I had originally approached today’s topic of Othering through a financial lens, as part of the series of episodes on the intersection of parenting and money (previous episodes have been on NYT Money colunist Ron Lieberman’s book The Opposite of Spoiled, How to Pass on Mental Wealth to your Child, The Impact of Consumerism on Parenting, and How to Set Up A Play Room. The series will conclude in the coming weeks with episodes on advertising and materialism).
I kept seeing questions in parenting groups: How can I teach my child about volunteering? How can I donate the stuff we don’t need without making the recipient feel less than us?
And, of course, after the Black Lives Matter movement began its recent up-swing of activity, the topic took on a new life that’s more closely related to my guest’s work: viewing othering through the lens of race.
My guest, Dr. john a. powell, is an internationally recognized expert in the areas of civil rights and civil liberties and a wide range of issues including race, structural racism, ethnicity, housing, poverty, and democracy. He is the Director of the Othering & Belonging Institute (formerly Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society), which supports research to generate specific prescriptions for changes in policy and practice that address disparities related to race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, disability, and socioeconomics in California and nationwide. In addition to being a Professor of Law and Professor of African American Studies and Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, Professor powell holds the Robert D. Haas Chancellor’s Chair in Equity and Inclusion.
Our conversation was wide-ranging and touched on a host of topics and thinkers, which I promised to track down if I could. These include:
The movie Trading Places (I still haven’t seen it!)
Click here to read the full transcript
Hello and welcome to the Your Parenting Mojo podcast. In today’s episode, we’re going to draw together themes from a couple of different series that we’ve been working on over the last few months. One of these was on the intersection of whiteness and parenting, and the other more recent one has been on the intersection of money and parenting. And one common theme across both of these topics is the idea of seeing someone who’s different from you as somehow other than you. And so I’m deeply honored today to welcome Dr. John Powell, who is an internationally recognized expert in the areas of civil rights and civil liberties. Dr. Powell is the director of the Othering and Belonging Institute at the University of California Berkeley, which supports research to generate specific prescriptions for changes in policy and practice that address disparities related to race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, disability and socio economics in California and nationwide. Dr. Powell is Professor of Law and also Professor of African American Studies and Ethnic Studies at UC Berkeley. And is the author of the book Racing to Justice: Transforming Our Concepts of Self and Other to Build an Inclusive Society. Welcome, Dr. Powell.
Dr. Powell 2:17
Nice to be here, Jen.
And so I should also add that we scheduled this interview way back in February, right? Because your calendar is absolutely bananas. And we’re just now talking here at the beginning of May. And so to put this in context, when we scheduled this in February, COVID-19 was something that was happening in China and really didn’t seem to affect us very much or like it was going to affect us very much. And here in May, obviously, we are in a very different situation. And so I think our conversation today is going to be even more powerful with this additional context of othering that we’re seeing related to things like attacks on Asian Americans here in the US, as well as under counting the number of Native Americans who have the virus, and how the whole world is basically shut down for an illness that’s killed a small fraction of the number of people that diarrheal diseases and tuberculosis kill every year. Although, obviously the people that those diseases typically kill is very different from the people we are seeing the highest numbers of COVID-19 cases. So I’m sure our discussion today is going to be as this backdrop. And I think it makes it even more timely and even more compelling to listen to. So, I wonder if we could maybe start with a definition because othering is, I’m guessing is a term that’s not going to be so familiar to many of my listeners. So can you start by grounding us a little bit and telling us about what is othering, please.
Dr. Powell 3:33
All right, so there’s, as you would expect, there are many different ways of thinking about othering and the flip side of belonging, which we’ll get to, I guess early.
Mm-hmm. Certainly, will.
Dr. Powell 3:42
It comes from many different disciplines, from healthcare, from sociology, from psychology, from philosophy, from feminist studies, from political science, each one has a slightly different variation as to how they talk about it. But one way of thinking about it is just when you do not accept someone else’s full humanity and full equality. The bus concept as people are not seen as grievable, or people don’t count, or in some way, they’re less that. So it could be because there are different levels of othering, you connect othering between husband and wife, but not gonna have genocide in that context. Whereas when you have extreme othering of some groups, it also can lead into genocide. And there’s othering that’s exploitive. So, I was young made to observation that to be superfluous is worse than to be exploited. Because when you are superfluous, you can be subject to genocide. When you’re exploited, you’re not likely to suffer genocide.
Because you have a use to somebody.
Dr. Powell 4:49
Right. So, there are forms of othering, but sort of broad way of thinking about it when someone is seen as less than fully equal, less than mutual, and it can add to that like maybe a threat. In some sense, we’re in different slow to some ways of thinking about it.
Okay, and so I’m trying to think about this from a psychological perspective and thinking about we’ve talked a long time ago now about how social groups form and a big part of it seems to be about creating this difference in your mind between what is me, what is myself, and to understand that you have to have something to compare it to some kind of other, how do you integrate that psychological aspect into the definitions of othering that you work with?
