Fighting Racism With Compassion – Inspired By Nelson Mandela

“I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities.”

-Nelson Mandela

I ended my recent African COMPASSION IT outreach adventure with a fitting tribute to a man who has inspired me during these past two-and-a-half weeks. I toured Robben Island in Cape Town, South Africa, where Nelson Mandela lived for 18 of his 27 years of imprisonment. Tears fell down my cheeks as I peered into his tiny cell, walked around the small prison yard, and saw the blindingly-white lime quarry where Mandela was forced to work every day.

I began reading Nelson Mandela’s beautifully-written autobiography “Long Walk to Freedom” during my flight from New York to Johannesburg, and I have been reading it and relishing it throughout my entire trip. Because of his book, Nelson Mandela has been a companion of mine for the past couple of weeks. It seems like I know him personally. I can feel his warm smile and hear his wisdom. I’ve laughed at his witty remarks to the prison guards, and I sobbed when he was finally allowed to hug his adult daughter whom he hadn’t held since she was a baby.

On February 11, 1990, Nelson Mandela was finally freed. He was 71 years old and had spent much of his adult life away from his family. He sacrificed nearly everything for the greater good, and he endured unimaginable hardships. Nelson Mandela is a true hero, and his story is as heartbreaking as it is inspirational.

I noticed myself becoming overwhelmed as I read his book. I hadn’t learned much about apartheid in school, and my body ached with sadness and then boiled with anger when I read of the persecution and oppression of Africans in their home land. The fact that this is recent history intensified my feelings. As I walked around Cape Town these past few days, it was easy to notice that there is still a clear divide between the races. That created more anger and sadness within me.

I pondered the civil unrest and terrorism currently plaguing the world and found myself feeling hopeless. I kept wondering, “How can humans treat other humans like this?”

My training at Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education sheds some light on this. I learned about Princeton researcher Susan Fiske, Ph.D., whose research indicates that human brains automatically categorize people based on their perceived levels of warmth and competence. In fact, if our brains view someone as cold and incompetent, we may not view that person as a human being. Fiske’s brain-imaging research revealed that sometimes when people view photographs of certain stereotypes of people (the homeless or drug addicts, as examples), the areas of the brain that light up can be the same areas that light up when they see photographs of garbage or decaying flesh. In other words, their brains don’t see these people as human. They see them as objects.

It’s clear to me that many of the white people in South Africa didn’t see Africans as human beings during apartheid. Some of those automatic stereotypes still occur today, and not just in South Africa.

I combated my anger and morose feelings by reaching out to those around me in Cape Town. I asked my taxi drivers, hotel workers, and waiters where they were from and if they liked living there. I told them that I was reading “Long Walk to Freedom” and was inspired. Their faces lit up when they heard me speak of Nelson Mandela, for he continues to be loved by all.

The taxi driver who took me to the airport was named Harold, and he happily opened up. An African native of Cape Town, his plump bald head and wise eyes revealed to me that he was old enough to remember apartheid well. I asked him, “Are things better now?” and Harold replied, “Yes. Things aren’t perfect, but I’m not afraid anymore.” He shared that he was indebted to Nelson Mandela for paving the way so that his teenaged children could have opportunities that he never had. Harold spoke with passion and animation during the entire 20-minute ride, and he assured me that although racial divides were still present, they were becoming narrower. At the end of our time together, I handed over a pair of COMPASSION IT wristbands and explained their purpose. I said, “You’re a compassionate man, and I figured you may want to share this with your children.”

To my surprise, Harold walked over to me and gave me a huge hug. He then looked at me with sincere eyes, held my hands, and offered appreciation for my small gift. It was a moment I’ll never forget.

Soon after Nelson Mandela was set free, he and his fellow freedom fighters met with government officials regarding negotiations. These men had been fierce enemies for decades but warmly shook hands with each other when they met. “Each side had discovered that the other did not have horns,” Mandela wrote.

That’s what happens when we open ourselves to compassion. When we start to recognize the humanity in all people, we can achieve peace.

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