Vaccine for Racism: Compassion

Sen. Kamala Harris, accepting the Democratic VP nomination on Aug. 19, 2020

During her acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention on Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2020, Kamala Harris made the memorable statement that, “There’s no vaccine for racism.”

She’s right, of course, there is no single or simple way to end irrational racial hatred.

BUT a newborn doesn’t start life hating anyone, and in fact thrives with love and attention. In order to feel hate, we have to learn it. We have to be taught, either directly or by observation of how others behave, that racial enmity and prejudice are “normal.”

BUT we all have the capacity to unlearn old messages, and re-learn better ones. Every strategy for learning more tolerant ways to see the world — every antidote to hatred — is grounded in compassion, when we realize that another is hurt or harmed, and we take action to help lessen their hurt or suffering.

We are more likely to turn to our own compassionate natures if we:

  • understand that the trouble that invokes compassion is serious;
  • realize that a sufferer’s troubles are not self-inflicted;
  • and when we can picture themselves with the same problems.

These are the conditions and insights that help turn another person from a target of hate to a human being deserving of our compassion.

Healing with compassion. The organization Life After Hate was founded by Christian Picciolini, who broke away from the white supremacy movement and now works to help others do the same. “Empathy and compassion are the only things I’ve ever seen truly break the cycle of hate. It’s also what saved my life.” Picciolini’s 2018 3-part series BREAKING HATE is on YouTube.

We have other necessary ingredients to create racism vaccine built on compassion:

Protest that’s peaceful. A large majority of the Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality have been peaceful–until the police responded with violence. In at least two places, police officers have been arrested for using excessive violence against protesters who remained peaceful. We have the models of Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and John Lewis to guide us to make peaceful good trouble.

Making community bigger. I’ve appreciated opportunities to meet more people of different skin colors and lived experiences through organizations that are purposefully fighting racism and offering education and conversation. One is Bridge the Divide, another is the YWCA Milwaukee Conversations on Racism series. There are lots of opportunities, podcasts, gatherings with masks/distancing too. Sometimes I’ve been uncomfortable (“Am I saying the right thing the right way?”) but I’ve always been welcomed to conversations. I don’t have to befriend every Black person in Milwaukee (!) to be working toward racial justice — I just do my best to listen and appreciate the folks I do have the chance to meet.

Schools at all levels are a focus for how to teach accurate history of BIPOC in America, history that’s missing in textbooks written by white historians, about the doings of white people. Senator Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisconsin) is one of the sponsors of The 1619 Act to fund and expand access to extensive resources about African-American history. The push to improve curriculum is coming from parents and students too, speaking truth to educators and school boards.

Every religious faith puts compassion at the heart and core of its values and teachings. Compassion is the foundation of morality in every society. Reaching people through their religious beliefs is one way to start conversations about working for racial justice as a moral act. Why aren’t more religious communities at the forefront in the fight for racial justice?

“Live in peace with everyone.” Hebrews 12:14. “Cultivate kindness.” Proverbs 3:3. “‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than this.” Bible, Mark 12:31.

“That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah. The rest is the explanation; go and learn.” Rabbi Hillel the Elder

“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” Tenzin Gyatso, 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet

We feel better when we act compassionately. Neurobiology is proving it. In a variety of studies, including using MRI’s to track brain activity, scientists find that doing something helpful for other people activates the same areas of the brain responsible for our making social attachments and bonding with other people. Our brains are hard-wired to find pleasure in making social bonds and connections with other people.

We must also pass laws that make illegal any action based on hate and racial bias. Since some people may never be swayed to a compassionate view of people different from themselves, we must codify compassion into the laws of the land, for the sake of the dignity and respect for all.

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