How to change from an anti-American racist to an anti-racist American?
That was the theme of the talk I went to with W. Kamau Bell and Kate Schatz last night. But what do I mean by an anti-American racist? Why, racism is as American as apple pie! A pie made from apples grown on land stolen from the Native Americans, picked by the Latin American migrant workers, baked and served by the African American house servants to Anglo-Americans who did nothing to earn their desert other than be on the right side of a theory of White Supremacy that they made up. A narrative that informed every single year of our country’s history. So how could a racist be anti-American?
But what actually is the defining character of America? A country that was built on a conscious vision, a mission statement of sorts clearly expressed in documents known as the Constitution and Bill of Rights, documents that continue to be the North Star of our navigation. Were the land-owning white males who forged the document flawed products of their time, hypocritical and exclusive in their meaning of who was actually entitled to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”? Yes, they were. Do the rich and powerful constantly grab the wheel of the ship and steer in the direction of their own profits and privileges, North Star be damned? Yes, they do. Is there a current political party hell-bent on lying and cheating and gerrymandering and vote-suppressing their way to pushing the moral arc away from justice, even to the extreme of invading the Capitol Building? Yes, there is.
But those yellowed documents still speak a vision that millions of the oppressed and down-trodden and excluded have valiantly fought to bring to life. Even those who have benefitted from their inherited privilege are waking up to the importance of using their intelligence, compassion and citizen’s duty to turn us in the right direction. Not back on the right track, because history reveals we’ve never been there yet, but in the direction the future demands. Not to just be an ally for those still marginalized, but to be a spokesperson for the only future possible for all of us. Without kindness, compassion, intelligence and a commitment to defend all sentient beings and the very air, water and land that sustains us, there is no future that is viable for our life on this planet.
To be anti-racist goes far beyond considering the systemic ways in which people of color are denied the same access, rights, freedoms and safety of their fellow white citizens. It requires enlarging yet further to see how similar things happen for women, gay people, Muslims, poor people and more. It means taking a long hard look at our values, especially our obsession with wealth and riches, the foundation upon which slavery was based. It means a radical change in what we value, what we consider important, what we reward with our attention and praise, what we’re willing to work hard for, what we mean by success.
This call for more attention to the truly important things in life is also a part of our American heritage, a cornerstone of the thinking championed by the Transcendentalists back in the mid-1800’s. It included such writers at Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Louis May Alcott and others. The new Americans we need are a reincarnation of folks like these, now also including Frederick Douglas, W.E. DuBois, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Zora Neale Hurston, Sitting Bull, Chief Seattle, the Grimke Sisters, Mother Jones and a long list of others in the conversation.
Alongside our constant efforts to educate ourselves as to what we’ve done (and are doing) wrong, we need some guidance in what it looks and feels like to do things right. And embed that in the curriculum for every school child. And so, one piece from Ralph Waldo Emerson and a poem by Emily Dickinson for the children—and their teachers and their parents and their pop stars and their elected representatives— to consider.
To laugh often and much;
To win the respect of intelligent people and
the affection of children;
To earn the approbation of honest critics and endure
the betrayal of false friends;
To appreciate beauty;
To find the best in others;
To give of one's self;
To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child,
a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition;
To have played and laughed with enthusiasm and
sung with exultation;
To know even one life has breathed easier because you
have lived -
This is to have succeeded.
-Ralph Waldo Emerson
If I can stop one heart from breaking,
I shall not live in vain;
If I can ease one life the aching,
Or cool one pain,
Or help one fainting robin
Unto his nest again,
I shall not live in vain.
- Emily Dickinson