Overcoming Racism Through Love, Learning and Play
In previous articles we described the LLP mindset, a mantra for living a fulfilled life through the pursuit of our three deepest longings: love, learning and play. In this article, we focus the lens on racism and how we can overcome it through continuing to deeply engage in LLP.
On May 25, 2020, George Floyd’s death threw into sharp relief a particularly public and egregious example of police brutality against a black man. It’s an all-too-common occurrence. Tragedies including the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and far too many others are a manifestation of a wider problem of racism in America. Racism has plagued this country for hundreds of years, and George Floyd’s death was sadly not unique. But this time, the public’s response has been uncharacteristically powerful.
The continuing nationwide demonstrations have sparked debate among minority groups and leaders, activists, academics and public officials about how best to turn this crisis into an opportunity for meaningful and lasting change to combat racism and its consequent manifestation of wider systemic disparities African Americans face in health, education, employment, wealth and housing.
Influential leaders including university presidents and corporate CEOs have spoken with firm resolve like never before about tackling this problem effectively. In a highly symbolic move, Princeton University has announced plans to remove the name of former president Woodrow Wilson from its public policy school because of his segregationist views, reversing a decision the Ivy League school made four years ago to retain the name. This highlights the immensity of this transformational moment.
Why now? I think this response is because the COVID-19 pandemic has woken us up, sparking existential reflection. Many people unfortunately lost their jobs or were forced to close down their businesses. This has created huge financial hardships for many, along with the corresponding anxiety and other psychological hardships. But it has also created the opportunity for people to seriously reflect upon who they are beyond their jobs and work identities. It has also caused people to reflect upon the role of government in their lives, as many have now become dependent on unemployment and other federal assistance programs.
This heightened state of social and ethical awareness has left us wondering: Why do such heinous attitudes and acts of racism still persist in a country like the United States? This is a country built upon the loftiest ideals, and which presently has the best institutions of higher learning in the world, the most dynamic corporations involved in research and technology and the most vibrant culture of innovation — in short, the strongest and most important foundations for LLP.
The Enlightenment values extolling rationalism, democracy and unity are reflected in one of our oldest and most cherished mottos: “e pluribus unum” (out of many, one). “We hold these truths to be self evident,” the Declaration of Independence begins, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” As a child, these words used to inspire me and emboldened me as an idealist with a utopian hope for the world.
Our country has been battling racism since long before its formal birth 244 years ago, and several constitutional amendments and other legislative actions have been enacted to overcome it. However, until we work at the level of individual consciousness, racism will continue to thrive in the hearts and minds of a critical mass of individuals. We have not been very successful because of the covert nature of racial discourse and practices that breed racism.
As the Czech president and social reformer Vaclav Havel said, “The salvation of this human world lies nowhere else than in the human heart, in the human power to reflect, in human modesty, in human responsibility. Without a global revolution in the sphere of human consciousness, nothing will change for the better.” The COVID-19 lockdown conditions have given us the ample time needed for the kind of personal reflection that such a revolution depends on.
I believe LLP offers a framework that all of us can harness to effect important change at the individual level, which will translate to greater social change. As Gandhi taught, “we must be the change we wish to see in the world.” This is what makes LLP so important and so powerful: It is a vision of a changed world that every individual can actualize right here, right now.
Times are tough, as many are still facing unprecedented hardships relating to work, household responsibilities, family matters, and mental and physical health. But even under the most dire and stressful circumstances, we can still engage in LLP.
In the context of the current confluence of crises facing our country — the COVID-19 pandemic, institutional racism and police brutality, and sociopolitical divisiveness that turn us against one another — focusing on love is more important than ever.
Throughout history, many important figures have defined the fight for justice as an act of love. This has been especially true of black civil rights leaders, including Cornel West who urged us to “Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.” Similarly, Martin Luther King Jr. argued that “Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love.”
