A beloved friend wrote me recently:
“Right now, I am trying to work on racism in myself. I’ve seen so many times in the last few days Black people and others pleading for us to not only be not racist but to be antiracist. I am reading and listening and trying to educate myself so I can be a better advocate.”
The friend who wrote this is one of the least racist people I know. She is kind and generous toward everyone. Yet she recognizes that there are automatic judgments taking place in her mind every time she meets someone. She recognizes in herself a tendency to be reserved toward people who are different from her. She sees that she has room for improvement.
In fact, all humans have that same tendency, and we all have room for improvement.
For the entire history of humanity, the fundamental task of each person’s whole perceptual system was to assess threat. In order to survive, we had to become good at spotting enemies who, by definition, are people different from us—those we didn’t know or who didn’t belong to our group. We embrace those who are familiar. One of the easiest markers for difference is skin color. So, we all have a tendency to notice skin color and to react to that and other differences defensively. We may become more suspicious or hostile. We may move away. Incidentally, this works both ways. People with dark skin are suspicious of those with light skin and vice versa.
Of course, we moderns think we are fair and enlightened. We are mistaken. We can see racism and discrimination in others but not in ourselves. And that is the mischief. We imagine ourselves to be fair—even embracing—of differences. But we still have a long way to go.
If you are self-aware, you can think of groups that make you uncomfortable. People of different nationality, political persuasion, religion, sexual-orientation, or lifestyle. No matter how progressive you are, you still have deep programming that makes you cautious toward people who are different—and might be a threat.
Of course, there is variability in our racism and other forms of discrimination. Some people are blatantly racist. They may celebrate their distinctness while deriding those who are different from them. Other people are aware of and actively resisting their racism. We may notice when we have a negative reaction and, rather than deny it, we confront it. When we sense those early unsettled feelings, instead of categorizing, we can strive to understand the person. There may be rare occasions when our safety is genuinely threatened and we should act providently. But the far more common problem is that we condemn people without knowing them. Maybe we start by asking ourselves about the other person: I wonder what this person’s talents are? I wonder who they love? I wonder what great experiences they have had? We can be open and curious.
We can go even one step further than curiosity. We can have the change of heart that creates charity.
Let’s adapt King Benjamin’s brilliant observation for our purposes:
For the natural person is an enemy to God and to all people,
and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever,
unless he or she yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit,
and putteth off the natural man or woman
and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord,
and becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love,
willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him,
even as a child doth submit to his father. (adaptation of Mosiah 3:19)
We are all programmed to protect and preserve ourselves at all costs. We are on the defensive—unless and until we yield to the invitation of God’s messenger who changes us into disciples of the One who takes separate things and unites them to each other, to Himself, and to Heavenly Father. Then we become children who welcome His tutoring.
All of this is consistent with the much-neglected verse immediately before Benjamin’s most-famous statement. Verse 18:
Men drink damnation to their own souls except they humble themselves and become as little children, and believe that salvation was, and is, and is to come, in and through the atoning blood of Christ, the Lord Omnipotent.
That’s pretty clear. The only way to overcome our fallen programming is to humble ourselves and to embrace Jesus and His human renewal. He is the only one who can heal our minds and hearts.
Jesus is the perfect example of taking things that are estranged and making them one with Him and goodness. We should read the accounts of Him ministering to those on the edges of the crowd. We should follow His example in looking for and wholeheartedly including those around us who may feel marginalized. We should remember that every soul is precious to the Lord. When we let the Holy Ghost give us Jesus’ perspective on people, then we begin at-one-ment. This is the task that all of us should undertake.
Sometimes we apply Jesus only superficially to our fallenness. We reflect on Him in an effort to be more kind or polite. That is not enough. If we want to be truly changed, we must throw ourselves on His merits, mercy, and grace. As we put our souls into doing His work, we will feel our hearts being changed by Him. And when we feel the demons of judgment and unkindness stirring within us, I recommend that we use Alma’s powerful mantra:
O Jesus, thou Son of God, have mercy on me, who am in the gall of bitterness, and am encircled about by the everlasting chains of death. (Alma 36:18)
The way to overcome racism, narrowness, fallenness, and humanness is to invoke the divine. Jesus can expand our view of and love for others around us. He can make us one with Himself and with each other. He is the master of at-one-ment. When we are filled with Him, we will learn about, embrace, and advocate for one another—even those who are different from us.
Thanks to Annie Foster for her insightful help with this article.