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What Divides Us Diminishes Us

August 15th, 2014 Leave a comment Go to comments

I want to point out that we should not be surprised that people in this country still view events through a lens colored by racism. We would like to imagine that our troubles with race are over. No more slavery. No more Jim Crow. Civil Rights and Voting Rights laws. Heck, we even have a black president.

But the fact that we identify our president as black shows how race conscious we still are (did anyone ever point out that Ronald Reagan was white?). And because of the historical injustices that have been done in this country motivated by racism, which cannot be banished from memory simply because improvements have been made, it is not surprising that many people tend to see things through the lens of color.

As a historian I can point out that people interpret events from the point of view they are conditioned to. It’s not “just the facts ma’am.” Historian Michel Rolph Trouillot identifies the production of recorded history as the tension between “what happened” and “what is said to have happened.” The first is the actual event and the second is how we perceive that event through the filter of our historical memory. This can easily be seen in sporting contests. The San Diego Padres lost to the St. Louis Cardinals 4-3. That’s a fact. But if I am historically a Padres fan (I am), I will react differently to that fact (I will be sad) than if I am a Cardinals fan (I will be happy), or a Yankees fan (I will be indifferent). It might be possible to hear two people report the same event and not be able to tell from the reporting that they are describing the same occurrence.

This principle applies to our perception of all events. We are all biased toward a certain point of view. We all carry the baggage of our collective historical memory. We sometimes are proud of accomplishments we had nothing to do with, and we sometimes are burdened by injustices we didn’t personally feel. Our historical memory will make us more or less likely to believe things that are verifiably either true or false.

We need to acknowledge this. Maybe we could say something like, “I believe that you see things that way. I don’t see it that way, but I want to understand why you do.” And then be brave enough to hear the answer. Because we are all “right” within the context of our worldview but we are all, each and every one of us, “wrong” about “The Truth™.” We can only find our truth in that tension between “what happened” and “what is said to have happened.” That’s why it’s possible to say things that are completely inaccurate and still tell the truth.

If we really want to solve the race problem in the United States we need to stop repeating our conditioned responses and start hearing what people are saying. Stop reacting and start trying to understand. Stop talking and start listening. Because what divides us diminishes us.

“When we look at modern man, we have to face the fact… that modern man suffers from a kind of poverty of the spirit, which stands in glaring contrast to his scientific and technological abundance; We’ve learned to fly the air like birds, we’ve learned to swim the seas like fish, and yet we haven’t learned to walk the Earth as brothers and sisters…” -Martin Luther King, Jr.

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