Love involves our sincere desire to see others happy and flourishing, just as we would like for ourselves. This is the common religious injunction to “love your neighbor,” most famously expressed in the West through Jesus Christ. Father Francis Clooney, a Harvard professor and Jesuit theologian, elaborates upon what Jesus meant by “neighbor” through the lens of the story of the Good Samaritan:
“Today, this could be a person who is black or white, Christian or Jew or Muslim, native born or just arrived, police or criminal or innocent bystander. It doesn’t matter. It is just a human being, and the test for the priest, the Levite, and the Samaritan, is how they react when they encounter another person, simply as a human being. Second, Jesus changes ‘neighbor’ from a reference to a noun to a verb: don’t list your neighbors, but be a neighbor.”
When we think of neighbor as a noun, we create a category in our minds — a category that includes some people and excludes others. Focusing on being a neighbor places the focus instead on how to love, rather than who to love. Wearing a mask has become a Democrat versus Republican issue when it should be an act of love. C. S. Lewis had something similar in mind when he advised “Do not waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbour; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him.”
We can practice this daily. Put yourself in another person’s shoes, if only for a moment. Imagine what a person who lives in fear of the police or experiences hostility based on skin color must feel. Imagine what it would feel like to know another person cared about that struggle.
The scriptures and prophets of many other religions across time and place have espoused this same core value. Baha’u’llah, the prophet of the Baha’i faith, said, “Choose thou for thy neighbor that which thou choosest for thyself.” The ancient Daoist sage Lao Tzu said, “Regard your neighbor’s gain as your own gain, and your neighbor’s loss as your own loss.”
I contribute support to a friend, a Muslim cleric in India, who works to un-radicalize radical Islamic youth. He does so by reading passages from the Quran that explicitly denounce violence and emphasize love. His success rate with this method is an impressive 80 percent. A common refrain he hears is, “We were never told about these passages from the Quran.” This conversion process proves the Buddha’s claim that “Hatred does not cease through hatred at any time. Hatred ceases through love.”
Even religious “nones” including atheists, agnostics and those who identify as spiritual but not religious usually champion love at the core of their value systems, claiming that love need not depend on a belief in God (visit our webpage for examples of love across belief systems). There is further support for this found in our biology as well.
Scientists have identified mirror neurons as a primary biological factor in our capacity to experience empathy. When we observe the actions of others, mirror neurons trigger physiological responses in our bodies that mirror the experiences of those others. This is one of the reasons why we react so viscerally to the video of George Floyd’s killing. Because of mirror neurons, we feel some semblance of Floyd’s fear and pain in our own bones.We see it in the peaceful protests of the past several weeks — Americans of all races and classes coming together to fight racism. We can see it in the ways that communities are pulling together in the face of this pandemic.
Human evolution hardwired us to be the most empathetic species on Earth. We are naturally predisposed to caring for and loving the other. As Confucius said, “Men are close to one another by nature. They diverge as a result of repeated practice.” Hate, mistrust, fear and lack of understanding are all learned attitudes, and they can just as well be unlearned. Let’s see how.
The role that learning can play in promoting love and combating racism is best expressed in the following quote, usually attributed to the Sufi Muslim poet Rumi:
“Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all of the barriers within yourself that you have built against it. It is not necessary to seek for what is true, but it is necessary to seek for what is false. Every illusion is one of fear, whatever form it takes.”
If we can learn more about the false attitudes we have collectively and individually adopted toward other groups of people, we can begin to undo them, which will convert our fear of the other into love.
This is further expressed quite beautifully by Cornel West, who sees himself as someone who has “tried to be a man of letters in love with ideas in order to be a wiser and more loving person, hoping to leave the world just a little better than I found it.” This is the spirit of learning for the collective benefit of humanity that we should all aspire to.
As more people wake up to the reality of racism in the United States, there has been a lot more inquiry into our history, and many people are learning truths that their school textbooks neglected to mention. A major focus of the recent protests has been the glaring discrepancy between the first lines of the Declaration of Independence that attest to the equal rights of all and the closing lines that exclude blacks and Native Americans from this promise. This foundational document is thus viewed as emblematic of the hypocrisy and so-called “original sin” of the United States.