Dr. Powell 5:32
Well, the psychological definitions tend to be individualistic. And whereas some other definition certainly when I talked about Judith Butler or when I talked about sociology, Steve Martinot, they’re not psychological in that sense, in the sense that one of the preconditions to think about othering is when you think about group othering, there does seem to be a mind is set to actually categorize and differentiate and out of that comes the concept of ingroups and outgroups. But there’s a lot to suggest that there’s no stability in ingroups and outgroups, that people move in and out. And when we were talking about othering, we’re largely talking about at a group level, not at individual level. And there’s no natural other. I mean, that’s the mistake I think that a lot of the psychological literature suggests that you see someone was different. And as the Dean of Harvard Law School wrote a book called What Differences the Difference Make [Jen note: I believe Dr. powell is referring to the book Making All The Difference]. So the psychological literature seems to suggest that there’s natural others. And we think that those natural others and natural othering process fall along certain well traveled categories like race, gender, and that’s clearly wrong. There’s no natural other and there’s no natural group. And part of that comes from a misunderstanding of our history. And so we think about, we organized in tribes, and so in tribes we had intimate contact with anywhere from 50 to 150 people. And that was it. And everyone else was an outgroup, and potentially either a threat or a different. But when we talk about whiteness, for example, we’re not talking about 50 people. So the 2 million years that we spent on tribes, there was no concept of whiteness. And people weren’t organized from whiteness, they’re organized around proximity. And race as we know it is relatively new, a few hundred years old. And then the capacity to actually define someone as an ingroup is a sociological process, it’s not in a build on a psychological tendency. For example, there are over 1 billion Christians, they’ll never see each other. They have different languages, they have different race, but in some sense, they think of themselves as a group. They identify as a group. There’s 340 million Americans and so why is that a group? That sounds nothing to do in a deep sense with 50 people, right? This is a very broad process. And so it’s not that I see a person who has a different race than me, and then I have a whole bunch of things happen is that I’ve actually been constituted in such a way, not on my own behalf, and not on my own efforts entirely. In fact, a lot of this is pre-given. So for example, prejudice can only really exist when there’s already a structure in the language and a grammar for prejudice that’s not the individual. So there’s a little tension between the way psychologists approach it and the way sociologists and others approach it.
Yeah, for sure. And one thing I wanted to pick up in what you said was that we sort of assume that these are essentialist categories that I one thing or I’m another thing, and actually, we create these categories, right? I mean, I’m thinking about the immigration of Irish people who were not initially considered white in the US when they first came over. And so what are some of the other ways that you see this? You know, we think these are essentialist categories, but actually, they’re not in any way, essentialist.
Dr. Powell 9:07
Right. And so interesting question, I’ve been a little bit about this so as you suggest essentialist sort of will locate something in the person who’s just it’s in your biology, it’s in your nature and change, we have largely moved to anti-essentialist posture, in the sense that there are very few, if any essential categories and even if they were essential, the meaning is not essential. So when I was growing up, initially, race was considered essential. And you read stuff from the 1950s and 60s and races talk about us being biological and essential. And then some people would take that biological understanding of race and then attribute certain characteristics to it. As that started to melt away or become contested, people shift it as that okay race is an essential or biological, it’s sociological. But gender, aha, that is different. And they’re only, you know, a man or woman, you know.
Dr. Powell 10:02
And some people early on, so that’s not quite true, you can be more. And now of course, people don’t think of gender, or gender roles as essential at all. And there’s no clear human biology associated with it, you have transgender. And so, again, in terms of the Academy, people question if there’s anything that’s essential. Now, the mistake that people make with that is that they then assume, because we’re not essential, and if these categories are sociological and creative, can we step outside of these categories, and live in some way in which there are no categories? And that seems pretty wrong. And the categories don’t have to be as rigid, and they can be multiple and they can be fluid and we can influence them. But the way the mind works and the way we work as people, we’re always in relationship. And we need some categories to actually negotiate the world. We seem to be taking too much information. And another are saying that is that all of my interactions are mediated. We have no direct interaction with the world or with each other or even with ourselves. It’s sort of interesting, my experience and when they say that, they assume they’re talking about some unmediated, unfiltered phenomenon. Most people who look at this carefully would say, there’s no such thing, that the very concept of reception is already structured. But it’s not essential. So it can’t restructure. And there are things we can do to shift it. But we can’t simply step outside and have God’s eye view and just see the world as it is.
Yeah. And so when we start to think about things that we could do that are different from othering, one potential way we could think about it is well, I’ve seen it referred to as saming, you know, we could just say, well, we’re going to treat everybody equally. Why is that a bad idea?
Dr. Powell 11:57
Well, first of all, it doesn’t work. In some ways, it’s basically saying, in order for me to treat you as a full human being, you have to become some version of me. And that’s better than saying, you’re categorically different. And I can never understand you. And therefore, I can do all these terrible things to you. It’s like, so I have this thing, it’s like, because we are both the same and different, dialogue is necessary and possible. And what it means by that, if we were just the same, dialogue wouldn’t be necessary. I don’t need to talk to you on the same thing. I don’t need to ask you how you feel.
You already know.
Dr. Powell 12:36
You know, it’s like, what would I feel? A gentle exactly is out here because she’s an extension of me. And the other is that because it were totally different, the infinite other as Hegel talks about, that I couldn’t understand. And so his life is a little bit more messy. The other things that are interesting, I find very fascinating, is that the process of suppressible saming some ways an erasure, you know, it’s like, it’s actually kind of the liberal response to the categorical differences that we made in the past like, blacks are women, it’s like, no, we’re all the same. And that all the same, the person speaking, generally is the dominant group. And so then, in order to be a member of society, it means I have to adhere to whatever the dominant group considers to be the necessary thing. And so if you think about something like a Bill Clinton, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, right? Like you can join the military and kill people just like anybody else, but we don’t want to hear about your sexual exploits. But from heterosexual, a heterosexual man, I can brag about my sexual exploits. So even in that formulation, you’re saying one group can show up and be messed up on the chest for how many sexual exploits I have, but if you’re homosexual, shhh, no one would talk about that.
