So I was a racist. When you grow up when and where I did, you can’t not be.
But then the Civil Rights movement came along.
For a lot of people, of course it made no difference. They held on to racism like it was a precious human right. (Woe to any black man who walked into our little white neighborhood church; the chill would have frozen him down to his bones.)
For most of us, what really changed was not racism, but the reputation of racism. At one point it was okay to be a racist. Hell, it was something to brag about. At some later point, it was not okay to be a racist.
But just because society changes, that doesn’t mean you do.
You weren’t forced to be a not-racist, but you could no longer be openly proud of it. Rather than show it off out in the light of day, you had to hide it away, do it in the darkness.
For my part, I’m afraid the racism was still there in my head. (I like to think I can admit this not because I’m evil, but because I’m honest.)
I was timid as hell when I was younger. If I ever write my autobiography, it will start with the sentence “I was born afraid.” I struggled most of my early life with being shy. Offered an award at a public event when I was in my 20s, I ran (literally) and hid rather than walk out in front of people and accept it.
So it wasn’t like I was driving through black neighborhoods at midnight, as one of my cousins did, honking the horn and shouting racial epithets. I never deliberately not-hired a black person, I never expected anyone to give me their seat on a bus. I never so much as frowned at a black person.
I mean, I saw the point. Intellectually, I knew racism was stupid. I knew it was counterproductive. I was wholly on board with the ideal of equality.
So given the new social atmosphere, I worked at being a not-racist. I worked at giving black people an equal place in line, equal consideration. I drove the racist thoughts out of my conscious mind. I honestly wanted them to not be there.
But in that deep part of me, they were still there. Because I was trying to be fair to Them. Those people. I still separated Them out from Us.
I worked at fairness in my actions, but I still had a problem in my thoughts. I avoided Them. I kept conversations with Them casual and light. I sometimes embarrassed myself by doing that Nervous White Guy thing, talking too fast, laughing too much, when talking to Them. With no handbook, no intelligent advice, I was like a boy at his first dance, stumbling over my own feet while trying to catch the beat.
It went on like that for a couple more decades. Until the day I started to think deeply about an entirely different subject: Evolution. About what it really meant.
One of the lessons I took from evolution was the lesson of similarity, of relatedness. Casting about for a clearer understanding, I started to compare body parts among humans and animals, thinking about the traits we had in common. We share things like wrists and eyes, hips and ankles and inner ears. In some cases, there’s no appreciable difference.
Squinting back along the branches of our family tree one day, something flipped in my head and I suddenly understood that we humans are not all that human.
My wrist is not a human wrist, it’s a beastly wrist, a structure so common it’s shared, with minor topological variations, by squirrels and bears. My eyes are not human eyes, they’re just the late, local expression of structures a half billion years or so old, so common today that even cheetahs and chickens have them. Watching a squirrel or gerbil sit upright and hold a bit of food in nimble little fingers, I see my own fingers, scaled down but undeniably … fingers.
It turns out that very darned little of us is distinctly human. The part we most identify with might be our one little twig on the Tree of Life, but that short twig is not the whole of us. To see our entire selves, you have to trace connections rootward, and include every part of the Tree below us.
You can’t just notice the tiny one-twig difference and say “This is us.” You have to look at our entire lineage, and the attributes we gained at each stage. Reverse the film of evolution and the Tree of Life unbranches, sinks into itself so that we flow into countless other animals, and they into us. Looked at from this viewpoint, the lesson of evolution is not difference, but sameness. Connectedness.
Rather than some unique creature separated by a distinct wall from everything else alive, we’re a foggy smidgen in a single cloud of life. There is no wall of separation. Chimpanzees are us. Dogs are us. Everything alive is us.
Yes, yes, yes, there’s difference. Plenty of it. And we focus on it, always, in an attempt to define ourselves, to find within us our own value and individuality. But there’s even more sameness, vast amounts of it. The entire world of critters enfolds and includes us.
Some time after this lesson of evolutionary connectedness sank home, I was surprised to discover that something interesting had happened to my racism: Some large part of it (all of it? I hope so) had drained away while I wasn’t looking.
Because it was the right thing to do, I had worked hard at being a not-racist. But I had failed.
But now, one day, when I looked at Them I saw us.
I was standing in line at a grocery store on that day, and there was a “black” man standing next to me. I reached down into myself, as I often do, to inspect my feelings, and I was surprised to notice that the fear was gone. This was just some guy, a neighbor, a fellow human thrown into my company by accident in a supermarket checkout line. His eyes met mine momentarily, brown eyes to blue, human eyes, and we both smiled easily.
Son of a bitch. I don’t know if I can even describe how … different … it felt. It felt comfortable, free, even sort of fun.
But, as I realized later, it was accompanied by a counterpoint feeling, a deep annoyance that I had had to have this other stupid, stupid thing in my head for so many years. It was the thing you’d feel if you were suddenly released from chains after a lifetime of wearing them. You’d rejoice in being free, but you’d also wonder “Why the hell did I have to wear those goddam chains all those years??”
My slow-coming understanding of the relatedness of life had compressed my racial awareness, my sense of racial difference, into nothing. Without my even noticing it. I didn’t have to fight anymore to be a not-racist.
There are no such things as races. We humans are all humans, upright mammals with a shared ocean of genetic attributes, with identical feelings and senses of self.
Once you understand you have family connections to horses and dogs and bears and rats, the difference between yourself and other humans is squashed down to trivial-verging-on-nonexistent.
All these “races” we see around us, they’re not Them. They’re Us.
We’re all just kids in one small neighborhood of the larger world of life.
[And like so many things about the real world, this is something I could never have learned in church.]