Even the Thirteenth Amendment, which was intended to abolish slavery, had a critical flaw, stating that “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction” and that “Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”
The clause except as a punishment for a crime was exploited by various pieces of legislation that disproportionately targeted blacks. The tragic legacy is a society in which blacks make up a disproportionately high percentage of prisoners, victims of police brutality and the economically disadvantaged. The institution of slavery has simply been replaced by subtler forms of control and power, which can be harder to detect and denounce.
Anti-racism demands that we identify the hierarchies and power structures that have resulted in white privilege, and that we look at them honestly. For example: historically, blacks have been denied federally backed mortgages in white suburbs; the only places available for African Americans to buy homes were black, urban neighborhoods often declared “too risky” for federally backed loans. This accentuated the segregation problem. And since, as the saying goes, your zip code is your future, this legacy has perpetrated inequality in many social outcomes.
In addition to the issue of white supremacy, there has always been a real issue with white ignorance and an inability, perhaps unconscious, to understand how the legacy of the past as well as ongoing practices in the present continue to handicap people of color.
Most racists do not see themselves as racist. They may not wear their racism on their sleeves as clearly as those who kneel on the necks of people who look different from them or execute them by hanging them from trees. Many racists are, instead, more like asymptomatic COVID-19 carriers: They themselves do not know they are infected and are actively infecting others. They’re not always easy for the rest of us to identify.
In order to prevent the virus of racism from spreading we must not only be attuned to the attitudes and behaviors of others, but to our own. We must be open to the possibility that we may have racial biases operating at an unconscious level. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihaly urges us all to “painstakingly match one’s preconceptions against actual, ongoing experience to begin separating truth from illusion…These distortions are ‘inside’ each one of us — no human being is immune to the illusions they foster.” If we want to solve the problems of racism and bigotry, we cannot start with the assumption that each of us is not part of the problem simply because we’re writing or reading Medium articles about the tragedy of racism.
The illusions referred to here include the biases and prejudices that fuel racism and discrimination. Among the most insidious of these is confirmation bias. This form of bias occurs when our unfounded assumptions and preconceptions color our external reality. Harvard neuroscientist Jill Bolte Taylor describes how vulnerable all of us are to this form of bias: “Our minds are highly sophisticated ‘seek and ye shall find’ instruments,” she writes. “We are designed to focus in on whatever we are looking for. If I seek red in the world then I will find it everywhere.”
So people raised to see black Americans as inferior to whites will see statistics on police brutality, prison populations and unemployment as evidence confirming their bias that blacks are violent or lazy or ignorant. It’s further complicated by the fact that some black people have internalized these narratives about themselves. Evidence suggests that black students under-perform on standardized tests such as the SAT when they are asked to fill in their biographical information (including race) before the start of the exam. The same is true for women, who often internalize the belief that they’re less talented at math and science than men.
These confirmation biases are like bad stories that have been passed down over generations, with little basis in reality. As psychologist Mahzarin R. Banaji writes in her book Blindspot:
“Hidden biases are bits of knowledge that are stored in our brains because we encounter them so frequently in our cultural environments. Once lodged in our minds, hidden biases can influence our behavior toward members of particular social groups, but we remain oblivious to their influence. Most people find it unbelievable that their behavior can be guided by mental content of which they are unaware.”
In reality, black people have excelled at every level of society, when given opportunity: statesmen such as Nelson Mandela, Condoleezza Rice and Barack Obama; athletes including Serena Williams and LeBron James; scientists such as Mae Jemison and Neil deGrasse Tyson, just to name a few, have contributed in the most meaningful ways. Many more, including Oprah Winfrey and Desmond Tutu, have brought hope, wisdom and inspiration into the lives of countless individuals.The United States twice elected a black president, a long-awaited crowning achievement in the fight for securing equal opportunity for black people.
In many ways, de jure segregation is dead, but de facto segregation will persist until we are able to take more control over our own minds, learning to undo the prejudices that have held us back for so long.
We can begin our individual journeys in simple ways, by spending more time listening than talking. When we’re talking, we’re not learning. “We have two ears and one mouth. So we should listen more than we say,” so said the Greek philosopher Zeno of Citium. Actively listen to black people’s lived experiences. Ask open-ended questions in personal interactions and really listen to the responses. The more we learn about other people, the harder it is to judge them and the easier it is to see what we share as human beings.
