Advice from an old white guy
In the spiritual classic A Course in Miracles, our basic impulses are winnowed down to only two primary motivations: We either want to learn or protect (defend). This means we have a choice in every circumstance we encounter. We can either seek to learn and understand when we are coming from a loving place of acceptance, or we can shut down and try to defend ourselves or others we care about.
There is a sort of tipping point between the two extremes, and whenever we approach a topic like racism — or more specifically racial prejudice, inequality, and violence — the more threatened we feel, the more likely we are to avoid learning about a difference in opinion and defend against it. It is a perfectly natural response, and what A Course in Miracles counsels is to doggedly keep reminding ourselves that we need to stay open to learning, however hard it may become. The payoff is that we break down barriers and feel more connected when we learn; we feel fearful and more isolated when we feel the need to protect.
I must admit, I don’t have this down. While I feel total equanimity and respect for all races, all sexualities, all religions, and all gender identifications, I find myself going into protect mode all the time when dealing with political conservatives. I think of their impulse as actually being regressive, and that many of the self-declared seem selfish and short-sighted to me. I’m working on that, so I know the racism issue is also a difficult one to turn around and essentially love your “enemies.”
The struggle for gay rights as a roadmap
I have done it before. There was a very brief time at the beginning of my awareness of my sexuality that I felt oppressed by heterosexuals. Occasionally thereafter, I was drawn into blaming them for the bottles thrown at us pedestrians from passing cars on Castro Street in San Francisco. I was tempted to despise straights when gays were told that AIDS was a blessing and when treatments for the disease were a low priority for more than a decade, taking the greatest love of my life thusfar away from the world. I was denied housing, I was catcalled with hate-filled epithets, I was assaulted, and it’s possible I was even denied jobs partly because of my sexuality. The massacre at the Pulse night club in Orlando set me back for a couple of months.
What kept bringing me back to a more loving motivation to learn every time were two types of people I encountered: models and allies.
Models were the activists and sometimes just common gay people who endured even more obvious or serious discrimination than I had. They managed to embrace heterosexuals, so why was I being so weak that I couldn’t do the same?
Allies were straight and bisexual people who demonstrated through their words and their actions that they were committed to supporting gays and coming to our aid when we were attacked or otherwise in need of it. They kept me from that tempting generalization that all straight people were consciously or at least subconsciously against me.
Visual versus hidden minorities
So I know that being hated for your sexuality and for the color of your skin are not the same thing. I am rarely identified from a distance for my sexuality unless I am in a particular neighborhood, group, or business that caters to “my kind.” Racial minorities do not have to come out (most of the time). A visual minority (which includes disabled people, transgendered people, and many religious minorities as well) is always going to be an easier target for those in protect mode.
But I think the lessons of dealing with the discrimination are still valuable and applicable. Racial minorities, especially in the current political climate in the U.S., are beset with attempts to marginalize them. They still suffer discrimination in employment and accommodations, and they are still unacceptably frequently called hateful names. They are more likely to be watched suspiciously in retail establishments and on the street. They are more likely to be told what they can and cannot accomplish in their lives. And people of other races are still likely to wholeheartedly (even if innocently) harbor stereotypes against them.
And in the past couple of years, discrimination has escalated to violence. To a small extent, our information culture has brought racial violence much more obviously to our awareness. To a much larger extent, incidences of racial violence have increased simply because conservatives have been fanning the flames to scare voters. (More on that in another essay)
Violence toward racial minorities
If you’ve read this far, I’m sure you are aware of what I mean by racial violence, but just in case, I do mean violence directed toward racial minorities. Most shockingly, black people have been so demonized in so many police forces that they are more likely to be arrested or even beaten for doing nothing illegal, and they are too often shot by a frightened, trigger-happy police officer who imagines he or she is in danger or is out of ideas on how to control a suspect. It broke my heart a year ago when I overheard a black girl who looked to be only 7 or 8 recounting her lesson in school that day for her mother. She had to be taught about police brutality evidently.
So with that sort of omnipresent threat in the world, I totally understand why many racial minorities hunker down into protect mode. Probably none of you have made it this far in this essay, but perhaps someone who did will encourage you to open yourself to its advice. The way out is to look for role models and allies.
Decades of racial quotas and incentives have made tremendous changes. The media are almost unanimously on the side of celebrating diversity. Most of the police chiefs and a lot of individual police officers are more actively fighting racial discrimination in their ranks. Racial minorities are more prominent in book publishing now and in television and film. More racial minorities are running for public office and being elected. These measures of progress are not the end of the journey, but they should elicit some hope.
Who ends racism?
It is therefore everyone’s responsibility to do something about racism. If you are a racial minority, it is important that you stick up for others who suffer discrimination or bullying. Stepping in to declare that someone else is being treated unfairly has been repeatedly demonstrated as the most effective deterrent to mistreatment. If you are a part of the racial majority, you can sometimes be even more effective by doing this. This is being an ally.
It is equally important that members of any racial minority who hold positions of influence use their status to shine a beacon on the disempowered. You see that clearly in our President and First Lady. It doesn’t mean you have to become a political or community advocate; it just means that you have to show up and tell your story. The way diversity happens is gradually. A few pioneers break through, proving that breaking through is possible. Then more fight to get their chance in the same groups or industries, and they break through too.
But we don’t start to see groups and industries reflecting the diversity of the rest of the world until support systems arise and start thriving. There are now literary agents and editors who actively seek minority authors. There are now a growing number of producers and casting agents who are specifically looking for minority stories and actors. When these paths become more open, there still have to be enough minorities who first believe that they could become successful, and then they have to get the training and experience so they can compete on merit alone.
And some day, more of us will be able to say when someone disagrees with us, “That’s a very different perspective. What led you to believe that?”
Mark Salzwedel is a polymath currently most involved in writing, editing, translating, singing, composing, and public speaking. He lives in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, and although he has a tendency toward mansplaining, he thinks that is a good quality for a writer and is generally liked.