Monday, October 26, 2009

EMBRACING THE OTHER: A talk given at Unitarian Universalist Church West on 25 Oct 2009

Like all of you I am a seeker of truth. I don’t have all the answers but I have a lot of good questions. So the question I pose today is: how do we embrace “otherness” within ourselves, our families, neighborhoods, schools, cities, nation, and planet? How do we honor difference while recognizing our inherent unity?

As social beings we are trained to look for allies, build coalitions, and come into community. Our development and survival as complex social animals depends on this skill. Like other primates like chimpanzees and bonobos, we become more independent as adolescents and at that critical time, go off to find our communities. I have 3 young adult children, ranging from first year college to recent college graduate, so I have been observing and trying to support from afar this rite of passage of moving out of the parent home and establishing community elsewhere.

The dark side of socialization is that we are trained, some might argue “hard-wired,” to be wary of “the other”—the people the next town over, the Minnesota Vikings, the rival high school. We may even dislike the grocery store across the street from the one we usually go to—“the staff there is not as nice” or “their vegetables look old.” In a consumer culture and economy, we’re even trained to cultivate such judgments about products. “Oh, I only drink such and such water”; “I will only use this brand of toothpaste.” These preferences or judgments are often more or less harmless.

Especially in times of duress we cling to community. We may hunker down, and surround ourselves with the familiar and comfortable. If you are of European ancestry (white) and you grew up in a town or city of people who look like you—your teachers, your banker, your pastor, your grocer, your doctor—a Lake Wobegon of racial homogeneity—and now your town is unrecognizable—perhaps there’s a bodega on Main Street, and next to that a Chinese restaurant, and the grocery is run by an East Indian family, and your doctor has a foreign accent and a name you have difficulty pronouncing, your high school alma mater is now ¾ African American, and worst of all your job has been shipped overseas to Mexico or China—your growing discomfort makes complete sense. Like I’ve said, we are social beings, and if our colony is shrinking because jobs are moving away and peers are aging or dying, then we have strong reason for concern.

But when this growing discomfort turns into fear, when our amygdalae fire up and we click into reactive, emotional brain mode instead of analytical frontal lobe brain function, then things can get ugly. This is when fear of the other kicks in. And all too often, the other has brown skin, may be an immigrant, may worship differently from you, and is poor. Take one look at the health care debate, at the “tea parties,” the conservative backlash that was all over the media this summer to see how fear of the other manifests in mainstream culture.

The message on my telephone answering machine quotes Laura Ingalls Wilder, who said, “Persons appear to us according to the light we throw upon them from our own minds.” If the light from my mind that I throw to you is distrusting, you will look suspicious to me—maybe like that image of Obama in white-face painted like “The Joker.” If the light from my mind is fearful, you will look threatening to me, like suspecting any man of Middle Eastern descent a terrorist.

That is, our prejudices shape the way we view and experience the world. Our prejudices can be conflated with intuition or the sixth sense or “energy” and can contribute to our survival and well-being. But they can also be overactive or oversensitive, like an overactive immune system that results in chronic allergies. We can develop an “allergy” to the other, especially if we have been hurt repeatedly. “I’m never going to that store again.—they overcharged me,” we may say, or “I never take that street—there are always people running across it.” We may feel rejected or endangered or exploited by the other.

But if “the light we throw upon them from our own minds” is loving and trusting, we will not fear difference. Thus there are many white people who are not attending anti-Obama rallies. Why are they not concerned about, as conservative protesters vaguely attest, “the direction our country is going”?

For instance, I would guess that not many of you have attended the anti-Obama rallies and have little anxiety about a black man running our country. Why is this? I attest that it’s because you have learned, and are learning, to embrace the other. Of course this is a path, not an action. We have to practice embracing otherness over and over again, more and more deeply.

Now political and social progressives may ask, why even accept the distinction of otherness? Aren’t we all the same underneath superficial differences? On a biological/genetic level, race does not even exist. And class is utterly malleable. Why even acknowledge difference or otherness? Aren’t we perpetuating stereotypes and separation? Aren’t we post-everything now? Post-colonial, post-modern, post-racial, post-feminist?

