“No apologies necessary, this is America. It is to be expected, it is everywhere at every level…”
This was a message I received from a man who had attended a gathering that I was a part of. He was among those attending that represented people of color, ethnicities, cultures, body shapes and sizes as well as levels of physical mobility. His message was in response to an apology I had made for the racist and other discriminatory actions that I learned of (after the gathering had ended) that he and a number of the other people in the group had experienced from some vocal and powerful fellow participants during the gathering.
When I inquired as to why he had not mentioned anything about it during the gathering, his response was, “The experience is normal for our people.”
I also learned that some others, whose body shape and size apparently didn’t match someone’s ideal, were bullied and made fun of with jokes and songs by the same group.
To say that I was shocked would be an understatement. I worked in a public school system for nearly 30 years. One might expect such behaviors from elementary kids on a playground but not from a group of adults? I also learned that, to their credit, there were some participants who walked away while this was going on, some who told the perpetrators to stop, and still others who were intentionally inclusive and protective of those being targeted.
What is this? A few outliers who have a prejudice problem? I’d like to think so, but science seems to suggest otherwise. Such discrimination, prejudices and ‘ism’s’ seem to be hard wired, ingrained, programmed into our subconscious brains.
Most people, including the perpetrators mentioned above (maybe even more so, because of who they hold themselves out to be) would deny, at some level that such ingrained prejudicial programming exists, in them, at least. We’ve been taught that such things are bad, thus not acceptable so we pretend they don’t exist. They become a part of our “shadow self”, in this case, not those things we hide from other people, but the parts of ourselves that we hide from ourselves. I would venture a guess that the people who perpetrated the behaviors during this gathering would not “own” that their behaviors were a part of their shadow leaking out but rather some kind of misinterpretation (“we were just having a little fun”) on the part of the victims, suggesting it wasn’t their fault because they aren’t the kind of people who would act in a racist or discriminatory manner.
The problem is all in our heads. In our subconscious minds that is. This dominate part of our brain, (an estimated 91-99% of the 70,000 daily thoughts and the decisions we make based on such thoughts, happens here, automatically, without our conscious awareness). This subconscious part of our brain has not received a programming upgrade in 100,000 years. It is still operating from the “truth” that someone, anyone, coming into, or trying to come into our "village" who looks, speaks, smells, dresses, eats, or acts in a noticeably different manner is bad news. Our ancient wiring experiences fear. Lots of it. Historically, we either ran from the experience, got aggressive, or froze, hoping the ‘threat’ would go away, sometimes all three. In that sense not much has changed, we just have more sophisticated ways of displaying such behaviors. Such "noticing" that something or someone different was close by was vitally important and highly functional for our ancestor's basic survival.. Those ancient ones who were best at noticing such things became our ancestors. Those who weren’t so good at it…..well, let’s just say they are not our ancestors. Their DNA is not running through us.
There was little diversity of people or experiences back then because the average person spent their entire life in the company of people who were very similar to them. Those who weren’t like them were their enemies. That is the ingrained programming that each of us walks around with. Whether we like it or not. Whether we know it or not. Whether we deny it or not. Whether we accept it or not. There is great danger for ourselves and others these days in being in denial of that part of ourselves. In not knowing, accepting, “owning” it we hurt ourselves and others, sometimes devastatingly so. Sometimes lives are at stake.
Our country’s political story is filled with examples of how our ‘ism’s’ have played themselves out. The current situation regarding our country's appropriate role in addressing the needs of refugees of the Middle East is but the latest chapter in the well documented history that includes our dominate culture’s less than noble behaviors towards the Native peoples of America, soon followed by the African-American, Spanish speaking, Japanese, Chinese, Irish, Italian, and Eastern European’s experiences of coming to America, or trying to, as well as the fate of Jewish refugees during WWII. While there are a lot of excuses offered for having made those historic (and current) choices, there is very little acknowledgement or awareness that what we are experiencing, once again, is nothing more than our ingrained bias, prejudices, and “ism’s” at work. Very few suggest, perhaps even know that what they are witnessing in terms of "ism" behaviors is based on old, ancient, tribal FEAR.
While there are a few people and groups who openly acknowledge and embrace their racism, religion-ism, sexism, ageism, and proudly act on it (beating, shooting, bombing, assaulting, bullying, joking about and making fun of those who are different), most of us do not acknowledge OUR ‘ism’s’. By not doing so, I believe we are every as much a part of the problem, if not more, than those who proudly fly the open warfare “Us vs. Them” banner.
It has been suggested that those parts of ourselves that we repress and deny, eventually emerge in their most primitive form (thus, the schoolkid-like behaviors mentioned above), often when we least expect it, always surprising others and perhaps even ourselves. Even then, as mentioned before, when we are faced with the cold hard facts of what we have done, we tend to hang on to our denial, suggesting it is nothing more than hypersensitivity on the part of the people being hurt.
The media has provided us many examples over the years of a comedian or politician or other member of the popular culture who get “caught” being racist or sexist, or some other form of “political incorrectness” and they are likely to be heavily punished. Rather than acknowledge that they are acting out, in that moment, what any of us are fully capable of, and acknowledging “but for the grace of God go I”, they are vilified, punished and rejected (and, perhaps they should be), as if they are some kind of antisocial freak rather than accepting what they did as a sobering reminder of what each of us are capable of doing/saying based on what’s inside of us.
I am not suggesting that because it is hard wired and we can’t really do anything to change it, that we get a free pass to engage in acting out our ancient survival behaviors on the energy these fears create. (I believe, for example, that those responsible for what happened at our gathering should be held accountable for their behaviors, though chances are they will not). I am suggesting that if we know about them, are very very familiar with them, can see them coming, we can manage them before they emerge, becoming LESS likely to hurt ourselves or others with our fear based actions because we are “owning” them.
I want to share a couple of the responses from those who were targets at this gathering who I extended an apology to.
"When it began I, without hesitation, left the table. As I walked away, I realized that I had been hurt this way before as a young girl. Back then, there was no one there to protect her and as I imagined that young girl sitting at the table being bullied (or abused), I heard myself say for the first time, 'I am here. I will protect you.' With those words, the hurt was washed away."
“………What I experienced is why I believe we are here in this space at this moment, to try our very best to build cultural bridges across those rivers of hate, shame, ignorance and pain ( just to name a few)… we are the new warriors bravely moving forward, with only our sacred shields to protect us. Never turning our backs to this powerful enemy or it will consume our hearts and spirits. Hoka Hey! Strong Hearts to front, cowards to the rear...this is a good day to die!”
I hope and long for that kind of grace when I am on the receiving end of someone's ism………. Sadly, there are others who don't have the coping skills demonstrated above who end their lives because of such experiences.
What I am suggesting is that whether our hard wired brain likes it or not, whether it “gets it” or not, we are, in this moment in history, required to live in a diverse world. Whether we like it or not, we are going to react to those who are different than ourselves. What I am suggesting is that it will be better for all of us if we “own” that primitive, out of date, wiring. Own our fear of things and people who are different. Notice those moments when those ancient thoughts and reactions emerge. Learn about them. Become an expert on them. Become familiar with how, when, where, under what circumstances, and with whom they are likely to show up. We will not, in our lifetimes, be able to reprogram our brains so that all such discriminatory programming is changed, unless an artificial method is developed to update our operating systems (which in and of itself is a sobering thought)
What am I to do with them if I don't want to hurt others? Author and philosopher Richard Rohr says, “Notice them, own them, and weep".
I'd add call them what they are, my fears speaking.
How about you?