Academic Musings, Life Musings, Race & Ethnicity

The French Approach to “Anti-racism”: Pretty Words and Magical Thinking

I first came to France twelve years ago during my junior year abroad. I was the first person in my family to get a passport and I could barely contain my excitement. In the winter of 2003, two years before the riots that followed the untimely deaths of 15 year old Zyed Benna and 17 year old Bouna Traore, I landed in Paris bright-eyed and bushy tailed, armed with a very shaky grasp of French and a naive fascination with this beautiful country.

As an African-American, I was vaguely aware that France did not deal with issues of race the way we do in the United States. And when I happened to forget, French white people were keen to remind me. In one of the sociology classes I took at a university in the south of France, I hesitantly raised my hand to ask a question. The white French professor had been lecturing on youth and delinquency. I asked, in my broken French, if the dynamics he described had any relation to racial or ethnic belonging. “We don’t have that kind of problem here,” he said, adding: “This isn’t the United States.” Embarrassed and flustered, I nodded and continued taking notes. After class, one of the only other black students pulled me aside: “We do have those kinds of problems here. Hang out with me and I’ll tell you about it.”IMG_7291

My new friend was from Cameroon and had moved to France along with her sister and brother several years prior. Over the course of the semester, her family basically adopted me, inviting me to dinners, showing me the area and telling me about their lives. I learned that despite the fact that each of them had white French partners and white close friends, they nonetheless experienced racism. But, as I learned in that sociology class that day, many French people denied that racism was actually a problem in their supposedly colorblind society.

Zyed Benna and Bouna Traoré, two teenagers who died on October 27th in 2005 after being chased by police officers. Photo courtesy of Le Monde.
Zyed Benna and Bouna Traoré, two teenagers who died on October 27th in 2005 after being chased by police officers. Photo courtesy of Le Monde.

Continue reading “The French Approach to “Anti-racism”: Pretty Words and Magical Thinking”

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Race & Ethnicity, Spiritual Musings

Why The Negro Problem is a Lost Cause

I want to be very clear about a few things up front before I lay out these ideas, because what I’m going to share is a bit complicated and my argument is probably unlike most of what you have heard and read – possibly ever, and certainly in the wake of the countless reflections on “the race problem” that have emerged in our collective efforts to grapple with what happened to Trayvon Martin.

So here are my caveats:

  1. This is not, in any way, a minimization of racism and its very real consequences for millions of people who have lived and died in this country – or en route to its shores – since its inception.
  2. This is not a post-racial post.
  3. This is not a hopeless story.

* * *

In the days following the Zimmerman verdict, I found myself moving about the world in a heightened state of racial awareness.  Going about my business, I observed anxiety as I interacted with strangers I categorized as white — and/or Latino. “What are they thinking? Do they care about the trial? Are they racist?” Walking into a grocery store, I glanced at a pile of newspapers, with a smiling Zimmerman and the verdict in bold letters. And then I glanced at my white neighbors, pushing their carts and picking through cantaloupes.  “Are they happy? Are they disappointed? Are they indifferent? Are they allies?”

Beyond words, I observed the emotions caught in my chest — the fear, fatigue and frustration.  The relief I felt in the middle of aisle 6 when my eyes met those of the one other black person in the store — a woman with graying hair who took a moment to smile at me.  I smiled with gratitude in return, but I imagined that she knew it was not a smile of happiness.  It was the smile of survivors acknowledging with simple defiance that “We are still here.” It was a smile, tinged with pain and resistance, that black women and men have been wearing in the wake of tragedy for generations.

One morning last week, I sensed myself do a double-take when seeing a Latino brother who, to my mind, looked like Zimmerman.  In a flash, self judgment and shame: “This man has nothing to do with Zimmerman.”  And yet there it was – the ugly seed of prejudice.   I saw it in my heart — the heart of an antiracist, a woman who is highly committed to living beyond her own conditioning, with multi-racial, multi-ethnic family members, friends and loved ones of every hue.  If this seed can exist in my heart, then it can exist in any heart.  In fact, Buddhists teach that the seeds of consciousness and unconsciousness exist inside all of us.  We can either choose to water the unconscious seeds or we can choose to wake up to our true nature.  Looking at my Latino brother, I saw Zimmerman.  I saw Trayvon.  And most importantly, I saw myself.  In that moment, I knew that part of my spiritual practice in a time of racial crisis must be a renewed decision to water the seeds of compassion, to consciously acknowledge the seeds of prejudice and to be very clear about the core of the human problems that ail us.

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I’ve always been a big fan of W.E.B. Du Bois.  I like to joke that he actually attended my dissertation defense.  (This is also a litmus test for determining whether someone actually knows who Du Bois is.)  In fact, my defense was to take place in the department’s main seminar room, where Du Bois’ portrait hangs on the wall – the only black face in a sea of whiteness.  At the last minute, I was told that we’d have to move to another room.  This was so distressing to me that a friend secretly arranged to temporarily steal remove the portrait and place it in the seminar room where I defended my thesis, directly across from my seat.

