Michael Brown’s death at the hands of a white law enforcement officer in the small town of Ferguson, Missouri got me thinking. The United States has a long and well-documented history with racism (depending on the history books you read anyway – there are some which suggests that the slaves were paid). Black Americans have long suffered at the hands of white law enforcement. Michael Brown’s death is (possibly) just the most recent. Do not misunderstand me – I am NOT in any way trying to minimize what happened. This is an issue that needs to be investigated for a number of reasons: Whether the officer should be tried for murder, use of force by police generally, and what constitutes a justifiable basis for the use of lethal force, etc.
But at the end of the day, it’s really not about racism. You read that right. It’s not about racism.
And it’s not about homophobia, biphobia, transphobia, xenophobia, ethnocentrism, nationalism, or anyone else we “fear” or hate.
Eradicating racism won’t suddenly bring about world peace. If everyone in the world suddenly decided Christianity or Judaism or Islam were where it’s at, people would still fight. If everyone came around to realize that sexuality is just one element of who a person is and doesn’t actually say anything about the kind of person anyone is… you know where I’m going with this.
I had the realization just this weekend (and I’m a little disappointed in myself for not seeing it sooner) that the real issue is the “us vs. them” mentality that is so pervasive. Our natural inclination to divide the world into ourselves with people like us (based on whatever criteria we choose) against everyone who doesn’t fit into the little circle we’ve created. Race is an easy one because it’s so obvious. You just take a look at your face in the mirror and look around you as you go about your day. Religion, sexuality, and ethnic origin are harder, but that doesn’t stop people from making assumptions based on stereotypes and limited exposure/experience.
It’s important to note that the little circles are of our own making. We create them. They have meaning only because we give them meaning.
The thing that amuses me the most is the assumption that if someone shares A characteristic with us, that characteristics B, C, and D will follow. But they don’t always. I took a class in law school called Race and the Law. For a portion of the course we were divided into smaller groups to make discussion easier. I was grouped with other black students. When the professor walked by our group she said something to the effect of, “Now you all can discuss affirmative action without having to argue over the need for it.” She just assumed that because I’m black that I support affirmative action. The thing is, I don’t.
I don’t know why we create these dichotomies. To make ourselves feel more comfortable? And if so, more comfortable with what? To try to understand ourselves? Attempting to define ourselves by the qualities of others strips us of our individuality. When we do it, it means that our definition of our self is limited by who we meet. If we don’t see it, we can’t be it. Are we so fulfilled in life that we think we can get by not understanding probably more than half of the rest of the world or more? Do we do it to distance ourselves from others so that we don’t feel saddened when bad things happen? Does that make it some kind of self-preservation? Do we do it to feel more self-important?
Do we need to figure out the why? Can we find our way to a solution without getting to the root of why? I don’t even come close to having an answer for that.
What’s obvious is that focusing on differences will always yield results. We’re all special snowflakes. There are literally billions of ways to come up with an us vs. them. Perhaps by focusing on what we have in common, recognizing that those commonalities are far more important than what divides us, can lead us to a better place. At the end of the day, we’re all seeking the same things – love, acceptance, and validation of who we are. We don’t need an us vs. them for that.