So every blogger on in America is telling us how to respond to the shootings in Charleston. Everyone is trying to say the one profound thing that’s going to send an arrow straight to the heart of racism and explode it.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Because, like many have said, we need to talk about it. We, the white folks (who seem to all have blogs), need to talk about it. We also need to listen to our black, brown, and everything else friends. To fall back on my grad school vocabulary: it’s time for everyone to interrogate whiteness.
So this blog post does not contain the one nugget that’s going to change racism.
I’m just going to do my part to add to the conversation. If one person’s eloquence could solve the problem, MLK would have banished it for good. But it’s going to take millions of lesser voices, millions of dinner tables, millions of blog posts, millions of fed up talk show hosts, millions of governors.
This is my contribution. It’s neither novel, nor original:
I think racism doesn’t start from looking at “the other” and thinking they are bad. I think it starts from looking at my wellbeing as the standard of good.
I’m hearing a lot of people say that we need to talk about the heritage of hate. When they talk about the battle over South Carolina’s flag, they talk about it as a dispute between hate and pride. But the pride is the problem. The pride creates the hate.
Don’t get me wrong. I believe in loving where you came from. In cherishing the good parts of your heritage. I believe in having roots, confidence, and self-respect. All those other things that people mean when they talk about “pride.”
But there’s another kind of pride. The kind the Bible says “goes before the fall.”
In Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman’s book Nurture Shock, they cite a study by Dr. Rebecca Bigler in which children in the same preschool class were given red or blue shirts to wear. They had no problems mixing until the researcher asked which color group was better to belong to (or which was better or worse in some way). The children vouched for entirely for their own group, and readily admitted faults in members of the other group.
Children aren’t racist. They just assume that if there has to be a right and a wrong, that they are right. If there has to be a good and a bad, then they are good.
When we come into conflict with our neighbors, we desperately want to believe that we are right. When they are standing in the way of what we want, we justify why having what we want merits their loss. If we had taken slaves admitting it was evil, we’d be seeing different stories on the news.
But we justified it. We had to live with ourselves.
Hatred for black people grew out of a desperate need to like ourselves. When their humanity challenged our actions, we chose to sleep at night, rather than to humble ourselves and ask for forgiveness. To do that, we had to spin narratives about our own superiority, kindness, and generosity. We had to create lesser black characters that deserved the dehumanization of slavery.
Over the years, as slavery grew to segregation, and segregation grew to institutionalized racism, and that grew to banal racism (that everyday racism that we call “the way things are”), we continued to have conflict with our neighbors. And whenever I have conflict with my neighbors, I immediately look for the difference between us that makes me better. The difference that makes my preferences superior. The reason I deserve to win. Skin and culture are the most readily available. But for those who are too “highly evolved” for racism, it becomes education, taste, values, religion, etc.
So, yes, there’s a system at work, full of symbols and tropes that need to be challenged.
But we also have to recognize that the little seed that breeds racism lies in all of us, all over again with every new human. It’s pride. It’s the impulse to justify every emotion, decision, and wound we inflict. It’s the way we shift our morals and ethics so that we can sleep at night. It’s the way, in the words of Anne Lamont, “God hates all the same people we do.”
Our pride and our homemade morals don’t lead all of us to kill people. They lead us to hate our neighbors, exploit our employees, ignore the poor, and slander our enemies.
So that’s my best guess at where racism starts. It starts when the powerful need to feel like they deserve their power. It starts when I justify my selfishness. It starts when loving myself comes at the expense of loving others.