Invisible Fences

The fundamental delusion of humanity is to suppose that I am here and you are out there.
– Yasutani Roshi

Despite the fact that the room I spent my formative years in was wallpapered with rainbows with a matching sheets, I grew up in a generally non-diverse and tolerant community in west central Wisconsin, a place settled by Germans and Norwegians, Catholics and Lutherans, and away from the much larger cities of Milwaukee and Minneapolis– both of which could claim communities more varied than Wonderbread white. I wasn’t entirely insulated by casseroles and lutefisk, though. The global cultural influence in my realm came from the doctors who relocated to work in the local hospital system or teach at the university, and we had a considerable Hmong population, as many of the refugees had settled across the state. I went to school or was neighbors with many of these kids. Together, we all had a range of privilege. As I grew up, I could trace the pervasive lines of othering and belonging.

One of my closest friends is Muslim. Coincidentally, her father, an obstetrician, had delivered me years before she was even born. I appreciated who she was and the culture in which she was steeped. It was a breath of fresh air spending time with her and her family. However, she struggled in our community, specifically at the private Catholic school she attended, because of those cultural differences. When she told me about the comments kids would make about her to her face during the day, it made me sad. Maybe it was the steady diet of The Muppets I’d consumed as a kid, but it never occurred to me that anyone could or would feel that she was ‘less than’ in any way.

What I noticed about the views that were had about anyone that didn’t fit in (according to whom, or what?) were sometimes masked and sometimes quietly spoken or used as bullying material. You could sniff these “othering” views out readily, and sometimes they were blatant. Comments from a pastor or an uncle or my grandmother about a marginalized community weren’t rare. Off-color comments muttered or joked about overheard in a conversation between my dad and a friend at a weekend cookout always made me wonder if they really believed what they said.

Even the world religions class I took in high school was wrought with subtle commentary from the history teacher who taught it. It blew my mind. Here we were learning about world views in a private Catholic high school, which seemed pretty progressive, and he was so clearly showing us his own bias. Later that year, in another course on social justice, we were talking about race, and one of my Caucasian classmates who sat next to me said: “Racism is not the same as telling a joke about black people.” I raised my hand Hermione-style in response and said through tears of conviction: “But where do you draw the line? It’s all separating you from an other.”

The words they used were external expressions of something inside, but it showed up like spot on a projector lens, casting a shadow on the screen in front of it. These biases, unconscious or not, were marks of valuation.

Consider these words from poet Nayyirah Waheed:

inclusion should never make you feel uncomfortable. if it does. this is a guttural response alerting you to the fact that inclusion is not actually what’s happening. what is actually happening is parody. theft. spectacle. tolerance. appropriation. exotification. and all the ways that remind you, you have to ask for permission to be valued. true inclusion never questions your value in the first place.

When it comes to diversity and inclusivity in our workplaces, which are little microcosms of our world, are these biases part of the barriers we face? Of course they are, and savvy companies are bringing this conversation within their walls.

Inclusivity is defined as “an intention or policy of including people who might otherwise be excluded or marginalized, such as those who are handicapped or learning-disabled, or racial and sexual minorities.”

Why does this matter? Fully-inclusive workplaces aren’t diversifying their cultural assortment of human resources so as to have the token blend of different skin tones, gender and sexual preferences in a predominantly white-hetero office space. Diversity misses a key element buried deep in the culture that surrounds us: unconscious biases that, if not acknowledged and recognized, pervade in maintaining inequality.

“Inclusion doesn’t happen through sympathy,” notes therapist Emily Waymire, “It happens when reality is clearly named and brought back into view. Simplistic reassurance actually increases anxiety.”

Bringing reality clearly into view can be a difficult conversation to have with others in our lives, work and communities, because we all carry unconscious biases unique to our own place in space and the privilege that we have based on our race, education, wealth, sexual preference, gender-identity, able-bodiedness. Seeing our biases is tricky because in many ways, because like a fish in the ocean, it’s the culture in which we swim.

Yet Konda Mason, our podcast guest in this recent episode, poses the question to help us see more clearly: ‘’Would you give up your position to be someone else?’’ In other words, would you give up your place of privilege to be someone of a different race, education, wealth, sexual preference, able-bodiedness? Responses to this inquiry expose that there is something here to talk about.

These biases are the invisible fences that we carry in us, that we may not even see for ourselves, yet we bring them everywhere. They are diametrically opposed to inclusion, and are engineered for othering and putting values on belonging. As Yasutani Roshi says at the top of this piece, “The fundamental delusion of humanity is to suppose that I am here and you are out there.” In the process, we separate ourselves.

Othering stems from fear and acts in division. What’s on the other side of that? More than an act of leveling, inclusivity comes from a place of love. What would it be like to come together, to collaborate and work together, from that place? In that stance, there is nothing but belonging to the root connectedness in humanity. For us as individuals, our work is to track the inner fencelines that keep us from this connection.

What are the fencelines you hold, aware or unaware?

As Rumi notes, “Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.”