Dr. Powell 14:01
It’s different. So the goal is not to be treated as the same. In fact, the idea of equality exit from the western concept come from Aristotle. And Aristotle understood that there were two different forms of equality when he calls arithmetic and what he calls geometric. And arithmetic is when we people are situated the same. And he says basically treat people who were situated the same as fare or treat people who are situated differently is unfair, but when people are not situated the same, to treat them as if they were the same, doesn’t make any sense. We got half of Aristotle’s insights and not the other half.
Yeah. And it seems as though a lot of what you’re speaking to is sort of getting at the idea of denying people agency and I think I see that a fair bit in the parenting world, you know, I’m obviously white and a lot of people who are talking about parenting are white, and schools I think you’re very much geared for the success of middle class white children, and you know, in the parenting spirits, it’s really common to hear about children needing protection. And often there are specific groups of parents, they’re usually, you know, black or brown, low socio economic status. And these parents don’t care about their children’s education in some way. And in doing that, we’re kind of removing, we’re constructing a narrative where we really remove agency from these individuals. And we say, well, the school knows best or the state knows best. And if only you parented, like middle class white parents did, then your children would be so much better off and so much better able to succeed in the world. How do you relate what we’ve been talking about so far to parenting and the parenting world?
Dr. Powell 15:36
Well, it’s actually interesting on a number of levels. I mean, even the construction of the family, right? It’s a relatively new phenomenon.
Dr. Powell 15:44
And, you know, the idea of a nuclear family, just a few thousand years old, but it’s not a basic human trait.
Dr. Powell 15:56
In the way that we organize the family.
Right and just to pause on that for a second, I think it is assume that the way that we, when I say we, you know, middle class white families organized the family around two parents, a certain number of children probably living at some distance from grandparents that that is how families are. And that that is what you’re saying is that that is not the case at all.
Dr. Powell 16:16
Right. And in fact, there’s interesting anthropological literature that suggests that anyway, they were doing it wrong. They didn’t do it in a way that we actually evolve. We evolve not to have the nuclear family. There’s some examination of grandparents and all that. But you know, again, it’s sociological, we sort of have cultures, we have expressions, which is conflated with race. But it’s not the same as race, but even, you know, sort of hard to get to a ground and I know we’re trying to do that. But if you think about I mentioned Judith Butler, she wrote in Gender Trouble, she writes that the way we talk about agency is not only Western white, it’s also male. And so we again, a certain agency mainly in the context of free standing separate individual, and I can do what I want to do or I have the capacity, a will. If you go back to psychology, which you mentioned earlier, it’s like peeling an onion. So where does the will come from? What does it mean at a deeper level? Where does I come from? And so what Butler says is that there’s agency but it’s not the same as conceived of in terms of white dominant culture, that’s a fiction. And she says that the human being that’s described in western literature is actually a male. And I would go further and say, it’s an aspiration. It’s a distortion, because the agency is actually reached for is to be freestanding. For example, in Western society, and this is particularly strong in the United States, dependency is seen as a negative. And so part of agency is framed in terms of the opposite of dependency and the different kinds of dependencies or interdependencies but in part because of events, this history with slavery, dependency has taken on a particularly negative connotation. So that’s associated both with slavery and with femaleness. And so if you look at our reactions, for example, to the social safety net, we’re always even in this pandemic, it’s like, well, we can’t give people money, because that will make them, it’s a moral hazard. Give corporations money, because they don’t suffer from that. Or even we can give rich people money. Poor people, we’re gonna make them dependent so in a way we have this really distorted way of looking at people in the capacity of people. And that’s not even just whiteness, right? That’s the US expression of whiteness, because not nearly as strong in Europe or even in Canada. So I think agency has to be rethought and how do we actually have agency within relationships, agency that never achieves full autonomy. Never achieves sovereignty, which is how we talk about agency. Actually, we in the United States took land from Native Americans, and when this issue went to the Supreme Court, and famous case, and Supreme Court justify the taking of the land, because they weren’t using it right. And they had a collective relationships rather than one person owning a piece of land. And then later, they actually tried to correct this by giving Native Americans land, but they actually gave it to them as individuals instead of as a tribe. And so if you think of agency within a tribe, or agencies within this interdependent set of networks, or agency in relationship with the earth, it looks very different than agency to standing apart from everything.
Yeah, for sure. And of course, that’s resulted in all kinds of problems with land getting divided into ever smaller pieces on a reservation doesn’t it? So yeah.
Dr. Powell 20:00
Right. It’s like, is it a problem that our children, especially today are coming home, right? In many instances, in the United States, we think of launching our children and they’re gone it’s like they’re on their own, you know, and that’s…
My work is done.
Dr. Powell 20:17
As a parent, I’ve launched this talk. And that’s not the way most of the societies and that’s not historically what happened. The children were never launched. And we’re seeing a lot of psychological trauma associated with launching children. I teach at UC Berkeley, and they’ve studied as to why, for example, students of color and also really actually have much more stress, and one reason is one thing is associated with it is this extreme notion of individuality, which means their ability to have resiliency, which is always a collective effort. Resilience is not an individual effort. We’re stressed out when we have trauma, one of the ways we deal was return to our community, if there’s no community to turn to. What if that makes you weak? You know, if you’re a guy, if you cries, like what if it could be vulnerable? So we have a lot of ideas that really don’t serve as well.
