john a. powell is a professor of law and African-American and Ethnic Studies at the University of California Berkeley, where he is also the Director of the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society.
Before joining the faculty at Berkeley, john was the Executive Director of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State, and founded the Institute on Race and Poverty at the University of Minnesota. He has previously served as the Director of Legal Services in Miami, Florida, and National Legal Director of the ACLU.
He currently serves on the board of a number of philanthropic nonprofits, including Bioneers, and is the author of several books, including Racing to Justice: Transforming Our Concepts of Self and Other to Build an Inclusive Society.
Bioneers recently spoke with powell about his long, mutually beneficial relationship with our organization. We were lucky to host him as a returning keynote speaker in 2017. The video and an excerpted transcript of that keynote follow.
john a. powell:
My talk is about co-creating an alternative space to heal. So where’s that alternative space to heal? I think it’s called the Earth.
So the Earth belongs to all of us. We have to respect it. It supports us. And if healing is going take place it has to be on the whole Earth, not just a corner someplace, not a place just to hide. We have to make the Earth a safe place for life.
And I am, because you are. We are profoundly, profoundly interconnected. We don’t always live that way. We don’t always acknowledge it, but if we’re going to heal, we have to live it, experience it and create institutions that celebrate it.
Instead we’re in a situation where the country and the world is more divided. We’re seeing right-wing ethnic nationalism blow up all around the world. We’re seeing every day, every week, crazy things coming out of the White House. I mean like, crazy. And by most accounts we’re more divided as a country than we’ve been since the Civil War. That’s the bad news.
Let me give you some good news: There are more people who oppose white supremacy than any time in U.S. history.
So we’re in a battle. And it’s a battle of those who believe in love and life, and those who think that’s only for a narrow few.
These are two authors. On the left is Samuel Huntington, who wrote a book called Clash of Civilizations, which really is an attack on most of the world who are not white and Christian. And he worries that the United States is becoming too diverse, that there are too many people coming here who are not white and Christian. And he suggests that we need to go back to some glorious past when America was white again or great again or whatever they’re saying. Of course, there was never such a time when America was white. They sort of skipped over the fact that the country was occupied when they got here, but Huntington, despite being a noted scholar sort of skips over that. But he actually looks at the past. So people who are afraid of what’s happening in the world are constantly trying to take us back to some imaginary past.
And then, there’s Jeff Chang, who looks at the changing world, the change in diversity, and he’s written a book called, Who We Be. He looks at an imaginary future, a future where all of us belong, where the world is very diverse, where there is no supremacy. And that’s the battle that we’re in right now. Do we actually embrace Jeff Chang or do we embrace Samuel Huntington?
The country itself has been fighting this since its very beginning. The Declaration of Independence, “we the people.” But then again, we the people, who are the we? Who constitute the we in we the people?
Of course, at the beginning of the Constitution, black people weren’t in that we. Women weren’t in that we. Native Americans weren’t in that we. White people without property were not in that we. So even though it had this glorious-sounding term, it then defined this we very narrowly.
So, to some extent, that’s still the battle we’re in. Can we define the we so it’s inclusive and not exclusive?
So I talk about this in the context of “othering and belonging.” And it takes on all different types of forms. And I hope many of you will actually come to our conference on othering and belonging. And othering is a wonky word, so I got this technical definition to help you out. So one person says, Stop othering me. What’s othering? Well, your kind wouldn’t understand.
So othering happens at all different kinds of levels. And this cartoon suggests an interpersonal level, and that’s bad enough. We’ve all had experience of going someplace and feeling like this is not my place, these are not my peeps. But what happens when the country, when the government, when the police say you don’t belong. It takes on a much more pernicious and dangerous form. What happens when the President of the United States, we call him “45” in my house, What happens when 45 says that these people don’t belong? That’s a very dangerous space. And we have to reject that space.
And most liberals, and I would dare say that many of you are probably at least liberal, if not progressive, and most people who embrace some concept of spirituality, my guess would be many of you do, would actually reject the notion of othering. And unfortunately though, many liberals, when they reject othering, they actually adopt something called saming. That is, they say we’re all exactly the same. There is no difference. But the opposite of othering is not saming. It’s belonging. And belonging actually embraces differences and learns from them. It’s not afraid of difference, and yet it doesn’t make those differences infinite.
