I learned about Eric Garner’s death like I learned about Michael Jackson’s: on Twitter. My initial reaction to both was the same, “Is this a joke?” There had been one too many hoaxes declaring the King of Pop dead to accept it. And there had been too many cases involving white officers killing black men to bear another. I placed the heels of my hands hard against my eye sockets and growled to God, “I am so tired of this shit.”
“We’ve been punked, collectively,” says Anurag Gupta, founder and CEO of Be More, a nonprofit start-up whose mission is to cure racism in our lifetime. “We are 99.9% the same,” he argues in my latest Lessons from a Faithful Rebel interview, and yet we’ve been placed in a “color-based human hierarchy.” And here’s the kicker: the hierarchy has spiritual underpinnings as the mythology surrounding angels and demons (good over bad / order over chaos / light over dark) is mapped out onto human bodies. Gupta identifies this categorization as the root of racism, which he defines as “a disease of the mind.” As our conversation unfolds, I begin to wonder, “If the root of racism is found in the mind, does this mean that the cure for racism is within too?”
The short answer: yes. The long answer: watch the interview. We talk about everything from how our brains create automatic biases just by looking at other human beings to why the media we consume is so important to closing the racial empathy gap, especially for the over 75% of white folks who don’t have a single in-the-flesh friendship with a person of color. (Note to holiday movie goers: Ridley Scott’s Exodus might make for a good story but it’s bad for your brain with the leads looking Scandinavian and the thieves, robbers, and servants, you guessed it, Sub-Saharan African.)
It’s not just the brain, though, that will take rewiring. Our souls need rehab too. The vision for Gupta’s Be More takes its inspiration from the words of Martin Luther King, Jr: “Our goal is to create a beloved community and this will require a qualitative change in our souls as well as a quantitative change in our lives.” When I ask Gupta, who describes himself as inter-spiritual but worships at a Christian church, what practices help him tend his soul, he lists prayer, Metta meditation, and yoga. Faithful rebels know that activism without contemplation is like exhaling without inhaling – just a bunch of hot air. They know that quantitative change without qualitative change is its own kind of violence.
My practices of contemplation have been varied in the weeks since I heard the news; I heaved. I breathed. I listened. I retweeted the words of L.A. rapper Propaganda whose daughter cried, “Daddy I’m scared for you because when police kill black men they don’t get in trouble.” I gave myself permission to respond here when ready, instead of with the cruel immediacy expected of bloggers.
I figure, if we can’t practice non-violence toward ourselves, what right do we have preaching it to the world?
For more about the history of race in America and how our repeated assault on black bodies is no joke, check out the following books:
– The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois
– Jesus and the Disinherited by Howard Thurman
– The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander