Othering and Belonging: An Embodied Spiritual Practice

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

by john a. powell

Who are we?  Can we live in a world where all life is respected and all human beings are afforded the dignity and respect they deserve?  Can we, as human beings, be humane beings?  Can we create a circle of human concern where all humans are inside the circle and all life is respected?  Can we have a we without a them?  Until recently, we could have answered these questions with a slightly sanguine yes.  At least, this was the ideal we collectively embraced.  Now, recent events may cause us to believe the answer is no and certainly there are those in high places that explicitly reject such  ideals.  

At the beginning of the 20th Century, our world was unambiguously divided.  The public position in the United States was that of white supremacy enforced through Jim Crow.  Pseudo-science was injected into the public discourse, making widespread claims of the ‘genetic inferiority’ of women and people of color; both groups apparently too close to nature.  God and religion were used to explain and justify why some groups of people were better than and more deserving than others.  WEB DuBois famously noted that the problem of the 20th Century was the problem of the color line that  marked the delineation of who was fully human, and who was not.

This line has not been static over time.  In fact, it has been redrawn many times, continuously situating different groups of people on different sides of the line, while creating new groups and new identities in the process.  Some of the groups that were provisionally assigned to the ‘wrong side’ of the line as lesser were later moved to the more desirable side.  The Irish in America come to mind or Catholics.  A move to the apparent ‘right side’ seemed to require two things: the right, (white), performance by members of the less favorable group, and acceptance of this performance by the members of the ‘more favorable’ group.  There was both a process of performance and an application, and a group that could accept or reject such applications.  A more recent expression of continuous mutation of this line or process is to claim that the line no longer exists.  This denial sometimes is framed in terms of color or difference blindness, or an assertion of simple universalism.  These claims have been used to leave the hierarchy largely undisturbed, deny its very existence, and create new stories to justify continued white dominance.

The color line is a metaphor for a boundary; a boundary that separates who belongs from who does not belong.  One response to this is for groups to struggle to be on the right side of the line, or to be inside of a circle where most people are left outside.  All too often, advancement along this line and progression into the circle of human concern have been measured by one’s ability to climb the hierarchical ladder; often at the expense of others, or without any meaningful challenge to the hierarchy itself.  Like all boundaries that distribute identity and worth, there were many challenges and a need to literally and metaphorically police the border.  Crossing the border is not a symmetrical process.  There is a differential not just of position but also power.   It is not surprising that as these lines are drawn to exclude more and more people, and more and more life, we become deeply sick, afraid and isolated. This effort to exclude can be described as an anti-life project. This project  is at the heart of white supremacy and other forms of human stratification. 

This effort to exclude can be described as an anti-life project. This project  is at the heart of white supremacy and other forms of human stratification.

Today, I would rephrase DuBois’ assertion, and declare that the problem of the 21st Century is the problem of othering and belonging.  I rephrase this assertion because race is just one expression of the dehumanizing othering line.  The line can be drawn to exclude the other based on sexual orientation, national origin, religion and so on. What belonging makes explicit is that all humans and all forms of life are worthy and valuable, and belong within the circle of human concern and that value is not based on utilitarian calculus.

What belonging makes explicit is that all humans and all forms of life are worthy and valuable, and belong within the circle of human concern and that value is not based on utilitarian calculus.  

We have many different ways in which we construct our identities, our imaginary selves, and our imaginary others.  While race has played a major role in the construction of identity in the United States and in the West generally, there are other factors as well, such as gender, able body and so on.  While all identities are constructed, how we construct them is profoundly important.  There is often the assertion that we should just not talk about race since it is not real.  This statement hides more than it reveals.  While race as a biological reality may be called into question, racism as a social consequence is very real.  How we engage in the process of developing our own identity, and, how we recognize, fail to recognize, or deny our and others identities and our profound state of interconnectedness and linked fate, will determine to whom we accord human dignity and equality in society.  

As life is interrelated, the effort to cut oneself off from the other has the impact of cutting oneself off from oneself and life itself.  We deny part of ourselves when we deny the other, as the other is indeed a part of us.

 As life is interrelated, the effort to cut oneself off from the other has the impact of cutting oneself off from oneself and life itself.  We deny part of ourselves when we deny the other, as the other is indeed a part of us.  Therefore, the self-made man is not a man nor not a self, because the self is necessarily co-created in relationship with others and the larger environment. White and other forms of supremacy then, is anti-life, anti-spiritual, and counter factual. There’s no healthy side of the color/othering  line.  Slavery and racism injured both the slaver and the enslaved, but not in the same way.  Patriarchy injures and distorts both male and female life, but not in the same way.  These injuries and distortions also occur at the institutional, structural, and cultural levels.  Too often in spiritual communities, there is a failure to see how different groups and institutions are shaped by these processes.  Too often within the spiritual community people are invited to ignore the illusionary world of pain and transcend.  But spirituality must reject the categorical split between the apparent physical and internal world.  

