My post is written in honor of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as we observe his birthday today.
I’ve been thinking for years about racism. Where do we learn it? How do these beliefs enter our minds? When do they take root and cause the resentment, anger, even rage that we witnessed in 2020 alone against so many Black Americans? And against Asian Americans, due to Covid? And how the hell did it grow to the point that members of our society felt rightly entitled to storm the Capitol on January 6th on behalf of White Supremacy?
I recall some crazy stuff both of my parents said. Stuff that as a child, I balked at deep inside. I recall seeing and hearing stuff on the playground, on TV, in the movies and in the media. I’m talking about things that just seemed mean, unfair, unkind and downright wrong. Yet, people would laugh and go along. Sometimes I would too. Ultimately, I was left scratching my head wondering about the dissonance I was feeling deep within me that told me it was wrong. Fortunately, I leaned into my instincts against it. But not everyone does.
The day after Dr. King was assassinated, back in 1968, a teacher by the name of Jane Elliott conducted her first ‘Blue Eyes, Brown Eyes’ experiment with her young students. It’s a fascinating study that provided a lot of impetus for the social psychologists who believe that racism is something that we learn. I am 100% in alignment with that belief. We are taught to be racist. It is not our natural inclination. In Jane’s experiment, she convinced the children that brown-eyed people were superior to blue-eyed people, reinforced the idea with some arbitrary ‘facts’ as proof and, inevitably, it led to aggression among the children. She then turned the tables, saying that blue-eyed people were superior and it ended with the same results. (You can read more details about it here: https://exploringyourmind.com/blue-eyes-and-brown-eyes-the-jane-elliott-experiment/)
So where do we begin to set things right?
In his book Why We Can’t Wait, Dr. King had this to say:
“We are perhaps the only nation which tried as a matter of national policy to wipe out its indigenous population. Moreover, we elevated that tragic experience into a noble crusade. Indeed, even today we have not permitted ourselves to reject or to feel remorse for this shameful episode. Our literature, our films, our drama, our folklore all exalt it…It was upon this massive base of racism that the prejudice toward the nonwhite was readily built, and found rapid growth. This long-standing racist ideology has corrupted and diminished our democratic ideals. It is this tangled web of prejudice from which many Americans seek to liberate themselves, without realizing how deeply it has been woven into their consciousness.”
Since our inception as a nation here in America, we have failed to own, or even acknowledge, our ancestors’ crime of genocide of the peoples who inhabited this land before us. European Americans came here, took what they wanted, annihilated most everything in their way, in order to conquer and acquire what they wanted for themselves. They felt entitled. Self-righteous. Superior. They called Native Americans savages, dumb, disparaged them and diminished their way of life. This attitude continues to this day. It is why Native Americans are povertized and marginalized on reservations, hardly a thought given to them in our society. It is why Black Americans are treated heinously and Asian Americans discounted and mocked. It is why women still are not treated as equal. And the list goes on.
Like Dr. King, I think that until and unless we unravel this craven level of disrespect, unkindness and hatred toward other human beings, we cannot move forward into a space where we are liberated from prejudice. Until we untangle this ‘original sin’ of racism, we will never be able to elevate ALL Americans to an equal place. As long as we continue the myth that White skin, or brown eyes, or people with more money, or those of a certain gender, or (fill-in-the-blank) are better, we will NEVER put an end to racism.
And so with that in mind, I return to America’s First Nations for guidance. Our Sioux brothers and sisters have a prayer. It goes like this: ‘Great Spirit, help me never to judge another until I have walked in his moccasins.’ May it give us at least a start on a path of renewal. If we come from this new posture, maybe we can get it right this time.