The Presence of the Alternative
Identifying Ourselves as Love to Lift Above Bias
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. …”- MLK JR.
On April 26th of this year, The National Memorial for Peace and Justice will open to the public in Montgomery Alabama. This is a memorial honoring the African-Americans that were victims of lynching in the South. Among other exhibits, there are pillars representing towns, inscribed with the names of all those killed by racial terrorism. There are extra pillars in this museum which each town is invited to take and display in their public square. Bryan Stevenson, the director of the Equal Rights Initiative that pioneered this memorial, pointed out that other nations like Germany have been able to mend because they have owned up to the injustice they inflicted upon their citizens. We, as a nation, have been very slow to recognize our shadow.
“This shadow cannot be lifted until we shine the light of truth on the destructive violence that shaped our nation, traumatized people of color, and compromised our commitment to the rule of law and to equal justice.”
– Bryan Stevenson
Recently, two members of my family took a tour through Savanna, Georgia. They mentioned that during the tour one guide shared that they had been instructed to not dwell on slavery but to focus on all the glamorous sights the city has to offer. Fortunately, the younger tour guides chose not to downplay the city’s history because they understand that Savanna has the opportunity to be a center for education and healing. There are many tours that rise to this occasion.
I was listening to the story of their tour right after I heard about the incident in Starbucks last week where two black men were arrested for waiting for a business meeting without buying something first. These men simply wanted to use the bathroom while they waited. Six police officers arrived, handcuffed these two men and took them away while the person they were waiting for arrived, corroborating their innocence. After several hours in jail, the men were released. How many of us have spent hours in Starbucks, using the bathroom, loitering with our laptops for hours without buying anything? (OK, I usually buy a cup of coffee, but not always, and not right away!) This incident didn’t happen in some small backwater town, this took place in the city of Brotherly Love. What was even more disturbing was the Black chief of police insisting that his officers did nothing wrong.
It is atrocious and unfortunately, not uncommon to hear a report of the police shooting a young black man in his own backyard, claiming that he was charging them with a gun, only for the autopsy to show that he only had a cell phone, and was shot in the back multiple times.
I am currently listening to an audio version of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, about a black woman whose cells (HeLa) became one of the most important scientific tools of the century. I was astounded to hear from the author that during her process, she had an editor who actually suggested taking Henrietta out of the narrative. The whole point of the book was to honor the woman whose cells have helped cure polio and further advances in medicine.
These incidents verify, to me, that there is a collective form of insanity that causes us to be so superficial that we can continue to deny our common humanity on the basis of skin color.
Wrestling with my own anger and sadness about the Starbucks situation, I was inspired by a wonderful talk that my wife Julia and I attended this week in NYC by the author and spiritual teacher, Marianne Williamson. The focus of her lecture was on seeing beyond the body. Marianne likened our body to the clothes that we wear. While our clothes maybe a source of pride and judgement, what we are is not ultimately defined or limited by them. In fact, the more we identify with our bodies, instead of the love that animates us, the more we suffer. We pin this anguish on one another. We become so strongly identified with our covering, that we find it hard to see one another clearly. Obviously, we cannot take off our outward identity as easily as we can take off a jacket but, in the scheme of things, we will all take off our current form within a hundred years and all that anyone will remember of us, as Maya Angelo said will be, “how you made them feel.” To transform our bias for one another, Marianne encouraged us to, “Be the presence of the alternative.” I love this phrase. For me, it means that each of us has the opportunity to embody the sincere love that really sees the person in front of you, not as different, not as separate, but as a welcome part of you.
The CEO of Starbucks used the term, “unconscious bias.” We all hold an unconscious bias in one form or another. It may be a racial bias, or our love may be limited towards those of a different religion, political party, status, body size, age, lifestyle, orientation, point of view, etc. Most of the time, we actually have a problem with ourselves and it becomes easier to either blame an individual, group of people, or to throw ourselves into a cause, while still holding onto the hatred and fear that perpetuates the problem. Again, being the ‘presence of the alternative’, to me, means that we are presenting the kindness and consideration we would like to receive. If we can identify ourselves as something grander than our ego and limited lifespan, than there is hope for equality within our personal spheres.
Marianne also pointed out that it is necessary for our leaders to embody this understanding before lasting change can take place. While that seems like a distant dream right now, as more of us embody the presence of the alternative (namely identifying with the love that connects us) the resulting ripples will overlap, creating waves that make a shift possible.
It’s not too late for us to come to terms with our own bias, whether it is unconscious or blatant. On May 29th, Starbucks will close all of its stores to hold bias training. Wouldn’t it be amazing if the nation had that opportunity as a whole to take the day to look inside to see where we fall short and how we can begin or further the healing process? As Bryan Stevenson said, “Truth and reconciliation are sequential. You can’t get to reconciliation until you first tell the truth.”
Originally published at www.streamoflightblog.com on April 19, 2018.