There’s no healthy side of the color/othering  line.  Slavery and racism injured both the slaver and the enslaved, but not in the same way.  Patriarchy injures and distorts both male and female life, but not in the same way.  These injuries and distortions also occur at the institutional, structural, and cultural levels.

As stated before, white supremacy is not simply a claim of the hierarchy of whiteness, it is also a cyclical process that requires the domination and control of all others and all who are seen as less than.  Those who organized around white supremacy are of many variations.  Some have long believed it necessary to educate, civilize and control the other, while some maintain that the other must be contained or destroyed.  Then there are those who believe that other is to be exploited and used by the dominant group.  What all these expressions share is the refusal to fully recognize the apparent other and the failure to challenge the hierarchy.  For example, as slavery moved across the new and old world, the church debated whether Africans had souls and agency that would require human recognition.

We often hear of race being used to divide and conquer.  But, this claim misses the centrality of race.  The very production of race plays a much larger role in and is central to whiteness in its various forms.  The divide assertion ignores that in the United States, the “divide” has been much stronger among those who identify as white.  According to research, whites have been the least likely to make common cause with the other.  This division is already baked into the grounding of whiteness.  Whiteness as an ideology is so bound up with control and domination, that to make common cause calls this very ideology into question.  The very concept of being connected as an equal is deeply disturbing and in conflict with the ‘logic’ and ‘justification’ for white supremacy.

I am writing primarily about the ideology of whiteness because of its formative role in every aspect of Americanism.  Many are likely to find this uncomfortable, and reject it in the name of individualism.  But individuality in the West, and especially the United States, is a highly racialized concept closely associated with whiteness.  This is not simply an abstract notion of individuality.  The way the West conceptualizes individuality is in opposition to others, in separation from all others, and in domination of others.  What many Americans still do not recognize is that the individual is constituted through the social and not in isolation, since the individual is always in relationship to the other.  This relationship is not always healthy, but there is no escape into categorical separation. One may also notice that this myth is not only about separation and being self-made, it is also about invulnerability and independence.  These are some of the central features of the American expression of whiteness.  

Calling whiteness an ideology might suggest a simple cognitive or mental construct or an act of the will, but it is much deeper than this.  Whiteness is about ontological grounding that outruns our conscious control, interest, or will.

Because the ideology of whiteness is so dominant, it is not easily seen.  Instead, it hides under a number of  banners such as individuality, personal responsibility, and universalism.

Because the ideology of whiteness is so dominant, it is not easily seen.  Instead, it hides under a number of  banners such as individuality, personal responsibility, and universalism.  The separate self-made individual myth is already a racialized myth that is most pronounced in the United States.  It is expressed in terms of freedom from constraints as well as freedom from the other with the right to dominate.  This complex nature of whiteness does not mean the ideology cannot be changed or even ended.  The ideology of whiteness is constantly changing and has a social history.  It can and must be changed, but it requires more than just an individual wishing it away or trying to transcend it.

This desire to be self-made shows up in psychology as an expression  of  causa-sui or an  immortality project. Causa-sui can be understood to mean father of producer of oneself.   Even to be dependent on one’s parents is a threat to this unrealistic infantile freedom.   From a psychological perspective, these projects are a reflection of fear of death and connection.  How can one be free while death awaits?  We have tied death to the body while insisting that the mind and the soul do not die, so we must therefore become free of the body.  It takes us back to death and reminds us that we are just animals, part of nature, and limited.  This creates an urge to dissociate from this decaying thing called body that will soon die.  It is not surprising then that women and blacks were also associated with the body, creating both fear and fascination.  Think of how women of all races, and especially blacks, have been linked to sexuality with deep confusion.  Much of white supremacy is strongly tied up with an unhealthy relationship with the body and with death.  Despite this disdain for the body, we need and worship the body, which adds to the creation of a deep ambivalence.  While blacks and women are seen as bodies, whiteness (men) are seen as minds.  This is portrayed in the recent movie, “Get Out”.   

As Eric Foner, David Loy, and others have pointed out, there is an anxiety associated with separation that is extreme in the U.S., with the other being used as a trope.  In the United States, a deep anxiety about the enslaved black other was the foundation from which whiteness developed, including the obsession with independence in opposition to the dependent slave.  There was no consideration of interrelatedness or interdependence.   To take this whiteness away without replacing it, subjects those who implicitly or explicitly have their identities constructed around whiteness, to a kind of ontological anxiety, if not death itself.   The challenge to this fear-based construction cannot be just to transcend it or reject it, but to develop and offer a positive alternative.  Frequently, the question is posed, why would whites give up their privilege?  Giving up one’s privilege or whiteness is a much more complicated process than the question suggests. 

The answer to the question of what would make whites want to give up their privilege, is to gain (or reclaim) their humanity and to be on the side of life.

