"How well do you know America's history of racism?"
That was a Huffington Post headline I stumbled across while looking for an inspiring quote I'd heard from Arianna Huffington (it was about turning off all notifications, and being the one who determines what you pay attention to—something I thought would make a good post, and maybe later it still will).
When you click through to the "article," one thing you should notice right away is that HuffPost chose to "gamify" the question. They made it an interactive quiz that's just short of click bait (if I'm being generous—it actually is totally click bait). Basically, this post turns a history of hatred and ignorance into a game to see if you're as savvy as you think you are.
I kind of threw up in my brain just looking at it.
Because posts like that serve no real purpose. They're just there to draw traffic and instill a sense of social justice to those who consider themselves activists because they retweeted their score from the quiz. It's pointless. Worse, it's damaging. Rather than curb racism, it encourages it, and gives it another path for clinging to humanity for that much longer.
There's an adage: "Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it." Or as George Santayana originally put it, "Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
The idea is that we need to study history so that we can avoid the mistakes of those who came before us. And that's absolutely true. Knowing what did not work is the best way to save time when trying to build something that will work. That's why guys like Edison and Tesla and Leonardo all kept copious notebooks about their observations and experiences—they were documenting their own history so they could learn from it.
So on its surface, this pop quiz from HuffPost, asking us to examine how much we know about the history of racism in America, seems like a poignant way to remind us about the evils of the past, so that we can finally end this nightmare and move on.
I have a different take.
We should study history. It's like an ever-growing library of lessons and ideas and clever ways of thinking that we'd be foolish to ignore. The guys who are out changing the world for the better were almost always inspired by someone or something they encountered in history—some fertile little patch of historic ground that told them what was possible in the world.
One thing that great innovators have in common, though, is an obsession with studying a focused history. They are grandly selective about what historic data they feed into their brains. They concentrate mostly on the facts and stories that bolster their attitudes and drive their passions. They don't waste a lot of time studying things that do nothing more than weigh them down with the emotional impact of how cruel humans can be.
Edison obsessed over studying practically everything. He was famous for issuing an exam to would-be employees that included bits of historic fact and trivia, right along with questions about the operations of textile factories, material strengths, and the origin of certain words. It was a brutal test, and it was difficult for even the brightest minds to pass.
Peter H. Diamandis famously patterned the Ansari XPrize after the contest that prompted Lindberg to fly around the world. He wanted to bust through the roadblocks to space travel, and knew that privatized space programs were the only way to go. Somewhere in the world was a team of individuals who could make private space travel possible, and Diamandis knew from his study of history that the best way to reach that team was with a huge prize. And it worked. Privatized space travel is a reality today, and is only improving, thanks in large part to the the Ansari XPrize.
Tim Ferriss, author of The 4-Hour Workweek, turned to the letters of Seneca for inspiration about how to create the pattern of his life and his success. He studied Seneca and other writers and historic figures to learn from them, to rewire his brain to think more like theirs. He programmed himself to be more like the people who had succeeded the way he wanted to succeed, and because of that he created a huge brand and a growing empire, and lives exactly the life he wanted to live all along—while teaching others to do the same.
These guys surely know (or knew, in the case of Edison) that there's a history of racism and violence and hatred in this country and in the world. But they've never mentioned it as a driving force for the work they did of the impact they've had. They never credited their awareness of racism or war or the evils of the world with the success of their work.
Which is not to say that positive, world-changing work cannot come from the horrors of history.
Viktor Frankl, the Austrian psychiatrist who spent three years in a Jewish concentration camp, wrote Man's Search for Meaning based on his experiences observations during captivity. He certainly had a perspective on the evils of the world. And yet he turned that perspective into a treatise on humanity's need to find meaning in our experiences—even the worst of them.
It's worth noting that the first half of Frankl's book is an account of his experiences in Auschwitz—the history of the horrors he faced. The second half of the book, however, is Frankl positing his ideas and theories about human psychology, which evolved into his theory called "logotherapy."
Frankl used his experience in Auschwitz as a test to confirm his theories regarding "meaning" as something all humans need to find for themselves. If we can determine a meaning for something like the holocaust, then even that nightmare becomes just another tool to make us better, to help us grow, to aid us in creating something better and bigger than ourselves and letting it go out into the world and make some noise.
The thing is, there's a difference between learning history and dwelling on it.
It's impossible to move forward and make something new in the world if we're continually holding on to the past. If we're constantly stoking resentment and hatred, those are the coals that will continue to burn us.
Is there a history of racism in the United States? Yes. It's build into our DNA—a bad chromosome that caused a disease that nearly got us.
Is there still racism in the US today? Yes. It's like a scar left over from a bad accident, reminding us every time we look in the mirror that something went wrong once.
But the real question is this: Do we gain anything—anything at all—by constantly reopening the wounds of the past and reminding everyone that racism exists? Is the effort of holding everyone accountable for the sins of their fathers the best way to end racism, or is it the best way to keep racism alive for good?
Do we need to keep that wound fresh in order to avoid more wounds?
Or are we just bleeding out from something that should have been healed long ago?
Study history. Learn from history. Know that it's important, that there are lessons that you need to carry with you. But stop letting history determine your present and your future. Focus on the successes more than the failures, and use those as inspiration to grow bigger and be better.
We gain nothing from obsessively pointing to the past as if all the injuries we received are just now hitting us. It doesn't help us grow if we choose anger over forgiveness. And we aren't disrespecting the memories and the sacrifices of those who suffered evil if we decide to call all debts cleared and move forward, with those memories and sacrifices as a reminder instead of as a burden.
Reparations aren't something we should seek for slights that are no longer in living memory—nor should they be sought for offenses that we all agree should never have happened in the first place.
How much do you know about this country's history of racism?
How much do you know about how we can build something better instead of clinging to the injuries of the past?
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