This is a hard time to be alive. It's a time of concurrent crises that can stop life in its tracks at any moment. It's a time marred by the spread of the deadly virus, but also scarred by the deadly effects of systemic racism and punishing disparity. This is a time of continuous funerals in the human heart.
In the midst of the argument about wearing or not wearing masks to protect each other, the public killing of George Floyd has unmasked the ongoing tragedy of “man's inhumanity to man.” The callous execution of yet another unarmed black man at the hands of police has torn the skin off the age old wound of racism and revealed the process of dehumanization, which continues to be the deep fault line in American culture.
The actual taking of a life, seen online by millions of people, becomes symbolic of hundreds of years of crushing the lives of untold numbers of people simply for being black or brown, or something other than white. The heartless pretense of one group being superior to others becomes symbolically embodied in a white police officer who coldly, and almost casually, takes the breath of life from a black man being pressed to the ground while calling out to his mother and pleading for air.
The moment of death comes after almost nine agonizing minutes of torture that seems to reflect the long term history of institutionalized racism that denies, not just freedom, but basic humanity to those deemed to be, not simply “other,” but also less than human. Because the killing was so cold blooded, because it was caught on video, because it comes under the heavy hand of an administration that exploits divisions by race and class and because it comes in the midst of a pandemic that disproportionately claims the lives of African Americans, Native Americans and Latino Americans, this heartbreaking, life-stopping moment must become a cultural turning point.
Racism and the delusion of white superiority have had a chokehold on humanity for ages. Systematically treating people as if their lives do not matter depends upon believing that those being victimized are less than human. The resulting despair that has been growing just under the surface of life in America, has now been released and the rage associated with it has been unleashed. To say this is not to justify violent behaviors or looting, but to realize how those who have been cast into the shadows of life can feel powerless to change their fate, and can easily come to feel that there is simply nothing left to lose.
“In order for meaningful change or transformation to occur, there needs to be a radical shedding of things that are not life-enhancing. And one thing that clearly does not enhance life in America is ‘white thinking.’”
The notion of people being white is only a few hundred years old. It is a false idea that has become a dangerous ideology. The problem isn't simply that some people identify as white. Rather, the crux of the issues is that when people claim the mantle of whiteness, they fall into the fallacy of white thinking.
A tragic aberration of meaning occurs when the idea of whiteness is taken literally, so that people associated with a color become defined by that color. In a kind of psychological trick, aspects of the color white, such as brightness, or purity or innocence, become the basis for false claims of superiority for one group of people being above all others. This false hierarchy of color causes those deemed to be non-white to be cast into the shadows and be declared less pure and therefore inferior, but ultimately, less than human.
Typically, we use colors as metaphors to describe feelings and attitudes that are common to all of humanity. Any person, regardless of skin color, can become red with anger, green with envy or blue with sorrow. We know that they are not literally turning into these colors. And yet whiteness has become systematically literalized into self-defining, exclusive terms of white people, white culture, and eventually white supremacy.
Massive denial is part of the delusion of whiteness that not only sustains an ignorance of the past, but also tries to keep the long lineage of racial injustice from entering the present. Preserving the privilege of not having to feel the depth of suffering caused by the pretension of whiteness becomes part of the duty of police forces, who increasingly wind up protecting and serving the white fallacy that leads to a perversion of justice, in the name of justice. Then comes a moment when the suppressed history of pain and anguish breaks through the skin of culture and the repressed anger and agony erupts into the open, for all to see; hopefully for all to feel.
Tragically, the voice of George Floyd repeating, “I can't breathe, I can't breathe,” gives oxygen to a storm of repressed emotions and the rage of long denied voices. The shock people feel in seeing that moment includes the revelation of mass oppression and holding down of the lives of untold numbers of people. The cost of the pretense of superiority based on skin color can be found in the suffering and death of endless numbers of people of color, but also can appears in the increasing dehumanization of an entire culture.
Humanity is not a cloak that people can put on when it is convenient to do so. Humanity is the word we use for people as a whole, as in all the people and we the people. If some people are denied their part of the whole, that leads to a deterioration of the whole and a diminishing of all the people. The level of crisis that we are all in now cannot be fixed with a simple repair. Rather, we are being called upon to use the essential threads of our lives to weave a culture of genuinely inclusive humanity.