The answer to the question of what would make whites want to give up their privilege, is to gain (or reclaim) their humanity and to be on the side of life.  The privilege has been, in many ways, overrated.  Above, I suggested that the conditions of anxiety, anomie individualism, and obsession with independence and control, are more likely to be strongly present in those who identify as white.  There are a couple of important caveats to this statement.  First, it is more accurate to say that it is more strongly experienced by those who identify with the ideology of whiteness.  Identity is a social experience and not just, or even primarily, a subjective experience, although it is subjective as well.  While we do have some subjective sense of ourselves this experience comes from an intersubjective understanding and expression that is strongly mediated through structures and situatedness that precede one’s  experience.  To put it differently, what is subjective and internal is already social.  This leads to the second caveat; that identity is more than something that exists within our heads or minds.  Rather, identity is something that is also supported by our environment, as well as the predominant narratives and other cultural expressions to which we are exposed.  Our identities and environments simultaneously inform and help shape each other, and are radically social.  The desire or need to be separate from others has not only put us at war with the other, but also, with our own bodies, our selves and nature. 

Our identities and environments simultaneously inform and help shape each other, and are radically social.  The desire or need to be separate from others has not only put us at war with the other, but also, with our own bodies, our selves and nature.

It would not be possible to maintain whiteness without the structure of whiteness, and the material and cultural capital or conditions associated with whiteness.  Nor is it possible or desirable to try to transcend whiteness with these structures and practices in place.  As I have suggested, those benefits are often contested and in flux, but they must exist and have some shared understanding to do the work of re-creating whiteness, othering, or belonging.  One of the most important psychosocial benefits is to be part of a relatively exclusive white club, even as the club crumbles.  But, this apparent benefit comes with an extremely high cost, both to those who suffer under the ideology of whiteness and those who embrace it.  In part, whiteness means that whites and their associates have priority and dominance over the racial other.  But, the cost suggests their humanity may be more at risk, certainly more than most are aware.  

There was a time in our country where only whites could become naturalized citizens.  For those already here, and particularly blacks, the Supreme Court stated they could never be part of the political community.  Today, with voter suppression and gerrymanding, talk of walls and America (white) first, there continues to be a muffling of the voices of people of color.  For Trump and many of his supporters, non-white votes are necessarily suspect.  Police, with the support of the state, can kill blacks with impunity, because this is easily justified in the minds of many whites that see blacks as scary, animalistic, dangerous and not part of the we.  Toni Morrison noted that it is time to consider what the institution of slavery has done to scar whites.  I would add: without recentralizing whites.  While many people who are considered white may wish to live in a relationship of mutuality and equality, these arrangements will not be stable, concretized or even recognized if the conditions that support and recreate whiteness are not transformed.  

This is also true for other forms of othering, including systems such as gender, ability, and religion, to name a few.  The structure of othering in any given society is likely to take on one or two dominant forms.  These forms will be used for new othering processes and groups.  It is also clear that groups may be subjected to multiple forms of othering at once. 

It should be clear by this point that the ideology and practice of whiteness is not the same issue as people who are categorically or phenotypically white.  Although many that are phenotypically white embrace the ideology of whiteness, some do not.  This does not free them from the other forces in society that reproduce whiteness.  What is less obvious is that the system and ideology of whiteness may be embraced by those who are not categorized as whites, and not just through practices of domination and othering.  People of color that are raised in the United States and in the West, are likely to use the language, culture, and common meanings that are associated with the ideologies of whiteness. Consider the issue of hierarchy as part of the white ideology.  There are a number of responses that groups might make.  One is simply to invert the order.  It is not whites that are the best or at the top of the hierarchy, but blacks or Latinos.  This is just a continuation of the scale of hierarchy, with a re-ordering of who is on top.  Similarly, as whites try to essentialize whiteness, other groups may do the same of their particular group.  Also, groups that are othered may dehumanize other marginalized groups, or even their own group.  Another way to assert hierarchy is through the use of culture or God.  We first try to locate a particular culture, the great books or democracy, and then claim it for one group.  The response is often to insist that my culture has its own great books and of course that my God is more real and better.  Marginalized groups may have less power and agency, but they are not completely devoid of either.  This power and agency is likely to be some distorted form of whiteness even as it challenges whiteness.

There is a flawed assumption that our cultures are completely separate.  But, cultures cannot and do not exist in a vacuum.  This is because cultures, as well as people, are always in process and changing and dynamically interrelated.  For example, within the black community, there is a deep sense of colorism that mimics white sense of beauty and values.  Because of the work on mind science, we know it is not possible to live in a culture and remain untouched by popular influence, and we know this phenomenon cannot be adequately explained by self-hate alone.  Using a different register, what we called white or western culture is already an amalgam of many cultures and continue to include and adapt.  Part of the fear of many who embrace the ideology of whiteness is that the presence of the other will change the so called white culture and indeed it will.  But, the change need not be either exclusionary or scary.  The solution to the ideology of whiteness is not simply changing the other, or crossing the color line.  Rather, it is through radically transforming our understanding of and practice of the self as well as the structures and culture that mediate our access to ourselves. 

