Parable of the Sower: 1. Experience the Other, Not the Narrative


“Human beings are memory machines, for better or for worse. There is an autobiographical narrative that is alive inside all of us.”  Dr. Keith Witt

A narrative is what creates continuity out of the chaos of experience.   Rather than history being the story of “one damned thing after another”, as Arnold Toynbee once said of some of his fellow historians, it is supposed to be a story, an interpretive lens through which one views the events of history.

But like anything else, a narrative can be something which obscures experience rather than illuminates it.   One way to view racism is to see it as the phenomenon viewing individuals through the narrative one has received about their race, rather than seeing them as, well, individuals.   When you see a black person or a white person, you see them in terms of the “black” or “white” rather than in terms of a “person.”    Then you paste over that person’s face a mental picture you have based on the narrative you have developed about their race.   In other words, you no longer see them, you see the label you have created, and it is therefore a form of blindness.   That’s why they call it prejudice, because you are prejudging the person based on that narrative and not who they really are.

The cure is to start seeing people as people.   I remember when I grew up in the village of Homewood, and there were only about a dozen black people in the local high school I went to.   Although I saw them in the hallways, I didn’t have any of them in my classes, and wasn’t personal friends with any of them, so I had no experience of them as individual people at that time of my life.   It was only after I left college and worked in the city of Chicago that I had colleagues who were black, and I lived in an area that was predominantly black rather than predominantly white that gradually “black people” became “people.”   How did this happen?

Through observation, I saw their personal characteristics and they became individuals to me.   And then through experience, I could see that I had interests in common with some of them.   This process continues today in my Toastmasters club, where our club has a mix of black and white members, but we are all there for the common purpose of improving our public speaking and leadership abilities.   I don’t care whether a new member is white or black, but whether he or she is committed to improving him or herself.

But if you have a narrative which says “black people are …”, or “white people are …” based on some narrative you have been handed to you in a prepackaged form, then you are cheating yourself of the experience of meeting real individuals.  There will be some individuals you meet of any race whom you will like more than others but that will be based on their personal qualities or values, not the color of their skin.

But to be fair to myself, I know that whenever I meet a new person, I have to fight against the tendency of prejudging people based on superficial characteristics.   I know that brains like wrapping the myriad impressions they receive into a package which makes simple to comprehend.    But if it is too simple, it becomes … simplistic and robs one of the variety lying underneath that surface.

When you truly experience the variety that exists in the other, then you naturally create connections based on correlations between the elements in their make-up and those same elements in your own.    But when you label them with a narrative, you aren’t really seeing them at all but a projection of your own self.   How many times have I heard a white person say “black people make me nervous”?    If that were true, one way to solve their problem would be, “well, then make sure to avoid black people.”   But I know that’s not the problem.

When I hear that phrase, I automatically translate it into “my idea of black people makes me nervous.”   The solution to that problem is obvious:   “well, then make sure to change your ideas about black people.”

In the end, it reminds me of saying #113 from the Gnostic Gospel according to St. Thomas:

His disciples said to him, “When will the kingdom come?” 

Jesus said, “It will not come by waiting for it. It will not be a matter of saying ‘here it is’ or ‘there it is.’ Rather, the kingdom of the father is spread out upon the earth, and men do not see it.”    

The kingdom of the father is spread out upon the earth in the guise of other people.   Your job is to see it.

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