US IV. 28
hanam esam klesavad uktam
Meaning: By letting go of misconceptions and discriminations, obstacles are terminated. – Interpretation: Austin Sanderson
“It is the eye of ignorance that assigns a fixed and unchangeable color to every object; beware of this stumbling block.” – Paul Gauguin, artist
The song “Black and White,” written in 1956 (but famously covered by the band Three Dog Night in 1972), was inspired by the US Supreme Court decision of Brown v. Board of Education (1954), which ended racial segregation in America’s public school system. The lyrics depicted race and color in America through rose-colored glasses:
“The world is black, the world is white
It turns by day and then by night.
A child is black, a child is white
Together they grow to see the light.”
In 1956 maybe the world could be viewed like a black-and-white TV or, if you were progressive, like a box of Crayola crayons with eight colors that fit neatly into a slim flip-top box. An eight-color system is still quite limited when it comes to understanding the complexity and sophistication that exist in the true range of color.
In the fight against racial inequality, it is crucial to acknowledge the social injustice that has occurred from thediscrimination and bigotry within society, solely based on color of skin. Yoga has always taught that a prejudice based upon finite qualities, such as skin color, is a limitation created by our mental inflections and projections of the mind. Yoga allows us to go beyond the limited body and mind and see the infinite in all beings.
One mistake we keep making when we look at America’s racial problem – which is historical, systemic and deeply rooted – is the oversimplification of skin color itself. This oversimplification is a way to label and compartmentalize people into a black/white world or at best into the Crayola box. As we work with a limited concept of color, we begin to draw conclusions about each flat limited color seen through the lens of culture. A good example is a hat. Good cowboys wear white hats, bad cowboys wear black hats. Brown hats are earthy, red hats are passionate, and yellow hats are cheery.
In Isabel Wilkerson’s new book, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, Wilkerson states:
“In the same way that black and white were applied to people who were literally neither, but rather gradations of brown and beige and ivory, the caste system sets people at poles from one another and attaches meaning to the extremes, and to the gradations in between, and then reinforces those meanings, replicates them in the roles each caste was and is assigned and permitted or required to perform.”
Wilkerson tells of a conversation she had with a Nigerian-born playwright who came to a talk that she gave at the British Library in London: “You know that there are no black people in Africa,” she said. Most Americans, weaned on the myth of drawable lines between human beings, have to sit with that statement. It sounds nonsensical to our ears. Of course there are black people in Africa. There is a whole continent of black people in Africa. How could anyone not see that? “Africans are not black,” she (the playwright) said. “They are Igbo and Yoruba, Ewe, Akan, Ndebele. They are not black. They are just themselves.” For the yogi the key takeaway here is the term “themselves,” implying Self.
People are not crayons or hats, and skin tones are richer and deeper than any flat, one-tone color. There is a thin line between racism and colorism: both have the ability to limit our observation and insights. Yoga has always taught that the skin – in fact, the body itself – is just a vehicle for the individual soul, and that all souls come from the same energy, which is infinite, eternal and everlasting. So, long before DNA testing, the ancient sages knew that the Self’s one true identity was neither a flat color nor an emotion or identity given to that color.
While in deep meditation sages asked the question, “Koham?” This is a Sanskrit phrase: “koh” means “who” and “am” means “I.” Thus, “Who am I?” This is a traditional method of peeling back the layers that hide the truth of our essential nature. Obstacles (kleshas, vasanas or samskaras) are the familiarities, emotions, self-images, beliefs, and habitual patterns that keep us identifying with our finite bodies: this identification limits abilities and gives us an ego-driven personality that prevents us from embracing a non-dualistic infinite Higher Self. The Higher Self is immense, timeless, vast, colorless, and omni-pointed. This state is not only called the Higher Self, but also Nirvana, Shunya, and Zen. Whatever term we use, the goal is to free ourselves from our enslavement to the body and the mind with its thoughts and feelings.
The answer to “Koham?” was always “Aham” (“I am”). It was understood in the form of a deep understanding that as soon as a descriptive adjective or noun came after “Aham” you were once again trapped by your own mind with its prejudices and preferences that are as limited as a box of eight crayons. Aham is identifying with infinity.
Lori L. Tharps wrote in an October 2016 Time magazine article:
“Colorism is a societal ill felt in many places all around the world, including Latin America, East and Southeast Asia, the Caribbean and Africa. Here in the U.S., because we are such a diverse population with citizens hailing from all corners of the earth, our brand of colorism is both homegrown and imported.”
Colorism is another klesha that must be overcome not only in our culture but within our minds. Until we view humans as deeply complex individuals who share a infinite oneness of being, the mental inflections and projections of the mind that cause divisive, misidentification and labels we apply (such as “black,” “brown,” “white,” “red,” and “yellow”) will perpetuate racism, and we will never be able to embrace the unifying factor of the essence of Higher Consciousness within ourselves – nor will we ever see it in others.