Tribalism and a sense of belonging

Tuesday 19 May 2009 at 00:43

I originally wrote this in an email following a pretty damaging exchange that took place on Columbine's Visioning committee this time last year. The original email is here. I'm reposting it now (May 5, 2010) with the original date and time.

At last Tuesday's visioning meeting, I tried to make a point about the challenges of being in the visible minority. That proved to be volatile coming from me (as The Rich White Male in the room). A week later I believe even more strongly that this demands attention and discussion.

Back in February (Black History Month), there was an article on Talk of the Nation, Op-Ed: Holder Shouldn't Have Called Us Cowards interviewing Charles M. Blow, New York Times visual op-ed columnist, about race (given the topic, I'll just add that Charles M. Blow is black):

One particular part of the discussion has really stuck with me. I'm paraphrasing at length here because I found this dialog so revealing.

A black woman from South Bend, Indiana said it's difficult to discuss race with her friends, most of whom are white, because they're hypersensitive. Paraphrasing, the caller said:

Any time I mention that I long to be around more black people, they kind of shut it down by saying, "well, we're your friends; it doesn't matter that you're black to us. It doesn't matter to you that I'm white; We like what we like, and we like you, so why does that make a difference?" It's the whole colorblind argument that they throw. Any time there's any kind of discussion of race, it's kind of shut down, and to me, I feel that's not acknowledging who I am. I'm black; I'm an African-American female; it's a part of me; it is my life. I have experiences that I would like to discuss, and share, and I feel like it's denied for the sake of being "colorblind."

Charles M. Blow replied:

First, A couple of studies have shown that whites are very, very reluctant to engage in any race-related conversation because they fear they will say something that will peg them as prejudiced. That is such a strong reaction that one scientist using brain scans and tests following just a basic conversation between whites and people of other races found that whites were cognitively and emotionally exhausted just after having a conversation, not even about race, with a person of that race. You have to understand that's happening.

Second, this is the perfect opportunity for someone to have a discussion about race. Her white friend could have asked "So why is it so important for you to be around other black people, and what difference would that make for you as a person?" And then start to explore the reasons.

This conversation will not be comfortable. Forget about the idea that you're going to be comfortable. Everybody is going to be exhausted after this. The caller probably will say things that her friends will find offensive. There is a certain kind of tribalism embedded in all of society, not just American society; people have been grouping themselves according to common ethnic backgrounds and religions and whatever throughout history. But why do we do that?

That can be a jumping off point for some interesting dialogue. If someone finds something offensive, my suggestion is to say, do you understand how someone including me could find that to be offensive? Then the caller could explore why that person might be taking offense, if indeed they are. That just opens more conversation and keeps drilling down to why we hold the beliefs that we believe. I think keeping it on this very personal level is the most constructive kind of conversation we can have.

I definitely experience the fear of saying something racist and it's a relief to know that the stress I experience is supported by measurable evidence of cognitive and emotional exhaustion. A Latina friend has described her own experience of exhaustion in being around white people and trying to figure out how she is being seen. So I think this mental stress goes both ways.

Some part of us prefers Columbine the way it is. Just as the caller longs to be around more black people, Latinos can enjoy a school where they are among their own, and Anglos choose other schools where they are also among their own. But at Columbine and similar schools around the country, the language barrier magnifies everything. Discussing race requires every ounce of nuance and discretion I can muster. Worrying about how much of that nuance will be lost in translation adds a whole extra dimension to the challenge.

Integration might be the more noble path, but whatever our rationale for our choices, given the choice, most of us choose our own tribes. The district's goal of destratification is The Right Thing ™ to do, but incredibly difficult because we are working against our own nature, working against the powerful force of feeling like an outsider.

Although I enjoy every dimension of privilege and status in our society: I'm white, male, blue-eyed, a college graduate, a native English speaker, a US citizen, tall, athletic, and wealthy (not relative to the rest of Boulder, but definitely relative to the rest of the world), none of that privilege makes it any easier for me to face the feeling of being the outsider.

Part of me thinks I'm spending entirely too much time on something that's completely obvious. On the other hand, I haven't heard many people pointing to this experience to explain why our community has divided itself up along lines of race and language and class. Perhaps in searching for some colorblind explanation for stratification, or perhaps in fear of talking about race, we overlook this most simple of explanations: we're trying to overcome thousands of years of human behavior. Not that this hasn't ever been done before. But I don't think it has ever been easy.

At the May 4th visioning meeting, Manuela, a Latina parent representative said to Jennifer, an Anglo parent representative, "I love learning from the beauty of your culture" (as it was interpreted with a little emphasis from Yolanda, teacher representative). What an optimistic message. That's really the point, isn't it? Learning the beauty of another culture is one of the most powerful opportunities at Columbine; an opportunity that somehow gets lost in the conversation in our English-speaking neighborhood, undermined by the force of our underlying tribalism. If we can change the conversation to focus on the joy of learning from the beauty of another culture, perhaps the extra effort of crossing these divisions will seem immediately worth the extra effort.