Mm-hmm. Yeah. And just to backtrack slightly for anyone who might have kind of missed the reference to the sense of self and our ideas about sense of self, for some folks that might have gone over their heads, but I would just encourage you to listen back to our interview with Dr. Chris Niebauer, he wrote the book, No Self No Problem. That was actually the last interview that I recorded and very much, I think, feeds into this discussion of what you’re saying about this being a fictional idea that we have this sense of self. So kind of moving on a little bit. I feel like I’m skating on thin ice here because I don’t know exactly how to talk through this. So I’m going to look to your guidance on this. And I’m looking to your book and you cite statistics on poverty in your book, and I’m gonna quote you say that, “In 2009, 74% of blacks did not live in poverty”. There is an association of poverty and blackness that is reinforcing self-perpetuating and part of the racing process. And so I agree that the automatic association of black and poor is not helpful to us. But it’s also a fact that 25% of blacks do live in poverty compared to fewer than 10% of whites. And so one thing that I really appreciate about your work and your book is that you argue against this idea of closing the gap between blacks and whites as if what whites have and are is some kind of gold standard, everybody else needs to kind of achieve that standard and instead to have these conditions where nobody lives in poverty. But the part I really struggle with is how we can do this without addressing the systems that have created a poverty level for blacks that is two and a half times what it is for whites. Because it seems to me that to do that, we have to talk about how the systems we have now have created these two groups unequally, so it’s in my head trying to get out of this space in my mind where I feel like to examine othering it sort of feels like we have to define the other. So how do I get out of that rhetorical Catch-22?
Dr. Powell 23:06
Yeah, and also it’s actually a very nuanced issue. And we don’t have again sort of a grammar and vocabulary, easily accessible to deal with it. So I’ve written a short piece where I basically said, poverty, especially in the United States is not primarily, or simply the lack of stuff. And Amartya Sen, a Nobel economist from India has written about this a lot, but it’s a lack of belonging. And when you think of not belonging, which we talked about, if the fixed for othering is not saming or what is it is belonging. A lack of belonging or being other, being seen less than human in some ways, Susan Fiske at Princeton has done some work around this and she has something called stereotype content model. First of all, she shows that being other happens at different levels, so not everyone’s othered in the same way. So for example, and these are national samples although she’s having like 30 or 40 different countries, women in the United States, othered and they are not seen as same value as men, but they’re liked, there’s sometimes pity. And the same with old people it’s like, you know, my uncle, so and so you know, I like him. So her two axises liking and competence. So you don’t think women are as competent as men, but you at least like them, right? Whereas some group that you think are not competent, and you don’t like them. That’s a deep kind of othering. And when you get deep into that group, there’s a part of the brain that goes off when you see another human being, and nature just become cool to recognize our same species. It doesn’t mean you’re going to go have coffee with them or talk to them. Just sort of a recognition. When you deeply other someone that part of the brain does not light up and in fact, the part of the brain that does light up is the part of the brain associated with disgust. So it’s a little bit of a Catch-22, but you can’t develop effective social policies for people that you don’t see as people. So it’s not simply the lack of not having stuff is you could say, and I’ve argued this in some places, is that it’s a lack of belonging, and not having membership. And so that becomes a fight. And it’s not a single thing, right? It’s not just races, race and gender, and class and sexual orientation. And so all these things are actually in communication with each other. And in our society, we have this norm. This is what a normal person looks like. And it happens both at a conscious and unconscious level. So I’m not saying you don’t address the condition. What I’m saying the deep condition, it’s a condition of not belonging, or only belonging provisionally. And back to our earlier conversation, it’s the same kind of variation of saming. It’s like, what do I need to be a healthy person? Well, I mean, white people have. It’s like, well, wait a minute, why people don’t look so healthy to me. But that’s what you get. That’s all you get. Plus, in a funny way, it not only deepens the othering of people of color or people who are not white, it actually also diminish whites in some way. Right? Because, in a very subtle way, because if you see a white person suffering, can you have empathy? Right? And my extreme example is think of Prince Harry and Princess Megan, you know, they literally are princess and prince, one is white and one is mixed, and they’re super rich, they’re famous. They’re royalty. They’re young. They’re beautiful. Do they suffer?
Dr. Powell 26:40
Yes. Can we take that into account? Now, not to center their suffering not to center there, but to not ignore it either. And the other things that are potentially dangerous about just sort of making it white versus people of color is that it leaves out the elites. If you think about the construction of whiteness, whiteness was the middle stratum. People of color was the bottom stratum. What was the top stratum? It was elites. And early on did not consider themselves whites. The middle stratum had a role. The role was to police and maintain the structure of racial dominance for the elites, and to have allegiance to the elites, but they were not the elites. And so oftentimes we reframe things just in terms of whiteness, versus we forget the work the whiteness is doing as an ideology, and how we should apply it. Also, we confuse the ideology with people. You know, so you are phenotypically white, but are you performance constitutionally white? I don’t know. I have to know more about it. Instead of, oh, race is socially constructed. It can be constructed in such a way that people who are not phenotypically white are whiteness in white performance. And people who are phenotypically white are not white in their performance we talked about the Irish. And so part of what it’s saying is let’s set a goal where everyone can achieve what we want people to achieve. When we do that we do change conditions, but we’re also not assuming the conditions were aiming toward or aspiring to our conditions of white. And part of what we’re doing is changing the physical condition. But also changing the conditions of belonging, the spiritual conditions if you will, which we need to pay attention to. And the final thing I signed up for now is that in changing those conditions is not paternalistic. It’s not like I’m going to fix black people, I’m going to fix gay people, is everyone participates in co-creating the thing that we belong to. So it’s not already there. It may be saying, okay, you know, Dr. Kane talks about being integrated into a burning house. Well, I might say, you know what, I’ll go outside for a while until we get that.
I’m more mortified here. Thank you very much.