Part of the expression of this fear of the other is the fear of the unknown.  There is a deep fear of not knowing.  Western consciousness is predicated on separation, control, and fear.  Those things must be in control of those things that are separate and other.  Their difference and their unknowingness render them a threat.  The West, outside of what is called faith-based religions, is very uncomfortable with not knowing.  Even the faith-based religions avoid the dis-ease of not knowing, by projecting all of their not knowing onto an “all knowing, all powerful God.”  The problem of not knowing and invulnerability is then resolved.  

A self that is separate from the other is in a constant state of anxiety and fear.  To mitigate this fear, the self tries to exercise control, but this is never enough.

A self that is separate from the other is in a constant state of anxiety and fear.  To mitigate this fear, the self tries to exercise control, but this is never enough.  This starts with the separation from the self and the universal God.  It continues as separation from the self and the earth or nature.  Then, as separation from the others and from the soul.  Ultimately, there’s the separation of the self from the mind and the body.  Each of the separations represents a kind of illness.  Part of the theme of this journal is to focus on health and healing.  Healing cannot be fully addressed unless and until each of these separations are addressed.  Even to notice that the separation is an illusion is not enough.  We must develop a set of practices, institutions, stories, and lives where interrelatedness can be explicit and implicitly experienced.

Even to notice that the separation is an illusion is not enough.  We must develop a set of practices, institutions, stories, and lives where interrelatedness can be explicit and implicitly experienced.

This essay is a serious challenge to Western culture, but it is not meant to indicate that nothing good has come from Western civilization or culture, nor am I suggesting that other cultures are necessarily superior.  The strategy to maintain and negotiate health in the society is fraught with problems of anxiety, control, or success running from the hungry ghosts.  It is a constant denying of connection and denying of life and health.  It will be a mistake to assume that all are affected the same, as we are not.

There’s a gradient in the argument with this arrangement.  Where man is more likely to dominate woman, whites are more likely to dominate people of color, and the rich are more likely to dominate the poor.  It should be noted that in this domination and control is the assumption of hierarchy, which impacts us all.  In this way, I’m not suggesting that people who are women or people of color don’t participate in some way in the domination themselves.  One does not gain freedom from this just because one is dominated.  As noticed in the practice of restorative justice, people who are hurt are likely to hurt others.  The ideology of whiteness in various forms extends to those acculturated in a space where whiteness is the norm.  It is in our school, language, religion, and the very air we breathe.  

Iris Young and Susan Fiske describe different gradients of the othering process.  Young writes about the five faces of oppression.  She notes that to be marginalized is even worse than to be exploited.  She asserts that when a population becomes marginalized, they become susceptible to genocide, as they are not seen as needed.  An exploited population is needed, and therefore will not be completely killed off.  During slavery in the United States, there was a rationale for adhering to some level of minimal treatment, as the slaves were needed.  

Susan Fiske and others have developed a different system for understanding the gradients for othering.  In what Fiske refers to as the stereotype content model, she uses two axes, one measuring warmth, and one measuring competence, to develop four quadrants. The highest quadrant represents the people we perceive as high in competence and high in warmth.  We like the people in this category.  We think they are smart, deserving, and we have warmth toward them.  We are less likely to see their status as a threat but with admiration and as earned.  The lowest quadrant represents the people we perceive as low in competence and low in warmth.  We despise people in this category because we see them as neither smart nor likable.  They are undeserving even of our recognition. People in this contemptuous quadrant are seen as having little to no value in society, and are generally not liked by other members.  There are two quadrants in between; one where people are perceived as high in competence but low in warmth, and one where people are perceived as high in warmth but low in competence.  In the former category are people that we are jealous or envious of, but don’t like very much or think of as kind people. E.g., Asians, Jews, and rich people.  In the latter category are people we pity or feel sorry for because we view them as kind, but not very smart or capable.  People in this paternalistic category often include the elderly, housewives and their children, and people with disabilities.

Susan Fiske developed a model to empirically test how different groups of people in our society are viewed in relation to these four quadrants.  Fiske found that the groups in the highest quadrant (high in competence and high in warmth) were the dominant groups in a given society, and the groups in the lowest quadrant (low in competence and low in warmth) were the extreme others.  In the United States, homeless and black returning citizens populate this quadrant.  Tests were conducted with participants hooked up to MRI machines, so that Fiske and others could study the brain activity associated with stimulating each of the four quadrants.  What Fiske and others found was telling.  There are parts of our brain that light up when we see another human.  What Fiske found was that when participants viewed individuals in the contemptuous (low in competence and low in warmth) quadrant, these same parts of the brain did not light up.  In other words, our brains do not register people in this category as fully human.  What’s equally disturbing is that participants viewing this quadrant experienced increased brain activity in the parts of their brain associated with feelings of disgust.  In sum, Fiske’s research shows that at an unconscious, neurological level, our brains literally and figuratively dehumanize certain groups of people. The consequences of these findings are grim: When groups are not seen as fully human, we treat them as less than human.  

…at an unconscious, neurological level, our brains literally and figuratively dehumanize certain groups of people. The consequences of these findings are grim: When groups are not seen as fully human, we treat them as less than human.

