I recently listened to a talk on-line given by author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The story she told related to her upbringing in a middle-class Igbo family in Nigeria, and something she conveyed in her story has prompted my post for today.
Her family was able to afford a “house boy,” a lad from a nearby rural village. Adichie said as she was growing up, she knew the boy was poor, and that her mother would send him home with some food and occasionally used clothes and things. One day she and her mother visited his village, where Adichie saw for the first time the “richness” (my word) of the lad’s life. Yes, the boy was poor, but she was able to see that his story was so much more. No longer did she see him as a mere servant, but as a human being, with family and all the accoutrements of his tribal culture. So in her mind the boy moved from being just someone having “one story” in her mind, to being a whole person with a multi-faceted story, a “whole story.”
In American society today (and of course much of what I now say would apply to many, many places in the world) we are still confronted with the scourge of racism. In Rwanda not very many years ago, a similar disease afflicted the Hutus, who almost overnight suddenly fell upon their very neighbors and friends who were Tutsis, to commit one of the most horrifying acts of attempted genocide in modern times. No, this was not a manifestation of racism – even though there generally are physical differences between the two peoples – but it falls into the classification of one people seeing another as having, or being, “one story.” That story can only exist in the minds of people who see “others” as being “flat.” By “flat” I mean, of course, that one group of people see the other group generally as having a fixed and limited set of characteristics. Certainly two groups may see one another through “flat” lenses or filters; it can go both ways.
But I wish to now draw this back to the racism that has infected this Nation since “forever.” Within the history of this country there continues to exist a false, “one story” that blinds racists to truth. When I say “racists” I do mean white people, although sure, a black person can be racist and certainly some are. The thing about Blacks in this country is that they have been able to develop a true multi-dimensional story about Whites, because black people have been forced to live among and around white people in a way that whites have not, especially poor Whites. (For example: a black person goes to work in an office around many white people, as opposed to a White working in an office where he or she is surrounded by black co-workers. The list of examples is really endless, although certainly over the last 450 years that list has changed.) However, racists, often Whites who have been inter-generationally on the lower end of the wealth scale, as well as those who are descended from European ethnic groups that settled “late in the day” in America and stuck together apart from other groups, including black people, in the larger northern cities, have not had occasion to be “one on one” in interpersonal, nor social occasions with black people. I can extend this thought also to Whites who settled in remote areas of the West. Only when a racist is confronted with the situation of being socially “close” to someone of color, is there an opportunity for change.
So today we see the resurgence of racism, of Whites who only have their “one story” when it comes to how they see Blacks. The question I have, is how does America ever hope to show the racists that their view is like that of a “flat Moon,” or Earth. The only proven way is that such racists must be “forced” to be directly and personally transactional with Blacks in a person to person situation. When two people must live together, say to survive, then the truth is revealed. The racist is then confronted with words and actions of the target of his or her hate, in a way that will reveal the “full story” of the Black person, in time revealing that there is infinitely more in common between the two than the vile “one story” version that the racist inherited or became infected with. At some point, the racist’s story dissolves, and they now see “the light.” Racism blocks that light.
Of course there really isn’t any way to make this happen at large. So what then is the best hopeful scenario? Short of an external threat to the entire Planet’s survival that requires people to come together to fight off the threat (and so far Aliens seem to be pretty friendly, and Climate Change “too slow”), the next best thing may be time itself: most of the racism infects older Whites, and from what I observe, younger Whites are more and more (sure, there are many exceptions) seeing their Black counterparts as persons with “whole stories,” much like themselves. Any racist logic or attitude will not survive when confronted with the truth of an individual’s, group’s, “whole story.” The internet with its social media, and “the arts” – particularly music – probably will be the mechanism that helps eradicate most racial and other “one story” visions of “others.”
However, there are factors which impede the progression from hateful views to clearer ones. Take for instance, our prison system, where any man entering the system must choose to align with a group of his own “race” for survival. Often this has the lasting affect of infecting someone with hate for another’s skin color, that is carried right back into normal society. We could think of many other factors that are embedded in our institutions that promote, often for the profit of someone, this disease called racism. Those of us who long for a world without racism must diligently work to overturn stamp out such structural mindsets.
In closing for today, I remain hopeful, and heed one of the most important principles of my Buddhist practice: Patience. I believe in time, America will get to where it needs to be on the question of “race.”