Dr. Powell 28:58
So it’s a much more complicated process. But it’s also a much more engaging process. It’s all the same. And it also acknowledge that, okay, so we talked about children and families, you know, we don’t want to valorize or romanticize black families, you know, we have pathology and black families. But so do white families. So, I don’t want to necessarily trade my pathologies in for your pathologies, normal and better. So if we’re going to try to be healthy, how do we actually have that conversation? How do we think about it? And how do we come together to sort of set aspirations for our collective society?
Yeah, I love that. And I think that that sort of gets to the next question that I had, which was thinking about how other people raise their children. You know, this may be one of the first times when parents in their role as parents sort of come across this topic. And I think it’s not totally uncommon to see some kinds of parents is lacking in some skills related to parenting, and we already talked about you’re not caring about their children’s education and firstly, I mean, I think we ignore the tools that these parents do bring to their relationship with their children, and that these are not valued in schools in the same way that tools and skills that other kinds of parents do bring. And secondly, there are structural reasons that can prevent them from raising their children and participating in education in the same way that middle class white parents do, which is assumed to be the right way. And so I’m just wondering, you know, you sort of posed a rhetorical question, how can we re-imagine what it means to be part of this society? And this is a lot of the thinking that we’re doing on the podcast right now you’re talking with people about how do we re-imagine what education looks like? And so what are some concrete things that we can do to re-frame our ideas of what it means to be, I’m using air quotes so often, people who are watching on YouTube are seeing all air quotes, the people who are listening on the podcast are missing out on them, but what it means to be a good parent in a way that has space for these different approaches to raising children that the way we think about parenting right now just doesn’t seem to have.
Dr. Powell 30:55
Yeah, I think those are important questions. And of course, the way, you know, assumptions we have, like, you know, we raise our kids very differently. And we’re all farmers. I mean, at the beginning of the 19th century, something like 98% of people or close to that were farmers, right? So you’re raising your kids for a certain world or certain situation. That world now is less than 2% of people in the United States are farmers. So we urbanites. And we assume, again, I grew up in Detroit, the idea to hopefully your kids were, can be gainfully employed, to stay out of trouble and go to work in the factory. When we went to college, and I had one of those loving families in the world, the question was, why? Why are you going to college? You could stay here in the factory and get a job and make a good living and then 25, 30 years retire and be set for life, which is what most of my siblings and family members did. That’s not true in Detroit anymore. You can’t do that. So even the idea of education itself is constantly being reshaped. You know, Dewey and Jefferson who are oftentimes considered early architects of education, educational thinking in the United States, they talked about education as one of those primary purpose was to help us become citizens, not naturally citizens. We have to learn to take the perspective of others. That’s what being a good citizen from Dewey’s perspective, and then the ability to actually, we would say, empathize, but also perspective, take the perspective of others. Well, the very notion of the way in which we do race in this country prevents that. But we’re not interested in the perspective of black people. We’re not interested in doing the sort of a soft assimilation, we’re trying to help black people become more like white people. And then there’s also a fear. And this is actually I think, reflected in a lot of the Trump supporters frankly, but not just them. It’s actually global. The world is changing very fast and we don’t know how to prepare children for the right future because there’s too many futures at stake. There’s no future. And we also operate on the assumption of scarcity. You know, there’s only so many people that go to Berkeley and so many people say, well, you know, sorry, but that’s my kid, you know, so I had to push your kid off. And it’s complicated in multiple ways as in other people’s children, right? It’s like, how much am I willing to tax myself for other people’s children? What we see across the United States and seen for the last several decades is that as the school age population becomes more and more kids of color, and immigrant kids, and older people are still predominantly white, and people with more financial resources, they are not inclined to tax themselves to pay for those kids. And that’s what the other people’s children. So I think we need a really sort of a whole new way of thinking about education and educating, the other last thing I’ll say, we used to think of education as a public good. Now think of it as a private good. And of course it can be bulk. But if it’s a private good, then it’s mine and, you know, I can get it and whatever I get from going to college or whatever is mine and I don’t have to share it and the government is taxing me too much, as opposed to we’re actually trying to create something together. So, I think the secret of course, and Albert talked about this in 1954 the nature of prejudice is contact, people need to have contact with each other. And people like pedigree when others have actually built on that lens in terms of what is the nature of contact that creates a cohesive, interdependent and healthy society. There are certain conditions, you know, you have a shared goal, you have relative equality, you have some cooperation, you have a need for each other. So when we may think of sports, you know, like we’re on a football team, we’re all trying to do the same thing. So we’re different. Some people are fast, some people are slow, some people are big and bulky, some people, but the shared goal creates a space where something happens that something emerges that wasn’t there before. You can notice it’s not the individual. It’s the shared, we have individual expression, sorry, this was metaphor. But you think the same thing in terms of the military, it’s another sort of example. But we’ve had tremendous by some standards success in the military, sort of dealing with some of these hard and persistent and stubborn disparities. And again, you sort of put people in a space, it’s like your life depends on me. My life depends on you. We have a common goal. Now the goal may be a messed up goal. But we shared it. And you think about you take oftentimes, young white guys, from the south, especially the rural south, tend to be overly conservative. You take young black guys, young Latino guys from the south, but also from urban areas. You put them in, there will always a way you get them some guns.
That’s like a great idea.
Dr. Powell 36:08
Right? Why does it work?
Yeah. Because they have a shared goal.
Dr. Powell 36:13
Shared goal and they’re deliberate about it. And out of this experience, oftentimes come lasting friendships.