The groups of extreme others are injured by this process, but so is the rest of society.  These injuries happen at multiple levels.  We suffer at the individual level and the group level.  We suffer from them at the economic level, the political level, and the ontological or spiritual level.  In thinking about all of these injuries and all of the suffering in our world, it is easy to become overwhelmed.  It is also easy to be invited into a place of lost anger and hate.  But, this is simply a reflection of what is already happening; it is not an answer.  Even when we see some of the suffering, it is easy to misunderstand or fail to see the full picture.  Thomas Frank’s popular book What’s the Matter with Kansas illustrates this point.  Frank notices that Kansans are suffering, but continue to vote against their self-interest.  This misunderstanding is multifaceted.  It is not that folks are voting against their interest, per se.  It is more accurate to suggest they are voting against their economic self-interest.  But, our sense of self is constituted by a number of processes including our political, spiritual, and ontological interests.  While these interests may be affected by our economic interests, our self-interest as a whole cannot be reduced to economic interests alone.  No one asked what the matter was with Mother Teresa for not making as much money as she could have, because we understand her as a spiritual being.  

What I suggest through this article is that whiteness is being defended and it is not just a matter of economic interest or identity.  Frank could have asked a different question, one that some are asking after the election of Trump: “What’s the matter with white people, or more accurately, whiteness?  What many of them say, if we are willing to listen closely enough, is not only concern about the jobs, but they are also concerned about their whiteness.  Who are we in the presence of the other?

The way liberals and spiritual progressives are likely to address this dis-ease with the other is to simply assert that we are all the same.  It should be clear that the intervention or solution to othering is not sameing or a simple universalism, but belonging.

It is not just the ethnic nationalists who are concerned about this question.  There is growing evidence that many liberals and spiritual progressives also struggle with the other in our midst.  The way liberals and spiritual progressives are likely to address this dis-ease with the other is to simply assert that we are all the same.  It should be clear that the intervention or solution to othering is not sameing or a simple universalism, but belonging.  Othering is a process, practice, and worldview that denies our deep interrelation to other forms and expressions of life.  Sameing, like colorblindness, suggests that we are all the same, and is a form of denial and oppression in and of itself.   It would erase others and reduce them to me, as opposed to engaging with others, including the otherness in me and recognizing myself in them.  Belonging recognizes the other without othering.  It also recognizes that our similarities and differences are largely situational, or constantly being reconfigured in part based on our relationship with each other and our struggles to belong. There is no categorical or infinite other; we are in relationship.  But, the different situations that we experience are real and must be engaged with in order to open up to new arising and even new selves.  Just as our selves are co-created, so must our commonality be co-created. 

Othering is a process, practice, and worldview that denies our deep interrelation to other forms and expressions of life.  Sameing, like colorblindness, suggests that we are all the same, and is a form of denial and oppression in and of itself.

Why is being in belonging a struggle?  Part of the reason is that we are born into a society that deeply denies our connection.  In order to connect deeply, or even superficially, we have to be vulnerable.  Vulnerability exposes us to being hurt by others.  Existence is constantly dealing with the need of others and the fear of others.  In a hierarchical society of extreme individualism such as ours, we try to deal with this anxiety or fear by denying a relationship with the other or controlling the other even to the point of making the other me.  We tried to connect with the other only through our agreement at the rational level and on our own terms.  We deny that the other is always part of us and also constituting us in ways we cannot understand or control.  Part of the rejection of programs like social security or the ACA is that they are social.  These programs recognize that we are connected and operationalize this connection.  Whiteness denies this connection, especially across the color line.  There was much more support for these programs when they were limited to whites. 

This fear of the other is not just reflected in our capitalist society; it is also reflected in our religions, spiritual communities, and teachings.  One of the  most extreme examples of fear and separation is found in Protestantism.  Of course, one could also assert that we see an expression of this in most major religions.  But, it is in Protestantism that we explicitly claimed a private space with God that allows us to disregard and to try to avoid engagement with the other, unless it is completely on our terms.  The privacy that provided this important foundation of Protestantism freed the worshiper from the community, but also weakened the community bond.   This puts us in destructive and exploitive relationships with others.  In any number of other religious practices, there is also an effort to become detached, invulnerable and transcendent.  Consider the individualist and often private practice of Buddhism in the West.  It is always in danger of being detached and indifferent to the suffering and situatedness of people in the world.   These claims reject the insight of interrelatedness and co-creation.  Sometimes, we do this by transcending the world.  And, in transcending the world our relationship with the world becomes tenuous and less than.  After all, it is not real.  Those still hurting are not fully enlightened.  

I am aware that there are expressions in all religions that recognize our deep connection.  Christianity asserts that we are indeed our brother’s keeper, and embraces the lesson of the good Samaritan.  When asked wasn’t the Samaritan afraid of what would happen to him if he stopped to help the stranger, he responded he was afraid of what would happen to himself if he did not stop.  This lesson of collective suffering and that the stranger among also is the embodiment of Christ is not reflected in the way white supremacy moves in the world.  But, even the religious or spiritual practitioner that is likely to stop and help, too often does so only from a safe distance of invulnerability and transcendence, and with a reluctance to engage structures.  There may be a willingness to risk the body because the body is not real and we will be ultimately rewarded.  But, this move to transcendence is similar to the way we deal with the unknown.  This is likely to leave us a ‘safe’ distance from each other, and this avoidance is something we must challenge. 

