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02 January 2015

Reflections on Backpacks, Racism and Fear

If you’ve ever squeezed your way into a crowded New York City subway car, you’ve inevitably encountered the straphanger who refuses to take off his or her backpack to make room for others, despite cramped conditions.

I've done my share of hisses and growls in response, and occasionally asked one of them to take the darn thing down when it stuck into the air a quarter mile wide. Now our Transit Authority is talking about banning backpacks on the subway.

I thought of the backpack problem these past few days when I realized that at the root of racism, "America's Original Sin" as Sojourners Magazine has called it, is nothing but fear.

Fear is all around. Michael Brown and Eric Garner had every reason to fear the justice system. Their families and communities had every reason to fear the system's reaction when they asked legitimate questions regarding the use of force. Why? Because "whiteness" can be taught and propogated only with heavy doses of fear.

Each human being is born with a set of fears inherited from our caveman ancestors, but the fear of blackness is not one of those. It has to be taught. Little kids have no fear of other people until their parents drag them away from that other person in disgust ... then a value is transmitted and what enforces the value is fear.

The immediate result is that most people walk around with this backpack a quarter mile wide, and even though it's heavy and unwieldy, they don't know it's there; they think it's just the way to be, and when you question them about their baggage, they will feel insulted and call you names.

But the other result is even more pervasive: Based on the often unspoken and invisible fears described, our country has created a justice system that is stacked against anyone who is "other".  When you question the powers that be about their hidden biases, you might get arrested ...

Rumi comes to mind, and his wonderful call to mindfulness:

The breezes at dawn have secrets to tell you:
Don't go back to sleep!
You must ask for what you really want.
Don't go back to sleep!
People are going back and forth 
across the doorsill where the two worlds touch,
The door is round and open:
Don't go back to sleep!

It's time people wake up and take the invisible racist baggage off of their backs. Won't you please wake up and stand with those of us who refuse to remain unsconscious!


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