Conversations For Transformation: Essays Inspired By The Ideas Of Werner Erhard

Conversations For Transformation

Essays By Laurence Platt

Inspired By The Ideas Of Werner Erhard

And More


A Question Of Race

Cowboy Cottage, East Napa, California, USA

September 2, 2020

This essay, A Question Of Race, is the sequel to The Friends Of The Landmark Forum In South Africa.

I am indebted to Floyd Crump and to Joan "Joani" Culver who inspired this conversation.

Fulfilling a promise I made to Werner Erhard at 2:00am one morning in 1979 over a midnight snack of celery spears and cream cheese in the kitchen of his San Francisco home, the Franklin House, I went to South Africa, and over the course of a year, led the first series of ten guest seminars around the country in the major cities, causing the first one thousand enrollments in South Africa, which inexorably started Werner's work there.

With all my enthusiasm and inspiration aside, I had a big consideration about presenting Werner's work in South Africa in those days: apartheid. It wouldn't have been appropriate (ie it would have flat-out not worked) to segregate Werner's work. Can you even begin to imagine what that might have looked like? One presentation for white people? A separate presentation for non-white people? (if you weren't "white" in South Africa in those days, you were designated as "non-white"). Presenting it for so-called "mixed" participants (white and non-white) would have been illegal - indeed, a jailable  crime in those days. There was workability in none of the above.

I, born in London England, a British citizen, grew up in South Africa. Returning with Werner's work to start it there, fulfilled a lifelong intention of mine. I'm not a racist. There's not a racist bone in my body. Yet South Africa when I, a white person, grew up there, was the backdrop for one of the great perpetrations (if not the  greatest perpetration) of racism of all time. To say I wasn't influenced by it (or to say I didn't benefit from it) would be the ultimate naïvete. Oppose it? Yes, of course. Risk speaking out against it? For sure. But live there and not be touched by it, and not be influenced / conditioned by it? Simply not possible.

If you tell the truth about it, you've been influenced by (you may have even profited from) racism in our society. The question is: how do we each confront racism in a way that transforms  it? (please notice I didn't say "... in a way that changes  it ..."). Look: it's time we call the game on changing racism. All our attempts to change racism, have failed. And if you've been following the conversation for transformation, you already know why changing racism has never worked, and never can: it's because "plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose"  - the more things change, the more they stay the same, yes?

I assert that before we attempt to change racism in our society, we each distinguish our own inherent, influenced, conditioned, personal racism. We tell the truth about it. We 'fess up  to it. If we each don't distinguish our own conditioned racism, and thereby transform it, there's no chance we'll ever change it in society at large.

Evidence Of The Unspeakable

When I first visited these United States some forty four years ago, I came to San Francisco for a job interview. It was lunch hour. The building foyer was deserted. As I scanned the tenants' register board for the floor to which to take the elevator, I became aware of a black man sitting on a bench in a corner, watching me. "Hmmm, the janitor's on his lunch break" I mused. He, the janitor, watched me for a while, then he called out, asking which company I was looking for. I told him. "STSC  (Scientific Time Sharing Corporation)" I said. Then he asked whom I came to see. Taken aback by his brashness, I told him. "Floyd Crump" (my contact's name) I said begrudgingly. He stood up and walked towards me. I thought "Thanks, but I don't need an escort.". Then he held out his hand to me, and said "Hi! I'm Floyd.".

My heart skipped a beat. In that instant I saw how prejudiced I really am. I got  my own inherent racism. The man is black. Therefore he's the janitor. It wasn't even conscious. It was lizard-brain, built into the machinery. I was shocked, caught red-handed. But in the next instant it got even worse. With growing horror, I saw that in addition to being prejudiced / racist, I make up that I'm (ie I tout myself as) not  prejudiced / not racist. It's not only that I'm racist: it's that I'm inauthentic about it.

Floyd subsequently became my sponsor to the United States, my first employer here, my lifelong friend. More great things became available in my life through Floyd's friendship than through almost any other person I know. Floyd, the black man I cast as the janitor, the black man I was certain  was the janitor because he's black.

Racism Transformed

Apartheid is now consigned to the slag heap of history. And now (not surprisingly) Werner's work thrives in post-apartheid South Africa. And what transformed language in a transformed conversation has made possible for apartheid, racism, and prejudice in South Africa, is best illustrated in the following exchange which blew me away then when I was present to it there, as it does now as I re-create it for you here:

A white man stood up and apologized to all the black people present: for being a racist, for suppressing them. He took responsibility for racism in South Africa, and apologized for it. He owned  it. I did the full proverbial double take. Could I really believe what I'd just heard? He basically apologized, as a white person, on behalf of all white people, to all black people, for the atrocities of apartheid. An apology like that ie a distinction  like that, has the power to transform Life itself. Really  it does.

But it wasn't over, not by a long  shot. A black man stood up. I assumed he was going to accept the apology (in the spirit of things) on behalf of all black people. I wasn't even close. Yes he did accept the apology, a pivotal event in and of itself. But then he also  apologized, this time on behalf of all black people, to all the white people present, and thereby to all white people. And for what? For being their victim  ... and in so doing, for casting all white South Africans as racists. Again, I could barely believe what I'd just heard. This wasn't your ordinary conversation. This was a transformed conversation in which people took responsibility both for the totality of their environment, as well as for their personal experience. Can you get it? You can? Welcome to my world of racism transformed - not a world of racism changed.

We Start With The People In The Mirror

Consider this: the first thing to do about racism, may indeed be to not change it. Maybe. We have clear evidence after decades of attempting to change racism, that attempting to change it hasn't worked, based as it is on deep, deep conditioning which can't be changed in ordinary ways - indeed, which may simply be beyond the reach of mere change. Instead, the first thing to do about racism, may be for each of us to distinguish the racist conditioning in our own lives, and to tell the truth about it unflinchingly  ie to take responsibility for it, to own it ie to transform it in our personal experience.

And that, appropriately enough, echoes Nelson Mandela's breakthrough approach in the so-called Truth and Reconciliation Commission. When apartheid finally ended, a near-certain blood-bath was averted. How? Nelson stood for that there'd be no revenge, only truth. The perpetrators of apartheid appeared in front of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, not to be tried for their atrocities, but rather to tell the nation the horrible truth of what they'd done. If they agreed to tell the truth, they were granted amnesty. In this way, the truth was distinguished .... and South Africa moved on peacefully. The racist apartheid era was over. That's  transformation.

It was Jesus Christ who said "You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.". I'd like to follow it with "We'll each distinguish the truth of our own endemic, personal racist conditioning and entitled sense of privilege.". Knowing the truth will make you free, and will eventually make us all, all of society, free from racism.

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