True, race has no biological basis, but as a social construct, we see its effects in the US and all over the world expressed through status, rights, and differing levels of privilege. We have to acknowledge these differences in order to dismantle them. To say we’re post-racial is to live on a street where there are 5000 square foot mansions mixed with 500 square foot trailer homes and to claim they are the same. Deep down inside, they are all houses, one and all. But of course they are not the same, otherwise the residents of the mansions would gladly trade with the trailer home residents. The residents of both types of homes are equal in human worth, but not equal in social, cultural, and economic privilege.

Studies among macaques and baboons indicate that lower status monkeys have more cortisol in their bloodstream—that is they experience more stress than higher status animals. It’s easy to understand why this may be if we stop and think about it: they have less access to food, their offspring get bullied more, they get swatted, they get food pulled away from them, they have little choice in mating, they have to sleep in uncomfortable vulnerable spots.

But I’m not here to convince you of white privilege and the racial gap in the US. That data is straightforward and readily available. You can just GTS: “Google that shit.” (One excellent website: United for a Fair Economy,

As an Iyengar yoga teacher, my job is to help people become more aware. Aware of our bodies, actions, thoughts, feelings, and perceptions. Aware even of our organs, our breathing, to make the unconscious more fully conscious.. If we are really observant and honest with ourselves, we will notice that we experience different comfort levels in various settings. For instance compare your response to driving on North Avenue at 130th Street in Brookfield to North Avenue and 27th Street in Milwaukee. On N. 27th Street do you check your locks? Do you roll up your windows? Does your heart beat just a tad faster? Does your breathing subtly alter? This is our bodies experiencing otherness, experiencing difference. Of course if you drive here everyday, you don’t experience otherness here. My friend Young Kim is at Fondy Market and I’m sure he feels at home in the neighborhood. But this takes practice, repeated effort, trust and relationship-building.

I believe our task as evolving social beings is to make ourselves more comfortable with discomfort. I believe we should deliberately place ourselves in situations out of our comfort zone. Once that becomes comfortable, go to a new place and push the envelope further.

For instance, if you are white, place yourself in situations where you are the racial minority. Go to a black church, shop in a black or Latino neighborhood, ride the city bus, go to a foreign country and stay in a hostel or a 2-star hotel instead of a 5-star resort, work for an organization run by people of color, move into the central city where thousands of beautiful houses wait for refurbishing, teach for MPS.

But go not to convert, but to be converted. Go not to lead, but to follow. Go to educate yourself, not to educate others. Go in humility, not in pride. Go not to be loved, but to love.

The only way to dissolve the fear of difference is to immerse yourself in it. We have to acknowledge difference before we can dissolve it. I cannot stress this step in healing enough, especially to well-meaning liberals so eager for unity that huge, glaring differences in privilege are overlooked.

In order to embrace the other, we must embrace the other within. What does it mean to embrace the other within ourselves? In the film “Traces of the Trade,” a white family is in Ghana, researching their family’s legacy in the slave trade. They meet with a group of school children and engage in frank discussion with them about their ancestors’ role in slavery. A girl asks one of the white men, “Are you not ashamed?” Meaning, aren’t you ashamed to show your face here after what your family has done to our people? He is speechless for a moment, and then responds to the child, “Yes, yes, I am ashamed.” For that moment he has come face to face with the other within.

Can we be present with our own shadow without indulging in defensiveness or self-flagellation? Can we witness ourselves with discernment but without judgment? At Alverno College, we have “Love Your Body” week. Often I will ask my students to try, for our entire 2 hour class, to not pass judgment on themselves, to not harbor a single negative thought about themselves. As women, it’s practically a social obligation to publicly criticize ourselves.

Can we just be present with compassion? Not even forgiveness, not yet, we mustn’t rush to resolve and put a bandage on wounds that have not yet been cleaned. Can we just be there, standing in our own shadow, standing before the mirror, seeing what we see with utter honesty?

As we practice embracing the other inside we can also practice embracing the other outside. These inner and outer practices are necessary and complementary. Rudolf Steiner writes,
In search of yourself,
The world contains the answer.
In search of the world,
The answer lies in you.

In order to embrace the other, we have to allow ourselves to be vulnerable, humble, and contrite. We have to make ourselves servants, and not expect to be leaders. If we accept leadership, it’s as servant-leaders.