Du Bois’ sociological work has always been near to my heart because he spent so much time thoughtfully and creatively meditating on what he termed “The Negro Problem”.  In fact, he wrote (1898) not simply of the Negro problem, but of Negro problems as a multifaceted set of complex social conditions with historical roots and myriad consequences:

“A social problem is the failure of an organized social group to realize its group ideals, through the inability to adapt a certain desired line of action to given conditions of life. If, for instance, a government founded on universal manhood suffrage has a portion of its population so ignorant as to be unable to vote intelligently, such ignorance becomes a menacing social problem. The impossibility of economic and social development in a community where a large per cent of the population refuse to abide by the social rules of order, makes a problem of crime and lawlessness… Thus a social problem is ever a relation between conditions and action, and as conditions and actions vary and change from group to group from time to time and from place to place, so social problems change, develop and grow. Consequently, though we ordinarily speak of the Negro problem as though it were one unchanged question, students must recognize the obvious facts that this problem, like others, has had a long historical development, has changed with the growth and evolution of the nation; moreover, that it is not one problem, but rather a plexus of social problems, some new, some old, some simple, some complex; and these problems have their one bond of unity in the act that they group themselves about those Africans whom two centuries of slave trading brought into the land.”

As a social scientist, Du Bois concerned himself with the social dimensions of the problematic features of black life in the United States. In The Philadelphia Negro – the first significant urban sociological study in the history of American sociology – Du Bois argued and empirically demonstrated that whites’ anti-black discrimination resulted in reduced opportunities for blacks, limiting where they could live, the jobs they could occupy, their social environments and the even the functioning of their families.  While his work was largely ignored by mainstream sociologists during his life, over a century later, his insights into the dynamics of race, discrimination and opportunity are highly influential and have been so for several decades.  And Du Bois’ related meditations on the subjective dimensions of oppression, as seen for example in The Souls of Black Folks, continue to shape our understandings of race in America.

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At some point in my 20s, a startling and depressing thought occurred to me: The Negro Problem is a lost cause. In long discussions with friends, activists, teachers and family members, we would always come to a point where we’d throw our hands up in resignation to the seemingly eternal nature of the bullshit.  I began to suspect that the mutlifacted and institutionalized problems that Du Bois and so many others have explained could be improved — but only to a point. Like many students of race, I found myself struggling to imagine that racism could ever be eradicated.  And more than this, it also seemed that the black/white wealth gap — which is only one dimension of racial oppression — would in all likelihood never be erased.  Over the years, it became increasingly clear to me that while our society certainly can and has become more tolerant, there are certain features of our history that have produced path-dependent effects — effects that will probably linger, in some way, shape or form, for a very long time to come.

This feeling – which first emerged in the classroom – was reinforced when I went into the field and began interviewing nearly 200 people of African descent in the United States and France.  As I probed their views on race and racism, I heard that many of them believed that the problem of race cuts to the core of something fundamental about the human experience.  In the voices of many black people I met, on both sides of the Atlantic, was an acknowledgment that the struggle against racism feels interminable because its really a struggle against the human condition.  It is a struggle at the core of the human heart.  The question is: Can this problem be undone?  Or will we forever be undone by it?

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If we try to solve our race issues by nibbling around the edges of oppression, by making superficial changes, by merely signing petitions, taking to the streets, by engaging in political movements, by becoming more entrenched in our racial identities — if this is all that we do, then yes, I am arguing that the Negro problem is indeed a lost cause.  We might as well go home now.  Game over.

But if we begin to acknowledge that the Negro problem is not really a Negro problem at all, then there may in fact be hope for us.  What we really have is an Ego problem — and yes, it is at the heart of the human condition.  But this is not a death sentence.  Another way is possible, but it will require that we transcend the ordinary ways in which we’ve been conditioned to think about ourselves and each other.  It will require us to see the N(eg)r(o) problem not simply as a social problem, the way Du Bois did, but rather as a special form of something more universal, something more pernicious, something more intimate than “structural discrimination” or “the system”.  Undoing the N(eg)r(o) problem is not even primarily about other people.  It must begin with each of us getting real about how we see ourselves and the consequences of these beliefs for how we interact with others.  So what does the ego have to do with the Negro? And what does any of this have to do with bringing about a more just society?

* * *

Years ago when I read Eckhart Tolle’s “The Power of Now”, I noted with pleasure the fact that he acknowledged — albeit briefly — race in his work.  In describing the endlessly varied dimensions of egoic identification, he writes:

“Since the ego is a derived sense of self, it needs to identify with external things. It needs to be both defended and fed constantly. The most common ego identifications have to do with possessions, the work you do, social status and recognition, knowledge and education, physical appearance  special abilities, relationships  personal and family history, belief systems, and often also political, nationalistic, racial, religious and other collective identifications. None of these is you.”

