Some people probably won’t read past the headline of this article before they start telling me that we don’t live in a post-racial world, that just because Barrack Obama is black doesn’t mean we’ve solved all our racial problems in America, that white privilege is real and all the rest of it. But I’m standing by that statement.
Racism is real. Racism is a problem. It’s just not the root problem.
Human beings are social animals. We form packs, just like dogs and wolves. We defend our nests from others of our species the same way ants do. We imagine that we’re far evolved beyond other animals, but that’s not really true. We’re just a few thousand years removed from the days when we roamed the savanna in small bands of closely related individuals.
We have evolved to quickly differentiate between our pack and other packs. We use visual cues as our first means of deciding whether someone we meet is one of “us” or one of “them.” When we meet someone whose entire body is a different color from ours, that is a powerful signal. Even when our skins are roughly the same shade we’ll divide up along much more subtle differences like the shape of someone’s nose or eyes or their hair color. Racism isn’t about skin.
It’s not easy to try and change millions of years of genetic programing. I am amazed we’ve gotten as far as we have in so short a time. There is plenty of work still to be done. But the fact that we’re able to live together peacefully most of the time in spite of our differences is truly incredible. It can be useful to take a bit of time to stop and notice that.
The worst part about what I keep reading in all the chatter about race these days in the wake of the events in Ferguson, Missouri and elsewhere is how so much of it perpetuates and exacerbates the very thing the folks who write it think they’re trying to fix.
It’s “us” who understand white privilege and know all about subtle racism, against “them” who say racism is a thing of the past and tell others they “don’t see race.” We write insulting Facebook status updates and articles chastising those who don’t share our more enlightened views. Instead of appealing to the people who need to hear this stuff the most, it alienates them, drives them away, makes them defensive and angry.
One of the most terrifying things I learned from my Zen practice was how much racist shit is in my own head. It’s incredible. How could I be racist at all? I spent a good portion of my growing up years in Nairobi, Kenya, where every police officer, every politician, every judge, nearly every authority figure of any kind I encountered was black. I was a child then, but even so, I knew that if I ever had a run-in with the law, my being white would be a significant strike against me. Being white meant I was viewed by random strangers with anger and suspicion. As an adult, I spent over a decade in Japan where the situation was much the same. I can’t tell you how many times I walked past guys with bullhorns blasting angry anti-foreigner rhetoric on the streets of Tokyo. In my family, the worst words you could say were racial slurs. My parents would accept the occasional foul language, but if I’d have said something racist I’d have gotten in real trouble.
Yet sometimes as I sat on my cushion watching the kaleidoscope of my mind churn out its various shapes and colors and visions and words, I saw deeply held prejudices and fears arise, and I saw myself construct elaborate defenses of those attitudes and fears. I wanted to deny that garbage was in there, but the harder I tried, the fiercer it fought back.
As I learned to allow that stuff in, to see it for what it was, I saw that it wasn’t “me” in the way I thought of “me.” I saw how hard I tried to create and maintain the fiction of “self” and how much the fiction of “the other” was necessary to establish “me” as real.
If you want to really eradicate racism, you have to disappear completely.
If you want to effectively educate those who don’t understand racism about racism, you have to educate yourself about your own deeply held and cherished tendencies to create an “us” to contrast with “them.” You have to understand the ways in which those bad racist people out there are you.
Racism is not the root problem. You are the root problem.
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