As the United States grows in diversity, and it’s growing in diversity across a number of important axes, the country becomes more nervous, becomes more anxious. And this is not just the United States. It’s all around the world. So you see, all of these ethnic national movements are organized against, around some imagined identity. They might be Muslims. They might be people of a different language. They might be Latinos. They might be gays and lesbians. They might be transgender. But there’s always this fear of the other.
And again, the liberal’s response to that is to try to address that fear just by saying they’re just like us. And both of those are problematic.
So there’s two major responses to this anxiety, and change produces anxiety. That’s the natural human phenomena. If you were to get married, move your residency, and change your job within a two-year period, your chances of having a heart attack goes up about 50%. If you are one of those unfortunate people who marries someone you don’t like, it goes up to 75%. So even when positive things are happening, the human organism can only process so much change over a short period of time.
But there’s two major ways to sort of deal with this change. One is called bridging and the other one’s called breaking. And bridging, actually, it’s about connecting to the other. The other is always imaginary. There’s no natural other. There’s no natural community. We are constituting these constantly. But bridging actually invites a sense of empathy, deep listening, and connection.
Breaking sees the other as a threat, sees the other with fear, as somehow attacking who we are. And most of the stories, most of the practices that we engage in in our society, even in progressive communities, are breaking. We’re constantly defining ourselves in opposition to the other. We’re constantly defining the “we” in a narrow way.
And so again, that’s the big fight, not just in the United States, but throughout the world. Do we bridge or do we break?
Now, for of those of you who are bridgers—and I hope before the day is out, if not already, you’re all bridgers—I have a word of caution for you from my good friend, bell hooks. She says, “Bridges are made to walk on. So when you first become a bridge between two communities that see themselves in opposition, you will be walked on and occasionally, hopefully not too often, you will be stomped on.” But I say this, “If the world is not bridged, if we do not have more bridges in the world, if we continue to break, we won’t have a world.” So your work as bridgers, even though sometimes you’ll be walked on, occasionally stomped on, is critical for the survival of a planet.
And we see the rise of hate in the United States. And there’s another slide I didn’t include. We also see the rise of love. Both things happening at the same time. There’s in fact a book by a friend of mine, Sheryll Cashin called Loving, about it’s about the Loving family from 1967.
Othering in America, it’s not just done by people. It’s done by corporations. It’s done by the religious right, and it’s done by the “alt right.” Now, it’s actually interesting, when I say the religious right, who was the religious right that engaged in othering? When you think of evangelical Christians, there was one of the most powerful groups that supported Trump, but actually that’s not quite right. The evangelicals that supported Trump were white. Black evangelicals, Latino evangelicals, Native American evangelicals did not support Trump. So it’s, again, it’s defined largely about this fear of the racial other.
Now, this may—You may wonder why am I dwelling on this. So, some of you remember the one-drop rule. Remember the one-drop rule? The one-drop rule is that if white blood gets mixed with one drop of black blood, it’s destroyed. I mean, black blood is powerful stuff. Well, maybe it’s not so powerful. Maybe the thing is white blood is really fragile.
Of course, I’m not talking about blood at all. We’re really talking about the ideology of exclusive whiteness. That’s what’s fragile. Not white people. White people are heterogeneous just like any people, and some of them are bridgers and some of them are breakers, but it’s the fragility of this white purity that Bannon and others represent that’s fragile. Any time you’re talking about something that’s pure, you’re also talking about something that’s fragile.
The world is not pure. Diversity is not pure. The biology, the environment is not pure. It’s constantly engaged with other parts of itself and that’s what makes us strong.
Now, I don’t know. My father’s a Christian minister. I’m not going to show him this slide. He would be very confused. How did Trump and Jesus end up in the same…I’ll just let you dwell on that for a while.
So again, part of thing that we have is that the left is actually afraid of difference. And so in that sense, the left engages in saming. And I would argue to you that saming is a weak version of breaking.