The word crisis comes directly from the ancient Greek healers, who used the word to describe a turning point in a disease. In this situation, the disease is systemic racism and the treatment requires that the pain and suffering be distributed to all parts of the whole. There can be no healing, if certain groups of people are required to carry all the pain and injustice in the system. An old proverb says, “If you know what harms yourself, you then know what injures others.” Thus, the more a person feels the depth of their own humanity, the more human everyone else becomes to them. Ultimately, there is no neutral place when it comes to granting humanity to all people. Another proverb warns that “not to aid those in distress is to kill them in your heart.”
Most people are familiar with the call for wholeness in the African proverb that says “it takes a whole village to raise a child.” But the second part of that proverbial thought says that “if you don't fully welcome into the village, the young people who are on the edge, they may burn the village down just to feel the warmth.” In terms of history, we have systematically failed to fully welcome the essential diversity of the children of America. In terms of the crisis of this moment, the fires have already been lit. The question now becomes how we find humane ways to quell the flames and not allow ourselves to become even more divided and alienated from each other.
“In a sense, the world has been on fire for a while now. The climate crisis and global warming say that, the fevers induced by the pandemic say that, and now the fires incited by the history of racism, injustice and exclusion say that.”
Even if we could quell the immediate flames, we would still be facing an overheated human psyche and an overheated world. The question of when we can all go back to normal has been answered at another level. There is no normal to go back to, nor should there be because what many thought was normal was not humane enough, was not inclusive enough, was not caring enough to allow people to live in meaningful ways together.
The word despair comes from the French root meaning “to lose all hope.” There are reasons to lose all hope these days and yet, there is a second level of hope. There is a deeper kind of hope not based in wishful thinking or built upon false expectations that cannot survive encounters with the harsh hand of reality.
This deeper level of hope is not found by denying the presence of despair, but rather by surviving it. The second level of hope only appears after we have experienced hopelessness and our hearts are broken. When life becomes darkest, the eye of the soul begins to see. For this deeper hope depends upon the unique power of the human soul to imagine, and therefore to create, to innovate and to renew life. And when all hope is seemingly lost and all seems headed for disaster, it is genuine imagination and a deeper sense of soul that needs to be found again.
The chokehold that white thinking holds on humanity depends upon the automatic use of oppositional thinking. The pattern of “us versus them” has become the defining story in modern life. As human beings we live and we die in the context of the stories we tell ourselves, about the world and our place in it. And at this moment in time, both the future of the world and the sense of genuine humanity are in question. The way forward requires that we find stories that take us beyond the dehumanizing patterns of us versus them.
As a mythologist I've studied stories from traditions and cultures around the world. When it comes down to the nature of humanity, and the essence of the human soul, there are two basic and opposite stories that tend to persist. One story considers each person to be an accidental being, who enters the world as a blank slate or empty soul after birth. Elements of family, social factors and education, shape and define that person's identity and in a sense the value of their life. The blank slate story easily leads to ideas of social determinism, in which entire groups of people can be not just denied opportunities, but also be dismissed as being less than human.
The other basic story of the human soul begins with the sense that each person born brings something essential to life. In this story, each soul is unique and each person is naturally gifted and imbued with meaning and life purpose. In this kind of story, the role of society becomes that of helping each person born to awaken to an inner dream that gives their life meaning and purpose. This second story is the most universal tale of humanity, in which each person, regardless of race or color, background or orientation, comes to life bearing gifts, and each can then be seen to have an inner nobility and natural dignity. On that basis, no group can claim to be superior, or more human because of race or appearance, because of history or background. On that basis, those who deny the basic humanity and dignity of other people only reveal their own lack of humanity.
History, as people used to say, is written in the depths of the individual human soul. And the deeply troubled time in which we all find ourselves is a story still being written. If we insist on denying a genuine sense of humanity to some, we can only continue to lose our way and further lose our own souls. If we open ourselves to the understanding that we are literally all in the same story, each suffering in our own way, we may find genuine ways to help heal and protect each other while restoring a sense of genuine humanity in ways that bring more meaning and more soul and more beauty to the world.
This article was originally published on mosaicvoices.org