Dr. Powell 36:20
So we can do some to people. Now, in terms of schools, we don’t have the same kind of prerogative, right? And our neighborhoods are segregated, our schools are segregated, our lives are still very much segregated. So part of the thing is how do we actually come together and start that perspective taking and have some shared goals, have some experience, build bridges, build empathy and compassion for each other. Now, the good thing is some of that’s happening. So it’s not all bad, but people are largely doing it on their own to get very little help from government, again very little help from large institutions. And basically we tend to reduce everything to the individual. Methodological individualists that’s what the term we use. And so it’s like, what can I do? As opposed to not only what can we do but how do we organize space, culture, institutions to actually lend support, to help us move in one direction as opposed to the other.
Dr. Powell 37:25
In my house right now, and I’m reminded because I’m looking out on my back porch, the 1940s and 50s all the porches were in the front.
Dr. Powell 37:34
That’s we became more private and want other parts in the back. So we don’t have to interact with our neighbor so much. So there’s a lot of ways we can do this. But part of it I think is taking on the language we use. And the difficult thing is when we’re going upstream, swimming upstream. It takes a lot of work. So when we’re going against the cultural norms, the physical practices, it feels hard. When we’re going downstream, it’s just habit. We relax. And all my friends tend to look like me. All my friends tend to go to the same church. If they go to church, all my friends have the same values. But that’s a recipe for disunity, if you will.
Mm-hmm. Yeah, for sure. And so I wonder if we can talk through briefly just some of the main kinds of situations that parents probably encounter this topic in. And I think the first one of these I’d like to touch on is related to poverty. And this came up for me when we were driving through Oakland and my then four-year-old asked, you know, why are all these people camping on the side of the road because she’d been camping, we’d been camping. And so if she saw the tents and assumed they were camping, and so, it seems to me as though any effort to kind of explain why some people are poor can never be adequate because, you know, there are so many factors to include. There are always individual factors to consider as well. So I’m assuming that when we talk to our children about poverty, we should kind of describe the structural issues and not make out like I was this person that made bad choices, but also add something about our individual experiences. And I’m wondering about, you know, how do we balance not trying to be a white savior with acknowledging the other person’s agency? And how does that all come together when you see a person with a cup outside the grocery store, and you want to do something to help and probably just shoving a banana at them that came out of your cart is not the right thing to do. But what is it that we can do that balances their need with the need of the other people outside all the other stores I’m going to go to today as well.
Dr. Powell 39:34
Well, no, with just children and my children are grown now, I have grandchild, so I have to rethink some of this again. Part of it is education. When I was growing up, there were virtually all the new movies are on culturally expression. It was basically challenging extreme wealth. So the movies were more about in the working class people, even poor people presented in a more flattering way. Not true today.
Dr. Powell 40:04
And now we sort of also has many billions and it’s like a point of pride, right? Like, oh, because this person has billions, maybe even if they don’t know anything, have never done anything, they could be president. These are money, right? I think education can help us. You know, we talk in this country a lot about being race blind, which we’re not and can’t be, but really what we tend to be is structurally blind. And I think for children, giving them both experience but also giving them a language, educating them. And there was a bad movie that you may have seen that’s called Trading Places with Eddie Murphy.
I’ve heard of it. I’m not sure I’ve actually seen it.
Dr. Powell 40:46
Yeah. What was brilliant about the movie is Eddie Murphy is I guess either homeless or semi homeless and Dan Aykroyd is well heeled, whatever and works with these billionaires or whatever. And these two brothers, and one of them thinks that one’s disposition in life is biological, is essential. The other one thinks it’s situational. And so they make a bet. And that is they end up Trading Places between Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd. And they bring Eddie Murphy into this, you know, wealthy world and make Dan Aykroyd live on the streets. And the question is, Will their characteristics stay the same? And they don’t. So, I don’t review the whole movie, but children I mean, it’s really smart. Because the saying what’s going on is largely situational. It’s not going didactically. It’s like a common, it is common, right? It is showing what happens when you put people in certain situations. And then the obvious question, if you get that and the question is why we put certain people in certain situations? If you think it’s the people, then it’s nothing to be done. Right? If you think a guy’s an alcoholic, and a woman is a drug dealer, and you know, she’s bad, maybe it’s a family. So that’s one. And I think you could help do that with kids, I think you can do very accessible stuff. The other though, is ourselves as parents. And there’s a lot of literature suggesting that the best one, best ways that children’s learn is not something what you tell them to go or to see you doing. And they had this experiment of why liberal parents want their children to be open to all different races is tough. And they had moderate success, but not very much. And parents are confused like, you know, I talked to my kids, kids have a different color and I take them over. And what they found is that a more powerful thing was if the child saw the parent having friends of a different race that was much more powerful than telling the kids to go figure it out. And in terms of making mistake what I would say is make it, do it. Because these are just two quick examples, I was living in San Francisco and I went to a very upscale store, this woman there who was very disabled and she had trouble negotiating the house. And the sort of cultural standard is, you don’t ask the disabled person that they need help, it’s paternalistic or whatever. And so finally I just said, forget it. I went up to her. And I said, “Can I help you?” And this woman, she said, “Thank you.” And the store is packed with people, right? We’re all being constantly correct by ignoring her and helped her. The other is, I live in San Francisco, I had a number of people who are homeless who lived around me and I got to know some of them. This is one woman called Mabel and I talked to her almost every day and I’d give her some money. And we’d have a conversation and then I’d say so “Do you need anything today?” And she said, “I need money for food.” And I give her money and then one day I came home from a trip, and I saw some friends and we are hugging, and yey, good to see you where have you been? And then they left. And then I walked on. And I saw Mabel. And I said, hi, Mabel, how are you? And she’s, you know, disheveled from living on the streets for a very long and smelly and all that. And I said so what do you need today? She kept quiet and she looked down. I said, everything okay? She said, “Yeah”. Do you need something today? She said, “Can I have a hug?”
