Last weekend, I attended a remarkable conference where I learned about something called "othering and belonging." Othering, also known as implicit bias, is a survival mechanism and core brain function that categorizes people, largely by appearance, into allies and threats. Categories for othering include gender identity, body type and size, race and skin tone, age, physical and mental ability, or any other trait that our culture might choose to exalt or demean.
As humankind, we have used othering to justify horrific behaviors—waging war, enslaving people, committing genocide, or exploiting life, land and culture. Everyday, we label and judge others as snobs, thugs, jocks, princesses, sissies, and the list goes on.
Belonging implies safety, comfort and our highest aspiration: connection. We often describe this as our community, our tribe. But by definition, belonging can imply that there are others who fall outside our circle of safety and concern. For me, whenever I enter a situation, I scan the environment. Where are my people? Who do I know? Who looks and acts like me? If my scan yields a feeling of belonging, my body relaxes. If not, I tense up and other myself before anyone else can.
A few days ago, I attended a May Day celebration in the mountains of Tennessee. I arrived and began to sort and label the 500 people gathered there. I saw hippies of all ages dressed in festive, androgynous outfits with lean body types that years of yoga and vegan diets conditioned. I counted fewer than 20 people of color. Other than my two friends who invited me, I didn't know a soul. I had no rational reason to feel unsafe, but I did. I went into protective mode and othered myself, feeling frustrated, angry, dismissive and unsafe.
These feelings kept me on the margins, looking for an escape. I wanted to be left alone, and people accommodated that. When night fell, I found a quiet place near the bonfire. Burt, an elderly man wearing a fringed leather vest and a sequined rainbow beanie, sat next to me. He was born and reared on this mountain, as were his ancestors four generations back. I spoke with him about othering and belonging, and he shared this story.
"For most of my life, we lived under the ugly cloud of Jim Crow. My black friends and neighbors—people I grew up with—were treated like animals by white folks, including some of my relatives. We othered them, and they othered us. But what mattered to me was the relationship. I made a pact with my black friends that no matter how bad the situation was, we had to be able to stand in the middle of that madness, and with no more than a glance, know that we had each other's backs."
I asked Burt his opinion about the events in Baltimore and he said, "They can continue throwing rocks at each other, trying to put the other guys out or knock some sense into them. Or they can stand in the middle of the madness like we did and take care of each other until the system changes."
Burt shook my hand and said that if I felt othered through the course of the evening, to seek him out, and he'd let me know I belong. All of the fear, tension and frustration that I was holding dissipated, and I relaxed.
Over the past few weeks, images of othering in Baltimore have barraged us. Videos played in endless loops of the "brutal and monstrous police" and "out-of-control thugs." This has only exacerbated the tension of othering.
Building communities of belonging requires conscious engagement. It starts when you reflect on these three questions: 1) Where do I other? 2) What does it look and feel like? 3) How does it separate me from my humanity?
When Burt noticed me separating from my humanity, he sat next to me, took me in and told me that I belong. His conscious engagement may provide an example for us to move beyond our basic instinct to other and connect to our higher aspiration: belonging.
Kevin Fong, who lives in San Francisco, is a nationally recognized and respected facilitator, trainer and speaker in leadership and executive development, and organizational systems, philosophy and design. Visit elementalpartners.net.