Why did the news of a racist guy surprise anyone in America, and why did it suck up so much attention? Well, I imagine that most of us are sick and tired of hearing about Donald Sterling, and the adventures of a racist basketball team owner and his ethnic girlfriend. The initial shock of the situation has long since worn off and many of us have been far past the moment of wanting to move on. But it seems like there are lessons in the ridiculousness of some old White dude who happens to be racist that have nothing to do with him. The lessons are actually in the community response, and why some guy, that the average non-basketball watching person wouldn’t even know, is now a household name.
Let’s play a modified version of racism charades: Three words, two phrases…..
Cognitive dissonance is what happens when people work to reduce the uncomfortable friction that is experienced when conflicting beliefs and values are present. This can also happen when people’s behaviors contradict their beliefs and values. Leon Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance talks about the need for “internal consistency”, often achieved by attempts to reduce discomfort. We often see cognitive dissonance manifest in avoidance, or even in creating meaning that supports behaviors that are contradictory to a value system. “Well, he was (blank)… and so he got what he deserved”.
Cognitive dissonance is one of the foundational tools used in the creation of the United States, and is a very important part of the culture of this land. It is the way that slavery was justified, along with Jim Crowism, poverty, mass incarceration, inequity in laws and social policy, and even things like immigration laws. We are good people, right? So we could not possibly be exhibiting behaviors that contradict those beliefs, and therefore we fall back on justifying those social issues by making those situations or people wrong, evil, unworthy…. less than human in order to justify our actions. The Africans were stupid, the Natives were savages, the Mexicans are leeches, and poor people are just lazy. How else do we justify calling human beings illegal aliens, and when did legal status mean someone was no longer human? The varying terminology, laws, and attitudes support a level of cognitive dissonance that has enabled generations of people to ignore the humanity behind many social issues for a long time.
What does all of this have to do with Donald Sterling? Absolutely nothing; it has to do with us. Sterling became the most recent case of scapegoating for the American people around the issue of Black people in america, and that nasty word that many people have such a hard time saying….. RACISM. What actually happened was that Sterling’s incident placed a gigantic mirror in the face of society, reminding us of one of the things that many people want to ignore; that racism is alive and well in this day and age. This realization is not something that Black people, or other people of color, are surprised about. Not at all.
This news story took a sharp tack and popped open the bubble that protected people from the reality that most people of color have to exist within. And just like that…. that uncomfortable feeling that Leon Festinger described in his theory is front and center, outrage ensued, and Sterling gets the racism scapegoat award for 2014. If we make it all about him, then no one else has to make it about them. We are not racist, Donald Sterling is racist and now that we dealt with that…. we can continue on our path of post racial harmony in the age of a Black president.
As the media tide turns to something else, I feel we have a spiritual and human responsibility not to let the collective consciousness of America brush racism back under the rug. Continuing the conversations that came out of this incident could support the slow movement of acceptance that we do not live in a color blind society, and we have yet to cure the United States from categorizing the worth of individuals based in divisive racial caste systems. Sterling was only a result of the balloon needing to release some of the air before it pops, he was not the cause of racism, and all of his fines will not dismantle the institutional and structural racism that we are still experiencing today.
Let’s keep the conversations going, and let’s continue to educate one another in what racism really is, unlearning those outdated definitions. My spiritual guides, and my Gods, remind me that I am divinely sacred and an extension of all things. It is very important to me to be a part of the change I want for my children, a change I may never see in this lifetime just as my ancestors did not see it in theirs. But nonetheless, my world is different today due to the sacrifices that my ancestors made for me that they never got to enjoy, and I find that it is just as important to me that I leave a better world for others as was done for me.
It is a divine mission we are all on together, and if we are too busy ignoring that racism and social unrest exists, then how will we change the world?