There are many who may reject religion and may insist that there’s nothing to transcend; that we live in the world, but we become involved by controlling the world.  But, both controlling the world and transcending the world create distance and problems.  Both ignore the reality of being spiritual animals.  We have to hold onto both aspects of ourselves and our deep relationship with each other and with life and our environment in order to be whole.  This presents a space of not only transcendence, nor of control of simply accepting what is; instead, it requires deep engagement without the comfort of knowing or the safety of invulnerability.  This insight requires that we recognize that the physical and material world matters.  Our physicality influences us, even though it does not determine us.  We are always more than our physicality and our experience, but neither are simple illusions to be denied.  At the same time, nature is not just for our use to be bent to our will.  It is only in this state of wholeness that we can really be healthy.  From this perspective, white supremacy, whether it is the white dominant group, corporate America, or the group that is being marginalized by whites, is antithetical to spirituality and health.

We’re experiencing increased anxiety as the world becomes more diverse.  In some sense, this is intuitive.  If we are frightened by the other, and the other exists closer and closer to us and exerts their own sense of agency, anxiety will ensue.  People can only process so much change over short periods of time, and we don’t process change alone.  We process, in part, through the stories or narratives in our culture, and through the leaders that we associate with.  Increased diversity, as suggested by Robert Putnam, is most likely to produce increased anxiety, at least in the short term, when the diversity is along important areas of society such as race or religion.  Putnam’s early work focused on Europe, but the anxiety from demographic change is equally true of the United States.  It is critical to note that anxiety is not the same a nationalism.  Anxiety is unsettled energy that can move in different directions.  It is how we make meaning of the anxiety that determines if it will be positive or negative.  The right-wing nationalists and Trump have given the growing diversity a very negative and threatening spin.  Diversity is seen as not just taking jobs but taking the very soul of America.  The soul of America meaning whiteness and the ideology associated with it.  What the left and the progressive spiritual community is likely to do, is avoid talking about identity, except in the most superficial manner, to avoid what is labeled identity politics.  This may make it difficult to address the reality that many young men and women in America are neglected or even killed by the state, not simply because they are people, but because they are the other (black).  The confusion on the left in addressing the Black Lives Matter Movement is an example of this.

I should hasten to add that identity politics in and of themselves are not a problem.  In fact, most politics are identity politics, in that they focus on the needs and interests and concerns of a particular group, however the group is defined.  Focusing on identity becomes a problem if it is done in a way that denies the interests and values of other groups.  Referring again to Putnam, he talks about bridging and bonding.  Bridging is basically where one group relates to another group based on empathetic space and shared suffering.  At a deep level bridging not only creates understanding and caring, it creates new identities and groups.  To share suffering is to have compassion.  Bonding, while it may sound more positive than not, is where one closes oneself off from other groups, or only has love for one’s own group.  It can be thought of as an extreme form of homophilous behavior.

Putnam is clear that it is possible for both bridging and bonding to happen at the same time.  A slightly different version of this phenomenon named by Putnam, is called bridging and breaking.  Again, bridging suggests the connecting with the other through empathetic story and space and a shared future.  But, breaking, unlike bonding, is where we explicitly or implicitly define the other as somehow a threat to our existence, or as bad or evil.  An example of breaking is Trump talking about Mexicans coming to rape our women, take our jobs, and sell drugs.  Breaking is the most pernicious form of othering and leads not just to walls, but if unabated, can lead to genocide.

In sum, it is not so-called identity politics that is the problem, it is the practice of breaking that is the problem.  And, while breaking happens on the left and right, it is now coming from the right through the state itself.

In sum, it is not so-called identity politics that is the problem, it is the practice of breaking that is the problem.  And, while breaking happens on the left and right, it is now coming from the right through the state itself.

How do we bridge?  The heart of bridging is based on our willingness to engage and share in each other’s suffering,  failures and aspirations.  It requires our willingness to recognize the similarities and the differences of the other with space and empathy.  To suffer with, is compassion.  To connect with the failures and suffering of the other does not mean we endorse or accept their story.  Rather, it means that we accept their humanness in all its forms.  We all need to be recognized and heard.  This is not the same as getting everything we want or even being right.  We bridge when we can recognize that we are all human and worthy of care even as we are situated differently within structures and the environment.  Most of our identity difference has been traced to our situatedness.  We connect by sharing our stories of respective situatedness and suffering with each other.  We connect by sharing our hopes, goals, values, and aspirations with each other, and build bridges when we identify and move towards our shared goals, in a manner that acknowledges our respective suffering.  Common ground is not just found, it is co-constructed.   If we cannot accept our respective humanity, this effort will be undermined.