I had a feeling that was what you’re gonna say.
Dr. Powell 44:33
And I anticipated. It’s like uhh. You might have lice and this and the other. But I did hug her and tell some of my friends and they were teasing me, oh, John’s girlfriend is a homeless, you know. But what she was saying she knew human contact. Yes, she needs some money. She needs to eat but she needs some contact. And I would say without knowing how much she benefited from that hug, but I certainly benefited from that. That was something that was invaluable. Yes, you’re gonna make mistakes because there’s not a playbook. But I’ve written for example about the danger of allyship. I mean, it’s not somebody else’s game of helping them but this is our game, this is all of our game. When you step into it, we need to be vulnerable, we need to be smart, we need to ask other people and we make mistakes. And part of having grace is given a space to make mistakes. And I also say, to air is human, to love an air is intelligent. I like intelligent humans. So not to stand back, be so careful. And what you inferred which I will lift up even if you didn’t mean this is that, again, this is not poor people’s problems. This is not black people’s problems. This is not homeless people problem, it is. But it’s our problem. It’s not their kids. It’s our kids. These are our kids. And I don’t want to have too much hubris in terms of, when I was growing up, I grew up in Detroit literally, you know, somebody saw you going down the street it would be, put your head on boy. Those aren’t my parents.
Yeah, everybody’s watching out for everybody else’s kids. Yeah.
Dr. Powell 46:22
It’s like, well, don’t do that. Smart kid or it’s not my kid, we lost something with that.
Yeah, for sure. I know we’re running out of time. And there were at least three more things I want to ask you about. I do want to end up with belongingness because I know that’s your thing. But before we get there, I wonder if we can so briefly talk about volunteering, because I really hadn’t thought about this at all, before I started researching this episode and how other notes can be kind of produced through volunteering because if we don’t see the people we are volunteering for as other then it wouldn’t be called volunteering. It would just be called working together or something like that. Is there a way to volunteer and you know, often parents are bringing their kids along with volunteering and trying to instill good values in them through doing this, which is why I’m so keen to ask the question, is there a place for volunteering in the way we raise our children? And if so, how do we talk about this in a way that doesn’t other the people who are on the receiving end of it?
Dr. Powell 47:10
No, I think this again, complicated questions, and I love them. So personally, volunteering can set up a thing of othering. And it also can set up a thing or amplify one station in terms of privilege, right? I’m gonna go help these people.
Dr. Powell 47:34
And it’s optional. I mean, with the people who live, my daughter was in Nicaragua, and there’s some kind of natural disaster, and literally bodies were being floating down the street and I was talking to her and I was saying, you got to come home. And she said, “The people here can’t leave. You don’t have that available to them.” I said, yeah, but then have a door.
You said, darn it, I didn’t mean to teach you that well.
Dr. Powell 48:03
And so part of being vulnerable is giving up that capacity to leave. It’s like, I’m in this, this is my thing, I’m committed. And I don’t know what I’ll do and what’s going to be asked of me, but I’m trying. I would say, give what you can, because sometimes people can’t get everything, for whatever reason, but then also try to learn from it. And so, you know, as I say, don’t make the perfect enemy of the good. But try to find those spaces where people can be more engaged, more vulnerable, but the tables have turned. So for example, my sister who taught children in Detroit who are called ungraded. They were special needs children who accommodate to go to houses in Detroit in the wintertime, and they have holes in the side of the house. And frankly, there might be roaches crawling around, and she said, when people would offer her something like a glass of water through roaches crawling, she would take it. You know, because it was important for all of us to contribute. And it’s also important for us to contribute from, accept things from other people. So being able to give is actually, in a sense a blessing or a privilege. And I say to my children, but they are not kids anymore, but you can’t totally disown their privilege. You know, my kids have gone to fancy schools and both parents are college professors. They never went hungry. And that’s their privilege. They’re more than middle class, right? And I say, you know, you can’t just abandon that. You know, you could actually give away all your money, you still have the education you have. The thing is, what do you do with that privilege? Greece have that story of the Golden Bough, where this golden, the Gods give the king and queen this Golden Bough, it produces all this thing, all this abundance and they are entrusted with it. But it’s not theirs. They are sharing it with the people in the community and nation tribes. At the point that they think it is theirs, and they stop sharing, everything goes bad. Right? So part of it is, do we see ourselves in relationship? And do we hoard? Or do we really share? We keep things flowing. And volunteering can help in that, it is the first step. It’s not the last step. But you mentioned earlier about the person outside of a supermarket and be given a banana. It’s versus hungry, you might say, that banana help. If you’re thinking about it, you might say, well, this person is hungry, thousands of people are hungry. Now I didn’t change the structure, so I could start do what you can. And John Rawls has this thing between what’s reasonable and what’s rational. And they’re not the same. We conflate them. And he’s saying what’s rational in terms of schools he says what’s rational, what’s good for me and my family? What’s reasonable is what’s good for society. They don’t always come together neatly. We should try to bring them together, but not all the time. So it’s rational for me to want my daughter to come home from a terrible situation. Someone might say it’s not reasonable. She has skills or whatever. We have to sort of deal with these complexities. And that’s complexity and other people complexities within ourselves. We’re internally conflicted, and certainly helping trying to help our children navigate that and respecting others as they try to navigate it. So I don’t know if there’s an answer in there somewhere.
