How do we learn about belonging?
We know that no two of us are exactly alike, yet we look for "alike-ness" everywhere. We have a tendency to exclude those who are not alike enough to us that we feel naturally comfortable to interact with them, to include them in our lives, or to understand them. Yet, we also search for ways in which we can stand out, and often tout what makes us unique and special.
Recently I was in a group of extraordinary people (Axiogenics coaches) talking about issues of diversity, equity, and belonging. We were at a point in the conversation where we were describing our own experiences that may have given us an opportunity to understand on a personal level these issues with which our society is currently grappling. I felt compelled to share some thoughts and experiences in that supportive atmosphere, while at the same time wondering what gave me the right to think that I knew anything about not belonging, since I obviously come from a background that grants me what has come to be known as white privilege.
These experiences greatly impacted who I am today, and continue to shape my awareness of, and empathy for those who are marginalized, ostracized, or otherwise made to feel like they don't belong in certain situations or among certain people.
I invite you to share in these experiences below.
The first experience I had in which I knew I didn't belong, and was not accepted was shortly after my dad died (I was nine years old, in 4th grade). He had passed away suddenly at the beginning of June, and the school year ended shortly thereafter. It wasn't until I was headed back to school in September--as I walked up to the building that I heard someone--a tall boy who I knew, but with whom I was not close--call out my name. When I turned to say hello to him, he lashed out at me: "I can't talk to you. You don't have a father." I was stunned. While I wasn't necessarily expecting my acquaintances to offer me solace or do anything particularly nice for me, I definitely wasn't expecting this. I was filled with shame, as if I was somehow responsible for my dad dying, or as if his act of leaving this earth was done intentionally, to cause harm. I was so ashamed, in fact, that I never told my mom, my teachers, or anyone about this. The taunting continued from this boy and some others for the rest of the school year. It truly gave me a sense that I didn't belong. That I was different, but not in a good way. I guess that this was bullying, before we even knew to call it that. This was hard and cruel. I should not have been the one to feel the shame, and yet I did.
I can only imagine what happens to children who are bullied in more overt ways, and suffer physically as well as mentally/emotionally. For some, it goes on for years. We know it is horrible for them, and can lead to long-term feelings of self-doubt and powerlessness that sometimes lead to depression, anxiety and suicidal behavior.
Am I happy this happened to me? No, but I do believe that this experience in some way gave me the ability as an adult to recognize the importance of accepting others, of looking past the ways in which they may seem different, and to try to understand their perspective and their needs.
The next experience that has given me perspective on this issue, is something that happened when I was in high school. I attended a public HS in my hometown of Brooklyn, NY. I was taking as many advanced placement courses as possible, and had clearly set my sights on attending college (first person in my family to do so). At the beginning of the school year, I walked into my English class, and listened as the teacher calmly explained that "if you do everything I ask, and you do well on all your tests, you can hopefully get a "B" in this class."
What? A B is not what I was expecting myself to achieve, as I had thus far gotten all A's and A-'s. I went to discuss this with the teacher at the end of the period, and discovered that in the NYC school system at that time, kids were assigned to "tracks". The only ones who could receive an A were those on the "college-bound" track, or whatever they called it. I was outraged. Part of me wanted to stay in that class to demonstrate that anyone in any class could work hard enough to get whatever grade was honestly deserved. But the teacher and my guidance counselor got together and moved me into the AP English class that I had originally signed up for.
This taught me that life is inherently unfair. That a person can be labeled once and stay on that track forever. There seemed to be no way for any of these kids to work their way out of their "track." And, as I found out by talking to them, by this time, none of them wanted to try. They knew what was the best they could expect, and they accepted that. Most of them would not ever get the B grade that was the prize. They saw no point in working so hard when it was unlikely to get them anywhere. Destined for a trade school or a blue collar job, there was no reason to do more. I think about this situation a lot (oh, and NYC has long since done away with the tracking system) and always wonder, when someone seems like they don't want to try, what messages they have received throughout their life that has provided that lesson.
The same situation pertains when we think about the "school to prison pipeline," doesn't it? Kids learn from an early age that they are worth less, and that becomes imprinted on their brains as worthless. What is the point of trying if you don't belong, and you cannot break out of the box that holds you back?
A third experience occurred frequently during my time as a fellow in Pediatric Critical Care at a well-known and highly respected medical institution. It was not uncommon for parents of a critically ill child to look at me, and with true fear in their eyes say: "Doctor, please don't experiment on my child." I had a hard time understanding their concern at that time. After all, I knew who I was, and I knew that I would never "experiment" on someone who hadn't expressly given consent. I did not realize until years later, that in my ignorance of historical events I was expressly discounting true fears that these individuals held. And obviously the fear that I would intentionally do something to their child was stronger than the fear that the child would succumb to whatever disease process had led to the admission.
Why did they feel this way? Because they were Black, and had no other choice at that time, but to allow their critically ill infant or child to be cared for at this great hospital. But a hospital that, nonetheless, that had allowed white doctors to experiment on some of the patients that came from the surrounding neighborhood. Yes, I was a white doctor, and no, I would NEVER do that, but I should have known that fear in their eyes was real. I now know that it is important to honor the beliefs that folks bring in because even if it is not currently true, it is true in their lived experience, and the stories that have come to them from their parents and grandparents and neighbors, pastors and others. At a time when these families needed solace because of their child's illness, I failed to show the maximal empathy, because I didn't honor them enough to believe what was in their heart at the time.
My most recent lesson about belonging comes from the experience of my youngest child (now fully adult), who identifies as non-binary in gender. I have become acutely aware of how seemingly little errors or "slips of the tongue" by others can be incredibly hurtful and create a state of non-belonging. Just recently I was listening to another group discuss diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging, and one of the people speaking started with "Hello, ladies and gentlemen." I realized immediately how horrible it must be non-binary while among a group of people all pursuing the ideal of inclusivity, of inviting all to belong, and how, just because of low awareness, and conditioned "politeness" end up being excluded from the state of belonging.
It takes a lot to un-learn all those turns of phrases we have used for so long, but it is really important to be intentional about the words we say, every day, every moment. If your words can help someone to feel like they belong, they can also give the message that they are not welcome. I know that most of us want to be inclusive, and to do the right thing. No one is saying that it is easy, but it is SO important.
Our little differences and our big differences make us who we are. They allow us to stand out from the crowd. But deep down inside we are all human; we all have infinite value; we must treat each other with the respect and kindness that someone of infinite value deserves. Whether they look or speak differently, or they use different pronouns, or they worship a different deity, or no deity at all. Once we learn to truly put people first, and to treat all people as equals, only then can we truly be happy, and add net value to the world, to the universe.
What about you? What experiences have molded your understanding of belonging, equity, inclusion, and diversity? Please leave a comment. Let's have a dialog.
Thanks for reading. I value your time and am honored you chose to spend the last few minutes reading this post. I hope it provided value for you. If so, I would appreciate it if you would share it with someone who might also find it of value.
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