Our very way of evaluating what is good and what is right must be part of the inquiry.  This is not suggesting that we are without values or judgment, but that we are willing to engage with the possibility of change.   This is not just an exercise of our interest, but also an exposure of us.  One of the ways that we try to give comfort in dealing with anxiety of the other is to suggest that no changes are forthcoming.  This is a false comfort.  Change is inevitable and it will be accelerated by the presence of the apparent other.  But, change does not have to be bad.  If done well, change will also give us a new self.  In doing this, we must protect marginalized groups from new injuries.  There must be at least a provisional understanding that all people are of value.  There must be the conditions for groups to belong, and the reduced risk of injury or alienation.  In other words, the price of the ticket must not be too high.

This brings up the issue of bridging in the context of supremacy.  What do we do with the supremacy that denies our humanity and can destroy our life and other life around us?  Our very humanity is framed as the cause of their suffering.  Leading up to the civil war, there were many whites that argued that their limited “right” to enslave was a violation of their freedom and humanity.  The liberal assertion that we can virtually say whatever, as long as we do not physically injure another, is woefully inadequate.  As the mind sciences have begun to teach us, serious injury can and often does happen through words and images, sans actual physical harm.  Yet, we still hold on to the humanity of slaveholders.  How we can do this is a difficult question, but in the immediate future, our focus must be more on the enslaved and less on the enslaver, all the while looking for the opportunity to bridge.

The process of othering is not just top down.  The elites have more influence in the structure and process than the non-elites.  And, as suggested above, men have more influence than women on issues of gender, and whites have more influence than people of color on issues of race.  In other words, there is a lack of symmetry.  Yet, the claim that marginalized people cannot engage in the process of othering is a mistake.  Indeed, marginalized groups are likely to other both other marginalized groups, as well as people who accord others more hierarchical standing than their own group.  Part of the claim is that because marginalized groups lack power, they cannot engage in othering.  This is a mistaken assumption for a number of reasons.  Power is important, but no group is completely devoid of power.  Secondly, marginalized groups can and often do engage in othering of other marginalized groups.  Finally, because a group is marginalized on one axis, does not mean they are marginalized in other areas.  A person of color may have male privilege, or able body privilege, or language and so on.  Again, this is not suggesting a symmetry.

I began this article by talking about the “we.”  I’d like to come back to that discussion.  We are constantly experiencing our relationships with each other through the structures, environments, and the stories we live in. We are composed of complicated processes and many of those processes are unconscious.  In recent years, we’ve become more aware, through the study of mind science, that the self is not singular or unitary.  Much of what happens, happens at an unconscious level.  The unconscious is deeply social, and deeply habituated by engaging with the larger world and reflecting on things that happen repeatedly and in close proximity to ourselves.  This process is unavoidable.  In a society where ranking or grading people by race is the norm, the unconscious will carry this norm in virtually every member of society.  It is like living in an environment where the air is polluted; it affects everyone.

In a society where ranking or grading people by race is the norm, the unconscious will carry this norm in virtually every member of society.  It is like living in an environment where the air is polluted; it affects everyone.

It is true that in a society organized around race, like our society is, whites will be more infected by this ideology than people of color.  But, people of color will be carrying this infection as well.  The same can be said for gender, sexual orientation, disability and so on.  This does not mean that everyone is therefore racist or homophobic, but it does mean that this process will affect all of us and our sense of who we are.

While the unconscious is big and fast, the conscious is small and slow.  The unconscious is old, and the conscious is new.  We can’t get rid of all of these unconscious processes as we need them to survive.  But, we can have a different relationship with them, and we can create new structures and new patterns so that our unconscious is not undermining our conscious values.  It appears that a sustained practice can reduce the amount of the habituated bias of the unconscious.  But there is nothing to suggest that we can end it completely.  Practitioners will likely carry the problem associated with their group situatedness.  Too often there is a superficial assumption that because one is engaged in a spiritual practice, they are no longer impacted by racism or sexism.  There is nothing that supports this.  The ways spiritual practice came to the West, shows many of the western (white) limitations.

It should be clear now that the issue of hierarchy is the official ideology of much of our country.  The AltRight has reclaimed white supremacy and white security as its tagline.  The problem of race in the United States has never been primarily about people of color, but more so about white ideology and white supremacy itself.  Most people who identify as white and are phenotypically white, are really the middle players.  They do not put white supremacy in place, nor are they always a beneficiary of it.  It is true that there is a psychological benefit to being affiliated with whiteness and its relationship to non-whites, but there is an incredible cost that is ignored.  The material benefits associated with whiteness have been in decline for several years, but the benefits have not been extended to people of color by and large, with few exceptions.  It is the elites that benefit the most from the ideology of whiteness or othering in a given society.  This is important because in order to challenge white supremacy, it is not enough to challenge white people.  You must challenge the white supremacist ideology and those who benefit the most from whiteness, which mutates over time.  The benefit is often in the form of a transfer of wealth and power from people of color, working-class, and middle-class whites themselves.  They also can use this ideology of white supremacy which is bound up with religion, particularly Christianity, as a justification for imperialism.  Imperialism and whiteness were never solely about one’s religious affiliation or one’s color, but also the arrangement of power and distribution of privilege.  In terms of power, elites have been given a disproportionate share, but do not have all of it and can never have all of it.  

