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Our inner racist

We all want stability, certainty, predictability, everything and everybody with a nice neat, unchanging label. We reside inside our own ego-space and expect our home, our neighborhood, the people we know to remain the same fixed entities according to our opinions and wants.

Too often we are comfortable in our solid, predictable little worlds replete with our prejudices and labels.

We rely on that compartmentalizing so that we don’t have to think too hard about others and can concentrate on ourselves and those with whom we are close. The COVID-19 pandemic and Black Lives Matter movement have loosened that some but it’s deeply embedded.

Some anthropologists say it could even be genetic. Throughout most of our history, humans have lived in bands or, larger, tribes, each with its own territory. If you are walking near your tribal boundary and spy another person, your ability to quickly judge if that person is friend or foe could mean life or death. If a foe, you can flee or prepare to fight. If a fellow tribesperson, then you can relax. Those who are good at making that quick judgment will survive and pass on their genes.

This is the birth of stereotypes. Those who can’t judge quickly are more likely to perish and not pass on their genes. So, in a way, we may have prejudice built into us.

And make no mistake, it can be subtle. One anthropologist I read about studied a tribe in the Amazon whose members said the tribes in the next river basin were sub-human savages. The anthropologist visited this other tribe and found their language and customs were nearly identical to the previous tribe. You’re my tribe or you’re the enemy.

You can bet both of those Amazonian tribes were able to identify their foes from a distance. In modern society we have many, many tribes, and much prejudice.

When I was involved with the Human Rights Coalition of Jackson County, we decided that weeding out prejudice in ourselves was a lifelong commitment. Even sociobiologists believe that it’s possible to overcome our genetic dispositions.

But as the saying goes, you have to want to change. It has to matter enough to you to put forth the effort. The key is empathy, the ability to feel what another is feeling.

We live in a society that emphasizes self-aggrandizement, to get what we want and not care about others. This extends to not being able to imagine that people of different races or ethnicities have the many kinds of thoughts, feelings, talents, etc. as our own. Stereotypes again.

Former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin could casually kneel on George Floyd’s neck because he couldn’t see Floyd as being fully human, as having the same range of feelings he did.

In an interview the actor Morgan Freeman was asked about race, he replied that to just look at him as an individual, a fully rounded human and not through the one-dimensional lens of race.

Each of us must look into our own hearts and open them to the lives of others, all others. Meditation is helpful, calming the chatter and din of our minds so that we can see more clearly into the lives of our fellow humans. Simply being honest with ourselves about our attitudes, our privileges, self-centeredness, lack of empathy; recognizing the stark reality of the suffering of so many.

Only when enough people are able to do that, to go deeper than our tribal tendencies and stick with it long enough to make it happen, will there be the radical change we need.

David Leo Kennedy: Activist in the civil rights demonstrations during the ’60s. Headed The Human Rights Coalition of Jackson County during the nineties. Currently active in the Buddhist community. Send 600 to 700 word articles on all aspects of inner peace to Sally McKirgan innerpeaceforyou@outlook.com