How to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the martyrdom of Martin Luther King Jr? There are many options, plenty of them ways of making white people feel better about themselves. Ways that allow white people like myself to look at the most egregious examples of racism – Bull Connor, the KKK, our sitting president – and compare ourselves to those perfidies and feel better. By defining racism only as extreme examples of acting out on racial bias, we get to let ourselves off the hook, and tell ourselves that we are part of the solution just by our very existence as woke, enlightened people.
I won’t be commemorating this day by patting myself on the back for thinking the descendants of slaves deserve reparations, or that cops should stop shooting unarmed black men in the streets. I’m going to be using my mindfulness practice to interrogate my own conditioning and biases, and I’m going to spend it grappling with my own racist tendencies. Because like all white people in the United States of America in the year 2018, I’m at least a little bit racist.
Yes, dear white reader, I just said that you’re racist. I know that’s a big, hard, ugly word. And I know that you don’t identify that way. But you are. Hell, if you’re human you have racial biases of some sort; humans are given to the formation of in and out groups, and throughout the millennia we have used ethnic differences to define those groups. There’s no evidence that humans are born with particular prejudices, but research has shown that prejudice gets baked into us at a very, very young age. I’ve always been fascinated by the ‘doll test’ that was involved in the Brown v Board of Education decision – black and white children were shown diaper-clad dolls that were identical except for skin tone. They were asked to identify which doll, the white one or the black one, was ‘bad’ or ‘ugly.’ The children often chose the black doll as ‘bad’ or ‘ugly.’ As disturbing as that was coming from white children, it was especially upsetting coming from black children; the point of the test was to prove that black children had been socialized to see themselves as inherently bad or ugly. If BLACK CHILDREN felt that way, what hope did white children have to break out of conditioned racist patterns?
I’m too old to do the doll test now, but that doesn’t mean I can’t interrogate my own biases and racial attitudes. I am perhaps less racist than some, and perhaps more racist than others. I don’t tend to engage in overtly racist behaviors, but I have in the past used racist language. My excuse at the time was that it was ‘funny’ – I was engaging in what has become known as ‘hipster racism’ – and it’s possible it even WAS funny, but that doesn’t change the nature of the language I used. I’ve also used language and made jokes that I didn’t know at the time were racist (one of the pitfalls of living 44 years is coming to realize how the culture moves but doesn’t give you a chance to go back to your childhood and educate your younger self about some of the jokes and songs you’re sharing on the playground that were deemed acceptable at the time but now certainly are not). I have been the guy who refuses to self-censor racial slurs while doing karaoke.
That’s all past stuff and, if you’re a white person of a certain age, they may all sound like minor sins. They probably all sound familiar to you, at any rate. The truth is that there’s nothing any of us can do about the ways we have behaved in the past… except to acknowledge our behaviors and examine them. That doesn’t mean beating ourselves up – this isn’t some call to self-flagellation for white people, some decree to be ashamed of how we were born – OR letting ourselves off the hook. It means looking at the ways that we have behaved and understanding a couple of things:
1. How the ways we behaved hurt ourselves and others without even realizing it. Did my cavalier use of language/jokes/stereotypes make others uncomfortable when they didn’t need to be? Did I hurt people’s feelings? Did I make others feel powerless in a situation? Did I strengthen other people’s racial biases with my jokes? Did I coarsen my own ability to be empathetic to people who are struggling with the impacts of racism on their lives?
Once I understand those things, or at least contemplate and examine those things, I can begin to understand how to avoid doing harm like that in the future. Again, there’s no point in kicking myself for insisting on doing “Holiday in Cambodia” at karaoke and including every last word in that song (there’s also no point in getting into a debate about the artistic deployment of racial slurs – while Jello Biafra may have been using certain language in instructive ways, I definitely was not), because I can’t go back in time and give myself a little more compassion. But I can consider any harm I caused – no matter how small! – and figure out how to not do that again. I can move into the future with more compassion for others, and the ways that my words may impact them.
And yes, it IS my responsibility to consider how my words impact other people. This is a lesson that took me decades to learn, but I think I’ve begun to grasp it. It’s like shooting a bullet up into the air – you are definitely responsible for it coming down and lodging in the skull of someone else. You can’t blame that person for standing in the wrong place, you were the idiot firing your gun carelessly into the air. As a writer I believe in the power of words, and it’s vital that I use that power as responsibly as I can. So I must move into the future with the intention of being more in control of my words, how they’re deployed and when.
It isn’t just words, by the way. Words are the easy part. It’s also the way we react to other race’s stories of suffering and struggle. The way we interact with people of other races through simple body language. The LOOKS we give people of other races. The ways we do or do not listen to them. The kids call these things microaggressions. I don’t love the term, but until something better comes along, I guess we’re stuck with it.
At any rate, being mindful of our behaviors in the past is the first step to being mindful of our behaviors in the present.
2. Examine how we ended up with the biases we have. How did black and white children alike end up believing the darker dolls were the uglier dolls? It’s the culture, and it’s so pervasive and omnipresent we do not even begin to see it.
Here’s an illustrative metaphor that I think makes this easier to understand: imagine a fish. Swimming in the ocean, doing all the shit fish do all day long. That fish never questions the nature of her reality, never considers that she’s in water. Water is just all around her, and she effortlessly breathes it and swims through it. She doesn’t consider where it comes from, what it is, what there is beyond it. She may not even notice that it’s getting polluted. She’s just in it.
