on race or other attributes, is not one of them.

I hope that everyone can take the iceberg analogy to heart. Take the time to look below the surface with each person we encounter, embrace not just diversity but also the things we share, and value people simply for being people. Just like you are, just like I am. Just like Michael Brown and Kajieme Powell were.

We can’t rewrite the past, but the future is another story. And I hope we write it with more empathy and more compassion than we’re writing with now.

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