The acceptance of oneself is the essence of the moral problem and the epitome of a whole outlook upon life. That I feed the hungry, that I forgive an insult, that I love my enemy in the name of Christ — all these are undoubtedly great virtues. … But what if I should discover that the least among them all, the poorest of all the beggars, the most impudent of all the offenders, the very enemy himself — that these are within me, and that I myself stand in need of the alms of my own kindness — that I myself am the enemy who must be loved — what then?
From Sun Magazine’s “Sunbeams” section
Accusing someone of being racist is like accusing someone of being an air-breather. We have, all our lives, been breathing the same air, made rancid by racism, polluted by notions of superiority and inferiority. There was no other air to breathe.
Together, we need to find a way to cleanse that air so we can breathe it together, on equal footing, without shame, without guilt, so that breathing nourishes us, as air is meant to do, instead of making us sick.
It begins with each of us, learning how everyone has been harmed by growing up in a society built on inequity, particularly racial inequity. It means learning about all the sneaky ways superiority/inferiority creeps into our thinking. We’ve been conditioned from an early age, socialized to see ourselves — and everyone else — as either worthy or unworthy, superior or inferior.
Much of this is unconscious, as Michael Romain pointed out in his insightful column, “Let’s have a deeper conversation about racism,” last week in Wednesday Journal. The unconscious mind is stronger than the conscious mind. Our unconscious biases direct our behavior and our judgments. We insist, often vehemently, that we’re not racist because we are not consciously racist. But there is more going on than we recognize. We must make the unconscious conscious so we can cure this disease. That requires listening, and being honest, with ourselves. No small feat.
As Romain noted, we need to elevate this issue above the politics of culture war. Accepting that there is racism in each of us is the first step. Humbling but liberating. Denial takes too much energy to sustain.
There is probably a direct correlation between the loudness of our denial and the strength of the superiority/inferiority schism within, which as Carl Jung points out, may be a projection of our inner sense of unworthiness.
It frequently takes the form of judging others. As I began to monitor my own inner monologue more closely, I realized I was “evaluating” African Americans, and people of color in general. Did they merit my respect? From the clothing they wore to the way they wore them, the way they spoke, how loud they were, how competent they were (based on how they looked, not how they acted), and the one that creeps in with so many white Americans — were they a threat to my safety? All of which ran counter to my own lived experience of African Americans, which was almost entirely positive.
I hear other people voicing similar judgments. Whites harbor a lot of opinions about what African Americans need to do to rise to a level where they can “earn” our respect.
We base our “judgments” on faulty information, hearsay, usually from questionable sources. We’re not qualified to “grade” our brothers and sisters.
Following the George Floyd murder, this country experienced a momentary racial reckoning, quickly followed by the current, disheartening, but entirely predictable, white backlash. Bryan Stevenson, a Black defense attorney who wrote the book, Just Mercy (that the film of the same name was based on), says we need to let go of the language of condemnation and, instead of fear and anger, approach racial injustice with mercy and hope if we are ever to achieve redemption. To overcome this historic injustice, we need to “own” this country’s racist past, he says, as well as the sin of racism inside us. Stevenson cites the New Testament story where Jesus tells a self-righteous mob, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” After the judge/jury/executioners leave, he says to the person judged, “Neither will I condemn you.” But it’s important to remember that the mob, after being called upon to acknowledge their own sins, did so and actually dropped their stones. We need to drop ours.
Stevenson, whose On Being interview with Krista Tippett was broadcast this past Sunday, says we need to “get close” to the problem of racism and what it has wrought if we want to cure it.
Imagine, for instance, how our judgmentalism affects African Americans in a white-dominant society where they are constantly being evaluated to determine their worthiness. Just as whites grow up absorbing messages that we are “superior,” Blacks grow up absorbing the flip side: They always have to “prove” themselves to white “superiors,” who operate by a double standard. It’s no wonder Black Americans are angry — and exhausted. Sick and tired of being sick and tired, as Fannie Lou Hamer said. And if Black activists forcefully call out racism, it may well be an attempt to feel, at long last, empowered. We all hunger and thirst for justice, but imagine how much more intense that hunger and thirst must be for African Americans.
Judge not, Jesus said, lest ye be judged. Ultimately, when we judge others, we judge ourselves. We are compensating for our own feelings of inadequacy, putting others down to prop ourselves up.
All our lives we have been breathing the same air, polluted by inequality. There was no other air to breathe. It made all of us sick. Cleanse first the contaminated air within so we don’t contaminate the air outside with the harmful things we too often say and do.
And ask yourself Jung’s question: What if I should discover that I myself am the enemy who must be loved?