Diversity is, in essence, the play of the universe itself. In Hinduism, we have the concept of Lila or divine play, in which God splits into the millions of living and non-living forms of existence, which eventually return to one another and become God once more. British philosopher Alan Watts described this view of cosmology as one big game of hide-and-seek.
This is how life itself is: Billions of years of evolution on this planet have resulted in a proliferation of an estimated 8.6 million species of life, all of which have come about through mechanisms of chance — genetic mutations, for instance — acting upon different arrangements of the same basic material building blocks.
Play is a deep property of nature at the individual level as well. Animals play to hone their survival skills: fighting, hunting, fleeing and foraging. For us, play has a similar function, with the difference being that our survival depends on different skills. Instead of learning how to fight and hunt through play, we learn valuable lessons about cooperation, following rules laid down for teamwork, compromise, fairness and play itself. Without sharp claws or fangs or particularly impressive musculature, our ancestors’ main strength was cooperation and social cohesion, which our intelligence enabled and which necessitated mutual respect and empathy. These are the kinds of skills we hone through play activities such as sports.
Team sports reinforce the idea that not only do we depend on and benefit from cooperating and acting in concert with others, but we benefit specifically from diverse others. American football teams require quarterback, running backs, receivers, linemen, kickers and so on; soccer, hockey and lacrosse each require a mix of forwards, defensemen and goalies; basketball requires guards, centers and forwards; and baseball requires pitchers, catchers, infielders and outfielders.
Each of these positions correspond not only to different skill sets, but different body types. In other words, the diversity that exists in the world outside of the game finds meaning and purpose on the field or court. This is how it should be in the everyday world as well: Instead of looking at others with fear or hate, look at them as teammates, with the dual recognition that each one of us matters to the other precisely because of our differences and that these differences are a product of different circumstances rather than fundamental differences in nature or essence.
The influential black sociologist and civil rights activist W. E. B. Du Bois espoused a worldview that captures this kind of dual perspective, embracing diversity while recognizing the overarching common humanity that binds us and makes us all worthy of equal treatment:
“I believe in God who made of one blood all races that dwell on earth. I believe that all men, black and brown and white, are brothers, varying through Time and Opportunity, in form and gift and feature, but differing in no essential particular, and alike in soul and in the possibility of infinite development.”
Until we are able to treat all of humanity as one race, one family and one community of neighbors, harnessing the richness of our global diversity, we will fail to develop and flourish to our full potential as individuals or as a human race.
The Hindu thinker Swami Vivekananda used a nature metaphor to express this idea:
“The seed is put in the ground, and earth and air and water are placed around it. Does the seed become the earth, or the air, or the water? No. It becomes a plant, it develops after the law of its own growth, assimilates the air, the earth and the water, converts them into plant substance, and grows into a plant…[E]ach must assimilate the spirit of the others and yet preserve his individuality and grow according to his own law of growth.”
To think that we would be better off without one particular race or group of people is ignorance at its highest — every group of people has something to offer that, if we are brave and open enough to accept it, will enrich each of our lives and allow us each to grow into our best selves.
We are living through a pivotal moment history that will determine the future not only of our country, but of the human species. This is an opportunity to not only draw attention to racism against blacks in particular, but to dig a little bit deeper and see this problem of racism as one manifestation of an even broader problem that has plagued humanity for many thousands of years: the problem of “me versus the other.”
As long as we continue to see “the other” as an obstacle rather than a resource, we will not be able to solve racism, or ageism or sexism or any other form of prejudicial hate and discrimination.
For more about LLP, read our other blog articles here or visit us at https://medium.com/@universalenlightenmentforum
Akhil Gupta is the founder director of Universal Enlightenment & Flourishing. He spent five years at Harvard University as a Senior fellow/Guest. He was the chairman of Blackstone India from 2005 to 2014. He is on the Advisory Board of Stanford Business School, the Leadership Council of Harvard Divinity School, and the Advisory Board of Harvard University’s Human Flourishing Initiative. He is at work on two books: one on Human Flourishing, and another on common themes across religions