Imagine waking up every morning knowing that there are people who hate you and want you dead just because you exist. Imagine if the most beloved elements of your family’s culture were held up to ridicule – evidence of your inferiority. Imagine internalizing all of this from the moment of your birth – knowing you were the other, that you don’t belong, that you are less.
Imagine living with hate.
As a straight white male, it’s all I can do – imagine it. Through no effort of my own I was granted access to the inner circle. It’s a shameful “achievement” because it isn’t an achievement at all – it’s a genetic accident.
White, patriarchal supremacy is nothing new. It’s woven into the fabric of the United States of America. Our founding institutions and documents explicitly enshrined racial and sexist hegemony. They were crafted at a time when the ownership and denigration of entire categories of human beings was moral and divinely authorized. The twin Original Sins of Native American genocide and African American slavery have yet to be fully acknowledged, repaired, and atoned for. Even Thomas Jefferson’s beloved Declaration of Independence refers to Native Americans as “savages.”
To stand on the ground at Monticello, Jefferson’s mountain top home in Virginia, and to walk Mulberry Row where the slave quarters stood, is to feel in your bones the race hatred in the bones of this nation.
White supremacy is the shadow side of freedom. Proclaiming that whites are superior to others, no matter how repugnant, is protected free speech. But no right is absolute. The law distinguishes between protected free speech and incitement, the latter being illegal. If your speech is explicitly designed to move others to harmful action, your speech is not protected free speech. It’s illegal to yell “fire” in a crowded theater. Therefore, a Nazi flag is not protected free speech – it’s incitement. It’s a call to action. It’s a war flag that exhorts all who salute it to discrimination, mass deportation, and genocide. Nazi flags are illegal in Germany and France. In other European countries, hate group insignia face additional restrictions. There are no monuments to Adolf Hitler in Germany or anywhere in Europe – just monuments to his millions of victims.
What are the causes of racism and wholesale denigration of selected groups? This is where it gets complicated. But we have to talk about it. It’s not enough to mouth platitudes like “racism is bad,” or “don’t be a racist,” or my least favorite, “I don’t see color.” If racism is the enemy, we cannot defeat it until we understand it.
It’s popular to hold to the view that racism is learned, not innate. In other words, the thinking goes, we are born as pure non-racists. Then, as children, we are taught to hate. Last month when Heather Heyer was killed by an American Nazi in Charlottesville, Virginia President Obama wrote the most popular Tweet in Twitter history – it was retweeted millions of times. Quoting Nelson Mandela he wrote, “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin or his background or his religion…” Then there’s the classic and oft-cited song “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” from the musical “South Pacific” – “You’ve got to taught/To hate and fear/You’ve got to be taught/From year to year/It’s got to be drummed/In your dear little ear/You’ve got to be carefully taught…”
The assertion that racism is a learned trait has merit. Cultural indoctrination is a major influence in the formation of racist consciousness. No one disputes that. And to that same extent, learned racism can be mollified by changing the narrative and teaching people how to think differently. We’re trying to do that. But it isn’t working – at least, not fast enough. But racism has another cause – a cause not enough of us are talking about or even acknowledging.
A quick survey of evolutionary biology reveals the crucial missing piece. Among all species, humans included, it was evolutionarily advantageous to fear outsiders. Within the tribal clan a certain amount of trust was warranted. But outsiders were eyed warily, especially if they looked different from us. We see this in simian studies, as well as across all species. Why would human animals be any different? In other words, the brain is hard-wired to be biased. Our survival depended on it.
If part of our fear of others is innate, concretized by millennia of selective adaptation, then it turns out Rogers and Hammerstein, Nelson Mandela, and Barack Obama are wrong (and you have no idea how much it pains me to say this). Well, they’re only half right anyway.
Here’s another way to frame it. Racist consciousness is a lower-order cognitive mode that we must unlearn. It is our default setting, and it’s time for a re-set. We have to undo the very structures of thought. In Buddhist terms, we have to awaken from the illusion of separateness. Despite what the processes of evolution and selective adaptation have built into the structures of consciousness, and despite the reinforcement racist consciousness receives via acculturation, it’s time to shine a light on the dark, hidden, unconscious tendencies that drive us and realize instead that we are not defined by the color of our skin, the shapes of our faces, the languages we speak, our religious beliefs, our culture of origin, our sexual orientation, or any of the other differentiations that masks our unity. We have to unlearn this maladaptation before it kills us.
It’s time to find a middle ground between the naturalist argument (that racism is built in), and the indoctrination argument (that it’s purely taught). It’s never either/or. It’s always both/and.
The solution begins with an acknowledgement of unconscious bias. If you don’t admit you have it, it owns and controls you. The second step is acknowledging privilege – we all have it in one form or another. You have genetic, inherent, or behavior advantages you did not earn – tallness, an aptitude for language, mathematical ability, gender, ethnicity, youth, right-handedness, heterosexuality, and so on. These “privileges” don’t make you better than anybody else, nor do they make you bad. Simply acknowledge your privilege and begin to wield it in the service of the good. Both of these steps awaken our empathy. Imagine keenly and deeply what it feels like to wake up every morning knowing that there are legions of people in your community who wish you were dead, who define you as aberrant and inferior, and who quietly and sometimes not so quietly despise you. Until you feel the suffering of others, none of any of this can be repaired. Until we hear the pain, we cannot heal the pain.
You might wonder – how can we live with hate? Well look around. We're doing it. And it isn't working. So many of our wounds are self-inflicted. Life is hard enough. It's time to stop hurting ourselves. It's time to turn instead toward one another, take off our masks, and feel our fears withering in the dawning light of the beloved community.