I think there is I mean, it’s about giving as much agency as possible, right? Granting agency. I don’t know if even that’s the right word because it assumes there’s somebody there to grant the agency but allowing for another person’s agency while also having the freedom to make a mistake if you need to make a mistake, but while giving what you can, as much as you can.
Dr. Powell 51:54
I think that’s right. And I think recognizing from my perspective that even though we can’t always live it, or they are profoundly spiritually interconnected.
Yeah, and goes to belongingness. Right? Which is where I wanted to end up with this. And I know if you want to back up and share your chart for those who can see it, your Othering and Belonging Institute, I can’t see the small type at the bottom, but I assume it’s a URL email@example.com, something like that.
Dr. Powell 52:19
Perfect. So do you want to give us your life’s work in a 2-minute spill? What is belonging and building on what we’ve talked about so far? What can we do as parents to build towards it?
Dr. Powell 52:30
I think belonging, you know, just think about Maslow and his hierarchy of needs, and he said the first need is food, the second need is security, the third need is belonging. Some of his students now say he got it wrong as an order. That the first need is belonging. If you don’t belong, you don’t get food.
Dr. Powell 52:53
If you don’t belong, you don’t get security. None of us are self-made. We literally are part of each other. And I think one of the most extreme negative things that comes out of Western society is this notion that we’re separate. And there’s multiple separations. We’re separate from each other. We’re separate from the earth, we’re separate from nature. We’re separate from the divine. And in that separation, there’s also fear and anxiety. So therefore, things that we’re suffering from, we feel like we have to control, we have to dominate. And so that’s our relationship with nature. It’s like nature is there to be exploited. And we talked about in terms of self-preservation, as if we can preserve ourselves and they do not exist in contradiction. So belonging start of by acknowledging that we’re deeply connected to each other, deeply interconnected. And the right connection is what we’re actually trying to get to. So the slave master and the slave person is also connected. Abusive husband and the battered wife also connect. So it’s not just connection, it is the right kind of connection, connection that animated release by our shared vulnerability, by shared need of each other, by our share rush to the grave, in the case of you dealing with children, a shared love of our children. And then how do we keep amplifying that? And belonging also then cause into a kind of agency because it’s based on the notion of we co-create the world in which we live. It’s not ours, it’s not yours. And it’s not even just human. We’re all part of it, we all have a part of it, and part of the part of it, we will never fully understand. And that’s in some ways where spirituality or religion comes into place. We call to do things that don’t make sense that we can’t explain. And yet, in my sense, that’s what makes us really alive, and human. So, belonging is closely associated with love and caring of inside and outside. So yeah, so the antidote or other meaning is not saming but belonging.
Dr. Powell 55:02
It’s a process. It’s not something that we arrive at. So some people would say, can’t happen, right? But it can be what Bernstein calls it regulative ideal. It actually tells us it organizes our behavior, and organizes our ethics, and organizes our life, even if we can’t achieve it. My father is a Christian minister, so most Christians will say they can’t live exemplary lives of Jesus. Most Muslims would say they can’t live the exemplary life of Mohammed. Most Buddhists would say they can’t live the exemplary life, but it orients them in a certain way.
Yeah, they still try, right?
Dr. Powell 55:38
That’s the belonging. It is an orient systems doing right in a world, not just in the country or in our neighborhood, but in the world. We’re in this together, and the Coronavirus is such a powerful example that we are interconnected and that what I do affects you and what you do affects me. And so people who think that my freedom, somebody is telling me I can’t go outside. How dare they, you know, it’s my body. Maybe it’s your body, but your body affects other bodies. We are connected, and it’s not an abstract. And what the Novel Coronavirus says is that, yes, take me from body to body. This is how I get around. I can’t walk by myself. I need you, human to take me from body to body. And we do an amazing job.
Yes, we are.
Dr. Powell 56:28
If we stop doing it, it feels bad, right?
Dr. Powell 56:31
How do we actually hold that in a healthy way?
Mm-hmm. Yeah. Well, a slightly depressing note to end on. But overall, a fabulously uplifting episode I think. Thank you so much for sharing your time and your life’s work with us and really helping us to get some tools to move beyond this kind of feeling of paralysis. Well, I don’t know what to do to think about how we can create this society where people do belong, where everybody has the right to belong, where everybody feels like they do belong. So, thank you again for joining us.
Dr. Powell 57:01
Thank you for your work.
Thank you. And so I do want to give a hat tip to Brian Stout who introduced us and I have to say that in some ways that talking with you is worse than talking with him because when I talk with him I come out with this massive list of things I now have to go and read and I think my list with you is even longer. But I will put a full list of references as many of them as I can track down and that I caught on the episode page as well as links to Dr. Powell’s book Racing to Justice: Transforming Our Conceptions of Self and Other to Build an Inclusive Society. A link to the Othering and Belonging Institute, that Dr. Powell leads and the institute’s podcast as well. They have a podcast called Who Belongs and all of those resources can be found at YourParentingMojo.com/Othering.
About the author, Jen
Jen Lumanlan (M.S., M.Ed.) hosts the Your Parenting Mojo podcast (www.YourParentingMojo.com), which examines scientific research related to child development through the lens of respectful parenting.
Her Finding Your Parenting Mojo membership group supports parents in putting the research into action in their real lives, with their real families. Find more info at www.YourParentingMojo.com/Membership
She also launched the most comprehensive course available to help parents decide whether homeschooling could be right for their family. Find out more about it – and take a free seven-question quiz to get a personalized assessment of your own homeschooling readiness at www.YourHomeschoolingMojo.com
And for parents who are committed to public school but recognize the limitations in that system, she has a course to help support children's learning in school at https://jenlumanlan.teachable.com/p/school