Because we are spiritual animals or embodied transcendent beings, we will never be completely determined by our material circumstances, but neither will we ever become completely free of them.  What this suggests, in part, is that whiteness cannot be undone by just white people alone.  It is a project that affects all of us, and one which all of us have a stake in doing and redoing.  There are no natural boundaries for whiteness, people of color, blackness, etc.  These are all important social boundaries with real social meanings, but they do not represent biological boundaries or have any essential meaning.  Further, these boundaries are always being challenged and shifted based on social pressure and contestation.  Part of the question is whether we can make these boundaries very porous or eliminate them altogether.  Boundaries work to allow the privileged people on the inside who have attachments to people on the outside, to allow people in provisionally, but to be policed by the privileged.  But oftentimes, some of the boundary cells are doing as much harm as good.  At some point, the question of othering and belonging has to shift from what happens within the national boundaries, to what happens beyond our national boundaries.  

How do we shift the process from structural, institutional, and even spiritual othering, to that of belonging?  As we remove the schisms between ourselves and the apparent other, between ourselves and different nations, between ourselves and the earth, we have a possibility of healing.

This brings us to the question of how these practices are kept in place and what should be done to remove them.  There are many things that keep the practice of othering in place.  Obviously, physical, educational, and employment related segregation play an important role.  Segregation is not simply about the separation of people based on phenotype, but also about separating people from critical resources, including resources for participating in self-making.  How do we shift the process from structural, institutional, and even spiritual othering, to that of belonging?  As we remove the schisms between ourselves and the apparent other, between ourselves and different nations, between ourselves and the earth, we have a possibility of healing.  On a deep spiritual level, the ideology of hierarchy in general, and whiteness in particular, is antithetical to being healthy.  The effort to restore health in fighting an environment where supremacy, imperialism, and domination continue to operate creates serious limitations.  There are many things we can and should do such as de-stress, practice meditation, and hold healing circles, just to name a few. Also, healing suggests that there’s been an injury or setback of some kind, and a need to recover.

Part of the role and ideology of whiteness has been about trying to assuage the fears and anxiety associated with being a separate human being.  The anxiety of life and death will not go away, but we can heal the illusion of separation.  Love and empathy are probably two of the most important ways of leaning into our interconnectedness, and yes, such interconnectedness brings with it vulnerability and even the threat of the other.  What I’m suggesting here in terms of belonging is not a false tolerance toward others, but instead, a radical challenge to the process of othering without rejecting the other, including the other within the self.  It is an important process that happens at multiple levels.  In the spirit of community, too often we are seduced into believing we can just do what is called internal work or private work, and leave the rest of the world alone. This transcendence leaves much of the suffering in the world undisturbed.  It leans toward an accommodation for the structures of oppression.  Instead, I’m suggesting we practice and embrace a deep engagement with the world, with others, and with what we might call internal work.  We engage in the work not just by interacting with each other, but also by reclaiming the institutions and structures that are shaped by our government and support our interrelatedness and honor our individuality.  Put simply, a full life requires vulnerability.

In sum, we are witnessing an ongoing assault on life of various forms. The elites have an oversized role and an apparent oversized benefit from these systems.  The ideology of whiteness may hurt most white people materially, and yet there may be some apparent psychological benefit.  People of color are likely to both be denied of the material benefits and suffer from the psychological component. Too often the spiritual community is too distant and protected from these process.  To engage may even be seen by some as not spiritual.  If they can have some distance from this system, they may be inclined to embrace a transformative love.  The way I have described the situation of whiteness and hierarchy may seem very problematic and even hopeless, but it is neither.  Because things are interrelated and connected, even a small shift in one or two critical areas can create a huge shift throughout the entire system.  Because we are in fact partially transcendent, even though we are also in body, we are never completely determined by our surroundings.  But we must not simply turn away from our structures.  If we can lean into belonging in the most powerful and loving way, it is possible for rapid change to happen in a relatively short period of time.  But, this requires us to engage ourselves and the other.  This requires engaging in the spiritual and the material.  And, not at a safe distance, but with intimacy and love.  This should not be seen as a distraction from our practice but a wonderful expression of our practice.  As we build bridges and even become bridges, we will be doing a service to the world.  But in the service, it is useful to remember the words of bell hooks.  Bridges are made to walk on.


john a. powell is an internationally recognized expert in the areas of civil rights, civil liberties, structural racism, housing, poverty, and democracy. He is the director of the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society and Professor of Law, African American, and Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. He led the development of an “opportunity-based” model that connects affordable housing to education, health, health care, and employment. His latest book is Racing to Justice: Transforming our Concepts of Self and Other to Build an Inclusive Society.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *