If you want to really make the world a better place, I recommend you stop thinking about racism. Now, before you think of me or this statement as irresponsible, read on.
For the past five weeks I have been writing this series on racism while working on CITIZEN: An American Lyric, a play about racism written by Claudia Rankine and adapted for the stage by Stephen Sachs.
As part of this series, last week I wrote Why I Constantly Think About Racism! In it I said that racism is inescapable, and it is time to stop trying to distance ourselves from this truth. Instead, we must face racism. See it. And, call it by its name.
So why on Earth am I now saying we should stop thinking about racism?
This past weekend during a talk-back with CITIZEN author Claudia Rankine, a woman asked, What can we do as individuals? Other people that weekend had voiced the same question. There was no definitive answer produced. The process of eating an elephant one bite at a time crossed my mind.
Einstein said you cannot change a problem with the same thinking that created it. Likewise, when it comes to racism, we cannot change it by thinking about it in the same old ways; too often we get caught up in the intellectual debate -- discussing injustice, assigning blame -- and trying to prove, sometimes desperately, that we are NOT racist.
At the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, I'm told there are two doors with signs that read "racists" and "non-racists." I am also told that very few people enter through the door marked racist. I assume this means most people don't see themselves as racist. But in fact we all behave in ways that keep racism alive.
These past five weeks of looking through the lens of CITIZEN, along with 300-plus years of history, confirm that racism is too big a topic to go up against in the same old way. Its size and historical strength are just too overwhelming.
However, we as individuals can start deconstructing racism -- not by attacking it in the world, but rather by becoming aware of our everyday unconscious behaviors that fuel racism, and all the other -isms that corrupt our personal humanity.
This is the "What can I do," action that CITIZEN suggests.
We must accept that racism is intricately woven into the human experience and American culture. We all are both victims and perpetrators. Once we understand this truth, we can stop wasting our time with blaming. Instead, we can learn to take pride in catching ourselves in the act of old behavior, and make new choices.
As we learn to see and change our behavior, we can each experience a sense of accomplishment. This becomes a profound way to take both responsibility and new, effective action. Such accomplishments are the byproducts of developing inner fitness -- the strength and ability to change and manage life from the inside.
It is easy to see racism when it shows up as it did in South Carolina, Auschwitz, or as Japanese-American Internment. It is not as easy to see the subtle practice of racism that is represented by the surprise that a black person is articulate; a Latin person drives a nice car; an Asian person struggles with common emotional issues; a white person uses food stamps.
Generalities are a breeding ground for racism.
As a starting place for real change, let's take our attention off of the intellectual debate. Instead, as Einstein instructs, think differently. Make a pact with yourself to observe yourself in the next week and month. Throughout each day, see how often you generalize, lump together, and collectively label people.
When we experience one person from another race and assume that they represent their entire race, it's not just racist. It is also profoundly insulting and dismissive.
Lumping people together means you don't care about who they really are. You are not interested in getting to know them. If we don't take time to engage with one another, we can never dispel the erroneous assumptions we constantly make, based upon our ignorance of other people and cultures. Nor can we confront our irrational fears of others.
Lumping people together robs you of intimacy and humanity. The cost we pay is the development of a shallow heart. Shallow hearts do not have the strength and resilience necessary to make a difference. Once we learn to take charge of what takes place inside of us, we each become a more powerful, capable and effective force in the world.
As we go forward from here, my intention is to suggest ways we all can make a difference by thinking differently, changing our hearts, and making our own lives more emotionally rich and free. For now, you can start by not thinking about racism and instead paying attention to the assumptions and generalities you carry in your heart.