That’s us and the culture. And I don’t just mean pop culture, or American culture, although I definitely mean those things. I mean human culture. I mean stuff that goes back thousands of years, stuff that is so baked in to our understanding of the world and life that we don’t even question it, and when someone does question it, it can be disorienting and even threatening.
Once we have decided that we don’t want to keep causing the kind of harm that we have caused in the past we have to consider how we got to the place where we caused that harm in the first place. That’s the only way to stop doing it; it’s easy to quit being a KKK member, but it’s a lot harder to quit having an unconscious reaction to a black person walking towards you on a street late at night. That’s where your cultural bias really kicks in, when you have an unconscious reaction to things, and that’s where the ‘microaggressions’ really happen.
The ways the culture does this to us are myriad, and often hard to recognize. It’s stuff we don’t even notice – who gets represented in movies and stories and how (ie, are black people as likely to be portrayed as heroic or good?), how our neighborhoods are segregated (do you live in a community that has people of different races side by side?), how we define what is or isn’t beautiful (what kind of hair do we think is good?). I mean, the hair stuff is crazy when you think about it – it makes zero sense that we would have a biological bias towards certain types of hair, as that has no impact on reproduction or evolution, and yet that bias is still going strong. There are recent studies that show people – especially white people – have an implicit bias against natural black hair. Chris Rock made a documentary about this, Good Hair. He was moved to make the film when his three year old daughter, who had curly and kinky hair, asked him why she didn’t have ‘good hair.’
That’s insidious. I have never given any thought as to why I prefer one kind of hair to another, but there has to be a reason. Again, it’s not biological because there’s no evolutionary advantage to one kind of hair over another. It’s barely even in-group in my case – I come from Sicilian ancestry, and kinky and wavy hair is very present in my lineage, and I still have a bias for straight hair.
Here’s where the mindfulness comes in. I endeavour to examine the response I have to everything I encounter, and that means when I look at hair and I place a ‘bad’ judgment on it I try to interrogate where that judgment came from. When I hear someone talk about anti-black bias in America, or about white supremacy, I try to examine my reaction. Often I have a negative reaction – I can feel attacked or get defensive. I drill down on that. Why am I defensive? Defensiveness indicates a feeling of vulnerability. Why do I feel vulnerable on this subject? Am I hearing things that are true and I don’t like hearing those truths? When I see a black person walking down the street towards me at night I examine the biases that jump to mind and I try to be aware of the cultural conditioning that can make me initially nervous.
I know it is so uncool to say that sometimes I am walking down the street and see a black person walking towards me and feel nervous, but being honest about the implicit bias that I have is the only way I can get rid of that implicit bias. If I pretend that I don’t have this, that I’m some hyperwoke individual who only sees color in terms of institutional oppression I would be a) full of shit and b) not making anything in the world better (I tend to think that the white people who are performatively prostrating themselves at the feet of Beyonce and Tiffany Haddish and use African American Vernacular English while doing it are exhibiting racism in another way, a condescending and fetishizing way. Bias is a tricky and complicated thing).
And I know it’s not just me. Check out the NextDoor community for any privileged white liberal neighborhood. You will see posts from people complaining about Trump, decrying police violence… and warning their neighbors that last night they saw a suspicious man on their block. The source of their suspicion tends to be the man’s skin color. The language used isn’t the language used in the South in the 60s, but it’s no less racist – it’s oblique references to someone not looking like they are from the neighborhood, or that they don’t belong in the neighborhood. This is where the racism lives, and it lives in the hearts of people who will get on Facebook and post pictures of Stephon Clark with his children.
Being mindful of this stuff sounds like a lot of work. Guess what – it is. But it’s the work that has to be done. Not just to de-racistify myself, but also to be a better, happier person. As a Buddhist I believe all of my suffering is caused by my biased views of the world; I do not perceive reality as it is, but rather through distorting lenses of what I do and do not like. It is vital for me to examine and depower all the biases I have, and racial biases make a great place to start. Says the Dalai Lama:
“A biased mind, which never sees the complete picture, cannot grasp the reality. And any action that results from such a state of mind will not be in tune with reality. As such it causes a lot of problems.”
I’m dedicated to causing fewer problems, both for myself and others. The more bias I can strip away the more clearly I can see reality, and the happier I’ll be. What’s more, the happier the people I interact with will be. I can be aware of the ways that I am conditioned to hurt others through my smallest actions and slightest words, and I can be more careful about that. I can be aware of the ways that the system in this country is set up to favor people who look like me. I can be honest about the work I am doing so that others can see there is work that can be done.
Again, I’m not trying to be self-punishing. I have not been perfect and I will continue to not be perfect, and that’s okay. We claim progress, not perfection. Perhaps this piece itself is imperfect, and people of color will have feedback for me about the imperfections, and can give me guidance on continuing my work. I’m not saying that your implicit racial biases make you a bad person, dearest white reader. I’m not even sure I believe in bad people anymore, but I am certain that being the result of centuries of cultural conditioning doesn’t make you bad. It makes you deluded, it makes you suffer, it makes you cause suffering in others, but the conditioning can be overcome. Or at least its grip on your thinking and reactions lessened.
Anyway, that’s how I’m spending this day. Not pointing fingers at other people who are ‘worse’ than I am in order to make myself feel better or seem better. I’m going to spend it looking at the ways I have hindered the furthering of Dr. King’s dream, and the ways I can make changes in myself and my life that will radiate out to help others.
Perhaps I won’t give my life for a cause or make a speech that will change the direction of society, but I can improve my behavior so that people of other races, genders, sexualities and religions can feel safer around me. It is a small, achievable goal that I believe can have an immense impact on the world.