For tens of thousands of years, humanity believed that the earth was at the center of the universe.
It was in many ways an understandable belief. Our ancestors watched as the Sun rotated around their seemingly fixed and immovable location by day and watched by night as the moon and stars did the same. Eons passed in which humanity could scarcely imagine viewing images of Earth and other planets taken by man-made satellites hurling through outer space. From our limited, landbound, inescapably personal perspective, the notion that the entire cosmos revolved around us was understandable.
With the publication of his book On the Revolution of the Celestial Spheres in 1543, Copernicus challenged that notion, initiating one of those most significant paradigm shifts in the history of human consciousness It was an era when humanity had brought an entirely new level of rigor and focus to its observations of the natural world and was devising ever more complex and convoluted theories to explain the surprising movements of various celestial bodies while keeping the earth at the center of the universe. Eventually, Copernicus offered a theory that explained all these confusing movements with simplicity and elegance. Once you embraced the understanding that the earth revolved around the sun—not the other way around—everything fell into place.
From a scientific perspective, it was a major breakthrough representing a giant leap forward in our attainment of an accurate understanding of the workings of the universe. From a psychological perspective, however, it was a wrenching, existentially disorienting shift met with resistance that endured for centuries. The recontextualization of the self from the entity at the very center of all existence to a small and decidedly uncentral element of a vast and impersonal system is not easy on the ego or the soul. Psychologically, we are forced to internalize the sense of humility demanded by the realization that the universe does not, fundamentally, revolve around us. Spiritually, we are challenged to attain a consciousness we are but a small aspect of an immense creation that includes but vastly transcends us all. It’s not only the case that we are no longer personally at the center; it’s also that in this new understanding, the very concept of “center” may no longer be useful.
So what does the Copernican revolution have to do with matters of race and social change?
It turns out that a recognition of the systemic nature of racism demands a similar wrenching shift in consciousness for those who have not yet awakened to this reality. In the current frequently dysfunctional dialogue around matters of race in America, it is not unusual for white people to respond to critiques of racial inequalities and injustices by proclaiming, “I’m not racist!” These are individuals who aspire to treat others with respect, and who believe that as long as they are not actively, personally discriminating against people of color, then they are uninvolved in our nation’s racial injustices. In a meaningful sense, it’s an attitude grounded in the assumption that our own inner lives exist at the center of the moral universe. Our personal attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors are the central forces around which all matters revolve. If our intentions and actions are benign, there is nothing more to understand or discuss.
To awaken to the systemic nature of racism is to become unmoored from this comforting illusion. As with the Copernican revolution, an understanding of systemic racism demands a radical recontextualization of the self. We are forced to confront a similar truth that rather than existing at the center of the moral universe, we are but a small and decidedly uncentral element of a vast and impersonal system that includes but vastly transcends us all. It’s not that our personal attitudes and behaviors are irrelevant; it’s that we play an infinitesimally limited role in a system that is far larger than the self, and that system discriminates against others despite our own personal best intentions.
In my own experience, I have found the journey to this consciousness to involve the sort of wrenching, existentially disorienting shift that I imagine accompanied the Copernican revolution. In place of the comforting illusion that my moral responsibility for matters and race and social change begins and ends at the boundaries of my personal attitudes and behaviors, I have had to internalize a deep humility that recognizes that these injustices are embedded in a system that vastly transcends myself. Spiritually, I have been challenged to decouple myself from the center of my own universe and see myself as just a small part of an incomprehensibly large and complex web of life defined by levels of vulnerability and interdependence that are in important ways scary to contemplate. To confront the injustices embedded in this system, it is not enough to focus on my own inner life. Their must be a complementary focus on joining with others to confront systemic forces far larger than myself.
In the face of this paradigm shift, we are compelled to choose: Ignorance or wisdom? Illusion or truth? Blindness or Insight?
We must each ask ourselves: Which choice will I make?