Race, Fear of the Other, and the Quest for Communion

IMG_3093As I noted in a recent post, the dialogical approach to building community involves listening to the voices of different others–differences that enrich rather than divide. Yet, recent events in Ferguson, Baltimore, Charleston, and elsewhere suggest that our fear of differences, our fear of the other, make the project to build community with different others very challenging, maybe even quixotic.

In “Looking White in the Face”, George Yancy observes that the question of racial identity and the task of engaging race has been taken up almost exclusively by nonwhite philosophers (NYT, July 2, 2015).  He reasons, “My sense is that this is partly because whiteness is a site of privilege that makes it invisible to many white philosophers. I also think that some white philosophers would rather avoid thinking about how their own whiteness raises deeper philosophical questions about identity, power and hegemony, as this raises the question of personal responsibility.”

Ta-Nehisi Coates, national correspondent for The Atlantic, talks about this blindness to color and the sadness it stirs in his recent, “Letter to My Son” (The Atlantic, July 4, 2015). “I realized then why I was sad. When the journalist asked me about my body, it was like she was asking me to awaken her from the most gorgeous dream. I have seen that dream all my life. It is perfect houses with nice lawns. It is Memorial Day cookouts, block associations, and driveways. The Dream is tree houses and the Cub Scouts. And for so long I have wanted to escape into the Dream, to fold my country over my head like a blanket. But this has never been an option, because the Dream rests on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies. And knowing this, knowing that the Dream persists by warring with the known world, I was sad for the host, I was sad for all those families, I was sad for my country, but above all, in that moment, I was sad for you.”

The inability to see color or white privilege weakens our best efforts to listen to the voices of racially different others. The profound fear of the other that many experience in our divisive climate turns community into collectives of like-mindedness that scapegoat difference and justify sameness in the name of law and order. This makes communion impossible. We need fresh ways for seeing how otherness is constitutive of unity, how otherness is absolute, how otherness is enriching, and how, therefore, communion does not threaten otherness—it generates and affirms it! 

Krista Tippett’s recent interview with john a. powell, director of the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society, thickens the soup by opening the question of race to the question of belonging (On Being, June 25, 2015). Race is relational, Powell reminds us: “Being human is about being in the right kind of relationships. I think being human is a process. It’s not something that we just are born with. We actually learn to celebrate our connection, learn to celebrate our love. If you suffer, it does not imply love. But if you love, it does imply suffering. To suffer with, though, compassion, not to suffer against. And if we can hold that space big enough, we also have joy and fun even as we suffer. And suffering will no longer divide us. And to me, that’s sort of the human journey.”

In fact, the Front Porch eschews the binary oppositions that sort others into easy categories and, instead, participates in the often-messy interactions and relationships that accept others on their own terms and lets others be who they uniquely are. See you on the Porch in all your unique otherness and glory!

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