There’s a wonderful book by James Baldwin called The Price of a Ticket. When James Baldwin was at the height of his literary career, the white establishment finally said, “Okay this Negro can write,” and they invited him to join all these literary clubs, and they said, “But don’t remind us that you’re gay, and don’t actually bring any of your black friends with you.” And James Baldwin said, “No thanks. He said the price of the ticket, leave who you are and you can be like us.” So saming is not really that good.
Now it’s better than the right wing, which actually believes that the other has to be destroyed or is in some way inferior. But let me suggest this, that when we worry on the left about identity politics, we say that the things that’s actually messing up creating a progressive movement in this country is that people are focused on gender, they’re focused on their sexual orientation, they’re focused on their race. They should focus on something that’s universal, that we all share, like the white working class.
The problem with identity politics is not the identity and it’s not the politics. The problem with identity politics, when it’s a problem, is that it’s actually breaking. It’s not identity politics that’s the problem, it’s breaking that’s the problem. But we can actually focus on gender. We can focus on LGBTQ. We can focus on Black Lives Matters in ways that bridge. But the liberals haven’t learned that. And so they say to those groups stay away; we’re going to focus on real issues like the working class, which really means white. And people find that offensive. So we have to actually move beyond breaking and realize that again the opposite of othering is not saming.
So who’s in the circle of human concern?
And being here at Bioneers, I’m sure you will catch this and correct me, it’s why are we only concerned about humans? We’re not. We’re concerned about life.
And this is a tricky thing because I’m going to talk a little bit about narrative in the little time I have left. The stories we tell matter. We’re all multiple selves. We’re all fluid people. So when we talk about intersectionality, when we talk about the other, the other is actually inside of us. There’s a part of us that we haven’t claimed. There’s a part of us we haven’t celebrated. How do we begin to claim that? And narratives help with that.
But in a story, in a narrative—and Jonathan and I were talking about this yesterday—there always needs to be, or people say we need a villain. Can we create a “we” where no one is on the outside of it?
Maybe except one or two people. No, I’m just joking.
So, that’s not Trump’s “we.” His “we” is very small and getting smaller all the time.
So how do we bridge? We bridge by deeply listening. We bridge by suffering with others, listening to others suffering. We bridge by engaging. We bridge by organizing. And we bridge by love. It’s not easy. It’s hard stuff. But it’s rewarding stuff. And so as we bridge, we move from an exclusive society to an integrated society, to an inclusive society, to a belonging society.
Now notice that in a belonging society the structure itself actually changed. So when we talk about belonging we’re not talking about belonging into something that’s structurally exclusive and misogynistic. We’re talking about changing the structures themselves. So belonging is not just how do we treat each other, belonging is how do we actually organize our economy, our structures, our schools, our faiths so that everyone belongs, and recognizing we still have differences. Where do we find such a space? Well, Bioneers is starting to lean into that space. Bioneers is about belonging.
And yet, as important as it is to recognize each other, just recognizing each other is not enough. As I said, we have to think about those structures, too. So we focus on empathy. Empathy is actually just another way of talking about love. Focus on recognizing that we are deeply related already. But then how do we actually acknowledge that, not just interpersonal stuff but also in our communities?
Grace Lee Boggs, a fellow Detroiter, and she reminds us even if the people of our respective communities or our countries are acting in ways that we believe are unworthy of human beings, we must still have enough—we must still care enough for them so their lives are in ours. Their question and ours become inseparable.
It’s not easy to do. But no one said life was going to be easy.
So we have examples of efforts to create an inclusive society, to create a belonging society, and we have to deepen those examples. We have to celebrate them. We have to talk about them.
You’ve heard about Standing Rock, and everybody that I know who had any engagements with Standing Rock was talking about not only was this something important led by indigenous people in our society but it was belonging. Everybody that went there came back talking about love, talking about this sort of “rainbow effect.” So it’s a wonderful example that belonging already happens in our society. We just have to punch it up.
And finally, as our friend Naomi Klein reminds us, “No is not enough.” It’s not enough just to be against something. We have to be clear what is it we’re for. And Connie Heller, which you’ll hear from later today, has this on her website, “fear less, love more.” Fear less, love more. And, yes, we have to get to “yes.” Thank you.