One white artist friend commented that she wants to move into Milwaukee’s north side where she can have space for her art studio and keep living expenses low, but when she drives through those neighborhoods, kids throw empty cans at her car and she feels unwelcome. Another white friend who is married to a Palestinian Christian says that although she converted to Eastern Orthodox to marry him, she feels unwelcome in their church. One white teenage boy felt hurt at summer camp with Mexican boys who spoke Spanish to each other whenever they wanted to exclude the white kids.

All these are stories of white people experiencing resistance to the dominant culture, which they represent. In the US and arguably around the world, the people on top, although changing, still tends to be white. It makes us extremely uncomfortable to admit it, but we live in a white supremacy. White privilege continues to pervade every institution.

Not to justify the kids throwing cans, or the Palestinian Christians who didn’t notice the girl sitting by herself, or the Mexican kids talking only to themselves, but I say, “welcome to my world.” In the US, and quite sharply in Milwaukee, people of color routinely, daily, constantly put themselves into contexts where they are the only, or one of few brown people in a white society. I’ve had many a metaphoric can thrown at me since childhood from white people. I’ve had many white people ignore me, afraid I might not speak their language or have anything in common with them. I’ve had many occasions when white people speak in coded, idiomatic, colloquial language I did not grow up with and do not understand. But when the tables are turned onto white people, it’s such a new experience that white people may feel extremely discomfited, threatened, and even angry.

Instead, I beseech you, be there in that discomfort. Soften your heart, soften your breath, let tears come. Welcome this discomfort, be humble. In this place you are in solidarity with Palestinians in refugee camps, in solidarity with occupied Iraqis, with Native Americans in impoverished reservations, with generations in poverty in our own cities with no jobs, no health care, no way out. Be there. When I teach yoga, I coach my students to stay in that asana with discernment, with compassion, with steadiness, without judgment, with integrity. Be there. Stay there. Feel what you feel.

Only to the degree that we can feel what the other is feeling can we heal. That crumpled can thrown at the car can be viewed as an energy projectile. Instead of interpreting its meaning as “F- you,” can we instead understand it as, “I dare you to feel what I am feeling. I invite you to feel what I am feeling. I beg you to feel what I am feeling.” Only to the degree that we can empathize with another can we heal.

Otherwise we just pass the pain around, like a virus. I have a friend who works in MPS high schools teaching restorative justice. She told me an absolutely heart breaking story. A boy assaulted a teacher and the police were called in. A skillful and compassionate teacher was able to talk with him and calm him down. The police were able to escort the boy out of school without handcuffs. However on the way out of the building he ran into a girl, 9 months pregnant, whom he knew. He went up to her and punched her in the stomach. She began having contractions and an ambulance was called. The boy was handcuffed and taken away in the squad car.

Whatever the boy was experiencing that day, he passed on to the teacher. He was able to calm down but not to fully process the pain, because then he passed it on to the girl and her baby. The baby will bear trauma, and where will that pain go? The pain of the boy is also our pain.

We must stop the cycle. We must stop, witness, and hold the pain, process it, then transform it. We transform it into philanthropy, political action, vegetable gardens, artwork, blogs, and so forth. In this manner, we are all called to be bodhisattvas. We are here to heal. It is that simple. As we heal ourselves we heal the other, as we heal the other we heal ourselves.

To close I have a prayer by Rabbi Harold Schulweis:

God is not in me nor in you but between us.
God is not me or mine nor you or yours but ours.
God is known not alone but in relationship.
Not as a separate, lonely power, but through our kinship, our friendship. through our healing and binding and raising up of each other.
To know God is to know others, to love God is to love others, to hear God is to hear others.
More than meditation, more than insight, more than feeling, between us are claims, obligations, commandments: to act, to do, to behave our beliefs.
I seek God not as if God were alone, an isolated person. He or She, a process, a power, a being, a thing. I seek God not as if I were alone, a thinker, a mediator, a discrete entity.
I seek God in connection, in the nexus of community. I pray and celebrate the betweeness which binds and holds us together.
And even when I am left alone, I am sustained by my memory of our betweeness and the promise of our betweeness.
God is not in me, or in you, or in God’s self, but in betweeness and it is there we find the evidence of God’s reality and our own.

May it be so.