Radical Acceptance in American Pictures

We saw Jacob Holdt’s American Pictures slideshow yesterday. It made a deep impression on me.



Jacob’s core belief is that every person on this planet is fundamentally good. He meets everyone with love instead of fear, and it turns out that it really works. People holding him up at gunpoint becomes his friends. He picks up every hitch-hiker on his way, and his friends include the poorest outcast black people, poor outcast white people, Ku Klux Klan members, Woody who personally killed more than a handful of “niggers” just because, the Pabst and Rockefeller families, FBI agents. Jacob meets anyone with love and understanding, regardless.



I’ve always shared Jacob’s core belief, that everyone is fundamentally good, and deserves to be loved, that people who harm others do so out of fear and pain. But as with so many things, I haven’t actually acted on that belief. I’m starting to learn how our brains have this habit of not going down paths it hasn’t been down before. So I may have had that belief, but I had never sat down to think through its implications, and where I wasn’t following my belief. Do I really mean everyone? And am I really meeting everyone with love, or do I meet some people with fear?



Jacob has shown so powerfully that yes, it really does include everybody. It turned out that Woody had a childhood of abuse and incest, and that he, too, softened up completely when shown some love and attention. And so too with the others. It’s just as wrong to meet Nazis og Ku Klux Klan with fear and hatred, as it is to meet black people or muslims with fear and hatred. Everyone needs to be loved, accepted, and understood, regardless. Period.



One of Jacob’s other powerful messages is that Ku Klux Klan is much less of a problem than the middle class. Yes, they burn crosses and try to scare people, but really, when you talk to them, they’re just sad and lonely and quickly soften and open up. But above all, they’re without any real influence. They’re marginalized themselves. This is what he calls “small racism”.



What Jacob calls “big racism” is the middle class who moves out of a neighborhood when too many black people (or muslims in Europe) move in. Who take their kids out of the school when too make black or muslims go there. Who teach their kids to fear blacks or muslims. Who have all the right opinions on the surface, but aren’t willing to actually change anything in their own lives.



What happens is that black kids or muslims get the message that they’re not as good as white people. That they’re not as worthy. And each time a white person meets a black person with fear, that look of fear communicates to the black person that you don’t trust him. It reinforces the belief.



Give enough time, this becomes an internalized belief. Black people start believing that they really are worth less.



There was a sociological experiment which showed this, I believe it was in a Malcolm Gladwell book (if you know the reference, please post it here). People of all races were give a test, and they did equally well. Then the test was altered so the first question was which race they were: Caucasian, Black, Hispanic, Asian, etc. The result? Blacks and hispanics did considerably worse. Why? Because the racist frame was invoked. The frame that says that blacks and hispanics do worse in tests than white people. People’s expectations of themselves really matter. Once you believe it, it becomes true.



I’m reminded of another test that I’ve heard referred to – again, if you know or can find the reference, please do. It was a school in the US where a teacher was given the worst-performing class in the city, but was told that they were really brilliant, they might behave a bit strange, but that was only because they were so smart. Similarly, another teach was given the best-performing class, but told that they were stupid losers. Turns out that the worst-performing class started doing much better, while the best-performing class started doing a lot worse. Lesson: People’s expectations of others really matter, too.



There’s two emotions going on here. One is the despair once you realize just how bad it is, and just how much you and I are contributing to the problem without really knowing or wanting to. The second is the hope and power when you realize just how simple it is to do something about it. Simple, if not easy.



Step one: Fully accept yourself. Don’t blame yourself for being a racist. It’s not your fault. You were brought up to be this way.



Step two: Fully accept everyone else. Don’t fear other people. Regardless.



People are not born this way. Black people are not born feeling inferior, white people are not born fearing black people and thinking they’re inferior. It’s something you learn from your parents and from society. Once you connect with and accept your own pain and suffering, you can start connecting with and accepting the pain and suffering of others, and you can get back to that state from before you were trained to be racist.



Only through actions at the individual level can we hope to heal the larger problem.



The implications of this are huge. This isn’t just about black people in the US. In Europe, it’s about muslims.



But it’s not just about racism, either. It’s also about sexism and homophobia. In short, anywhere you judge others without first understanding their background, culture, and upbringing.



But this is also something that has huge geopolitical consequences. Because people in the US, and increasingly in the western world, are brought up on a diet of fear, they approach the rest of the world in a state of fear. They invade countries and think in terms of war. But fear only generates more fear.



To sum up, my take-away from the show is that it really is possibly to meet everybody with acceptance and love instead of fear. And that it pays to do so. And that I want to learn to do this.



Jacob also offers people to travel with him. I’m excited. It sounds like it would be a life-changing experience, but we gotta figure out what to do about the kids and all.



Thanks to Valerie Saunders at Zentropa for sharing this great experience with us.

6 comments

The sociological experiment with the test and the races is mentioned in Malcolm Gladwell's 'Blink - the power of thinking without thinking', p56 in the paperback-edition. I think the other experiment you mention with the classes and expectations is somewhere in the same book - but I can't find it right now.
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Mark Aufflick

Awesome post Lars!
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The problem in believing that every person is good at the core, is that in reality some people are actually born with chemical imbalances in their brain, and thus they act on different impulses. Through 4 years of social work studies I have truly tried to believe it is true that people are like apples (we might have brown spots on the outside, but on the inside we are all good), but I have to say that reality is very different. At least when you are seated across from a 14-year-old boy in a therapy session who tells you he killed 10 bunnies because "I felt like it". He then proceeded to undress himself and curl up in a fetal position in the middle of the dead bunnies. Without medication, this person can not function, and the good ine the person only surfaces with the help of medication. As a social worker and therapist I believe that all people have some good in them, but not that they are necessarily born that way.
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Brian Fenton

Lars, you were a hero for me in your OpenACS coding days. And now you're a hero for me in your new guise! well done Brian
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Greetings from Florida, USA. Please take a more critical look at anything that Jacob Holdt produces or says. I would recommend that you read, "While Europe Slept," by Bruce Bawer. Mr. Bawer also has a blog that might give you some interesting insights. http://www.brucebawer.com/blog.htm There are two sides to every story.
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Hi Kathryn I'm interested in hearing more. Can you be more specific about what you're critical about in Jacob's work?
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