Every other Wednesday night for 27 years, I meet with a group of men and talk. “The Men’s Group” began in 1990 with 9 of us who already knew each other deciding to grapple with the question of what it means to be a man. We begin with a check-in about our lives and often explore various topics—relationships with our fathers, mothers, spouses, siblings, children, grandparents, with work, politics, art, sports, with our own sense of hope, failure, triumph, confusion and so on. As you might imagine, we know each other pretty well.
So it was fascinating when one night, I asked what food people could not stomach and as soon as someone confessed something—like “beets”— the immediate reaction was “What? How could you not like beets? They’re delicious!! What’s wrong with you?” And I thought, “How can we achieve world peace if we can’t understand each other’s food preferences?”
But of course it’s the most natural thing in the world to assume that our experience and our thoughts and our preferences are the norm and the “other” is at least slightly out of their mind because they're out of our minds. The Beet Division in the men’s group was pretty low stakes and light and by the end of the evening, we were able to move beyond it and enjoy each other. But it got me thinking about the three stages of all “isms.”
Stage One: Noticing difference and thinking the other a bit odd. But after getting over that initial hump, you’re still willing to be friends and would be open to your child marrying one.
Stage Two: Acting on the above and deciding that in future parties, you will always seek out the Beet eaters and shy away from the Beet haters. You will seek out schools and workplaces and neighborhoods with a clean Beet-loving record and perhaps reflexively lock your car doors when driving through the Beet-disdaining neighborhoods. But you’re still willing to do business with those strange people, converse with them if you must, go to a movie starring someone who will never try your beet salad recipe.
Stage Three: Organizing politics and laws around that division. Beet-haters become official second-class citizens, registering to identify themselves or forced to wear red beets crossed out insignia. They are intentionally segregated, stopped by police and
beeten beaten and sometimes shot without provocation, not
given the same rights as beet-lovers, not given access to the same
opportunities. Religious leaders will accent all the passages in the Holy Books
that clearly state “Thou shall not dislike beets,” scientists will concoct the
theories of mental inferiority caused by omitting beets in the diet, school
teachers will pass all this incontrovertible evidence on to the children. The
beet-haters will be surrounded by the perception that there is something horribly
wrong with them that is irredeemable. In some cases, they can elevate their
status by forced beet-liking conversion (like Jews to Christians or gays to
straights), in others, it becomes gospel truth that those who don’t like beets
will never be able to like them,
(like black folks) and they are condemned to the eternal living hell-fire of
being less than a full human being, say 3/5ths.
Are you following me here? There probably is no education, no civic discourse, no self-reflection more important to the health of this (or any other) country than an in-depth look at the “isms” that drive our lives. Racism is top of the agenda in the United States and yet we know so little about it. If a teacher sings Baa Baa Black Sheep or White Christmas, someone might quip, “Hey, that’s racist!” It’s almost cute, but it’s not. The fact is that we desperately need to investigate deeper into the nature of the beast if we are ever to vanquish him.
This is on my mind while reading the excellent book by George Frederickson, The History of Racism. It’s perfectly natural to group with your “own”—whether by race, religion, gender, sexual preference, nationality. Identifying “us” and “them” is hardwired into our brains, a tool for survival, noticing the difference between human and tiger, friend and stranger. It’s likewise natural to begin to put the other in a category, make assumptions to define that category. Again, this is the way the brain works and by itself, there’s nothing wrong with it. But where does it go from here?
In stage one above, you can begin with some judgment about the strangeness of not liking beets, but finally decide that in the grand scheme of shared humanity, it’s not that important and the person you’ve hung out with for 27 years has other redeeming qualities and can still be your friend.
In stage two, you can choose to make the gap wider, ascribe more importance to the division and begin to organize your personal life around that. But you can still tolerate the presence of the beet-haters and recognize some quality of humanity in them, even if you choose not to invite them to your house for dinner.
In stage three, the entire culture organizes its political life around division and purposefully programs in its citizens a system of intolerance and perpetuates it with laws, scientific theories, and religious justifications. That’s Slavery in the United States. That’s the Holocaust in Germany. That’s Apartheid in South Africa. And those are precisely the cultures the book investigates.
This is worthy of our thought as we enter the dark hole of rising intolerance, led by a “leader” and his cronies determined to pull us back. And if I can make a prediction, I bet none of them like beets. Off with their heads!