What does it mean to say that you are not your egoic identity?  Does it mean that your identities do no matter? That the way others identify you has no consequence? Absolutely not.  To say that we are not the ego is to bring attention to the fact that we go through life believing that we are the ideas we have of ourselves — so much so that most of us don’t even realize that we are acting upon this core belief.. what Mooji calls our belief in the “I-entity”.  We take our self-concept for granted, as though it actually, concretely, represents who we are.

Tolle is simply stating that logically, this cannot be true.  To say that you are not your ego – that you are not your identity – is to gently point out the incontrovertible truth that you cannot be any idea that you have of yourself.  “You” – your presence, your consciousness – must precede everything else.  This isn’t even about spirituality at all – it’s simple logic.  Think about it for a moment. Can you be an idea? Or do you have ideas? And if you have ideas, Who is it that has it?  Does that Who have a gender, a nationality, status, sexuality, height or weight?  Does that Who have an age?  Does that Who have a race?

* * *

Sociologists are very good at describing our social problems and — sometimes — proposing some measures of improvement.  But we cannot solve them with empirical studies and well-couched policy implications alone.

In fact, we cannot solve the race problem inside the race problem.  Does this mean that we should simply transcend race?  Of course not.  Why?  Because it is not possible to transcend something without first acknowledging it!  Biases based on appearances are hardwired into our social conditioning through our interactions with others and our absorption of language.  Bias is not something we can simply choose to let go of or disregard without first becoming acutely aware of how it has shaped — and continues to shape — the way we live our lives.

bell hooks teaches us that one of the key mechanisms of racial oppression is convincing human beings to see themselves primarily as racial subjects.  I concur and argue that we must see racialized thinking for what it is — a particular form of a more general phenomena — the socially reinforced habit of thinking that we are defined by the thoughts we have about ourselves and others.  Effective antiracist activism will require acknowledging race and racism from a place beyond race and racism.

When we think that we are our racial identities and our racial thoughts, we perpetuate systems of inequality – not only out there in the world but also and primarily inside of our own experience.  As long as I think I am merely my ideas, then those ideas are dependent on validation, either from other thoughts of my own, or thoughts from others.  As long as I think I am merely my ideas, I cannot be totally awake and alive to my full humanity.

This isn’t woo-woo-woo spirituality . . . it’s simply a fact. The tendency to reduce ourselves and others to thoughts of any kind blinds us to our inherent worth and the worth of others.  And it is impossible for us to make truly positive change in this world, change that will last, if we are not aware of our inalienable worth, beyond thoughts, beyond social conditioning, beyond what we have learned to believe.  Prejudice of all kind stems from a human being mistaking themselves for an idea (egoic identity) and seeing others they interact with through the lens of that delusion.  Thus, instead of interacting with other human beings, in their full presence, the unconsciously prejudiced person interacts with them as stereotypes — as mere ideas… ideas that can be ranked, negated, diminished and disregarded.

So what can we do?

The Negro problem, as traditionally defined, may be a lost cause, but the Ego problem is not.  I don’t have the secret of how we will once and for all solve these pernicious problems, but I know for sure that we cannot do it without sustained awareness, honesty and transparency about our egoic impulses and the ways in which we have all been influenced by the biases we’ve absorbed through socialization.  Being biased is part of what it means to be human. Living beyond those biases, in the light of awareness and compassion, is what it means to be Divine.

Part of unpacking the ego is becoming more (not less) aware of our own racial lenses.  We must see ourselves beyond ego, yes, but we must also pay attention to the way our conditioned mind reacts when we encounter others – and take responsibility for living beyond the bullshit. What expectations and prejudices do we have when we interact with people we perceive as different? What thoughts — good, bad, or otherwise — arise when we see folks we categorize into “groups”?  What feelings do we experience when we encounter “one of them”?  Can we witness these thoughts and feelings without judgment?  In so doing, can we become more alive to that part of ourselves that witnesses our social conditioning but has Itself never been conditioned?  Can we become more alive to the Presence that is at the core of ourselves and every other living being?

When we are faced with racism, it is very tempting to be unconsciously dragged down into racializing others in return.  But this is a terrible mistake.  If we are going to help others wake up to their own racism, we must first wake up to our own racial concepts and in so doing, see beyond them.  From that place – in the racial world but not of it – we can rise in consciousness, inflecting our activism for social justice with wisdom and compassion, empowered with an unshakable confidence in Who we really are.  For, as bell hooks writes:

“To move beyond race is not only the goal of critical thinking, it is the only path to emotional longevity, the only true path to liberation.”

What I’m trying to say here is that we don’t, in fact, have to move beyond race, because what we really are has always been beyond it.  What we have to do is consciously realize what is already the case, by waking up to the part of ourselves that has never been defined by ideas, racial or otherwise — the part of ourselves that is Consciousness Itself.

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