john powell keynote: The Mechanisms of Othering

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Shakti: So, now I have the distinct pleasure of introducing john powell. Do you know who he is?

So, I'm going to skip all the things that you can read about him, his titles, his accomplishments, all of those kinds of things. If you don't know them, they're so easily available to you. What I do want to talk to you about, aside from the fact that if you haven't read his book "Racing To Justice" ... Have you read that book?

Crowd: Yeah.

Shakti: If you haven't read that book, you need to read that book. That's all I can say. There's so much amazing information in there. It completely changed how I thought about so many things. What I want to talk to you about is his ... spirituality, his practices, his concept of self, his empathy that stems from his spiritual practice. So, clearly john has a brilliant mind. Yes?

Crowd: Yes.

Shakti: But he also has a shimmering heart.

Crowd: Yes.

Shakti: And he is truly, truly an integrated visionary with a talent for connecting disparate ideas that both question, and embrace. What does it mean to be fully human? He has been quoted as saying ... Listen to this, "If we really get quiet, we're able to see different expressions of ourselves come forward." And this reminds me of that expression ubuntu. You are my other me. Without you I don't really exist. And it's know that meditative practices can bring insight. But john has this amazing passion that is also quiet and potent.

He embraces paradox in everything that he does. Please help me welcome with all the love in your heart, and all the respect that you have, for Dr. john powell.

First of all, I want to thank all of you. And again, all of those who support this effort here in going forward and going backwards. This an amazing journey, and I'm delighted to be on it with you. I want to take a minute and just acknowledge that in Nepal yesterday there was an earthquake, and at this point I think over a thousand people have been counted dead.

So, if we could just take a moment to acknowledge the loss of our sisters and brothers in Nepal.

john a. powell: Thank you. That was a beautiful introduction by Shakti, and what many of you don't know is that a lot of people here, Caroline Brandy I knew her a long time ago. Let's just leave it at that. At the yellow house in Seattle before my 37 year old daughter was born.

And Shakti, and I don't know if Shakti's husband is here, Rick Butler, but Rick and I went to school together, and I couldn't believe years later he had grown up to be a filmmaker working with Shakti who is a fabulous filmmaker, and many of you, Paul Moore and Gerald Lenoir, people I've known over 40 years. So, it's wonderful to see all of the old friends and new friends come together as we really try to make an impact on what's going on, and create a belonging world that's real.

And so that's what this is about. This whole conference is about othering and belonging, and in some ways I would say that's the problem of the 21st century. It's not just a problem here in California in the United States. It's a problem all over the world. We watch people being turned back from Europe. We watch people being denied. We watch trafficking and slavery. We watch every expression where we actually deny the belonging of others.

And I would just extend that and say, it's not just belonging of humans. It's belonging of all life and life expression. So, we have to actually broaden that. It's not just a circle of human concerns. It's a circle of our life, and if you want to get deeper into that, you will in a little bit when you hear from Joanna Macy, because she helped me learn that years ago.

We're going through some interesting times right now, and there's a book by Samuel Huntington called "Who Are We", and I want to strongly encourage that you don't buy the book. If you want to buy a book, buy Jeff Chan's book, "We We Be". Now, those two books are at extremes in some ways. Some of you may know Jeff. I don't know if he's here today, but Jeff writes about the colorization of America, what's happening in American, and anxiety as we become more diverse, but so does Samuel Huntington.

But Samuel Huntington write about it, it's like "Aaaaaah! Too many brown people! Too many brown people!" But he represents something in America. He represents a hardcore conservative reaction to a growing diversity. He writes about the anxiety that's actually going across our country right now, and he does see it as a threat. He talks about basically losing America to people who say, taking back America.

They're not talking about taking it back from corporations. They're talking about taking it back from people who don't look like them. People who they think of as other. Whereas Jeff talks about the changing of America, and actually building something where there is no other.

So, in a way, we're dealing with three strong separations, and these separations are, in some ways, of the same cloth, but it's also useful to talk about them separately. One is the separation from ourselves. Another is the separation from the other, or the person we call the other. And the third is separation from the earth. These separations go back to the Enlightenment. This is actually been what Western society has been about. It's been about building and celebrating separations.

The reality is that we're not separate. We are deeply connected to each other, but how do we actually learn to celebrate that, to exercise that muscle, to recognize it? We are connected, but how do we actually live that connection? And what we do is we figure all these ways to pretend we're not connected. Our sexual orientation, our race, our gender, our age, our language, our disability. We use all these things to try to pretend that we're not connected.

And when we pretend we're not connected, we're in the process of othering. We're in the process of denying not only someone's humanity, but our own humanity, and denying our connectedness. And the thing that scares Samuel Huntington is that we're connected. The reason the right wing is against those security is not because of what it costs. It's because it's social. It connects us. So, anything that talks about our connectivity is a disturbance.

Now, this doesn't just happen on a conscious level. This happens on an unconscious level, and the interesting stuff about the unconscious, the unconscious is also social. You'll hear it from Rudolfo a little later today about the unconscious. So, we have these large structures where we're actually seeing that we're deeply connected, and we also have mind science that's talking about how the mind works. Not the conscious mind, which is quite small.

If we talked about processing information, we process about 40 bits of information a second, consciously. And in that same second, process 11 million bits of information unconsciously. So, the unconscious is doing all the work, and part of this journey is to relax into the unconscious, is to learn to talk to the unconscious, to free up those parts of ourselves that we're not in touch with.

The unconscious does a lot of work. It sorts. It creates associations, and it fills in gaps. The unconscious is very, very fast. The conscious is very slow. So, often times we think the way that we actually connect is to not see that we have differences, and we're afraid of difference at the conscious level, and so we say we all have to be the same. And we aren't all the same in terms of our human value, that we're not all the same in terms of our human expression. And so while the conscious is running away from our different expressions, the unconscious is noticing, categorizing, and often times reflecting the response that society has said about those differences.

So, when we see someone, we may not want to notice their race. In our society today, we learned that race is a bad thing, and so we don't want to see it, but the unconscious, while we're trying not to see it, is having a meeting, writing memos ... And so we have to learn to actually engage at that level.

We also know that sometimes when we are the other people to the extreme, we actually don't even see them as human. This is work from Susan Fisk, and she shows that there's a part of the brain that lights up when we see another human being. It's a nice evolutionary trick. Fellow species light up, but there's some people when we see them, people who are in the far left hand corner, bottom left hand corner, that when we see them, that part of the brain doesn't light up. And in fact, instead of that part of the brain lighting up, another part of the brain lights up, a part of disgust and fear.

So, when we see homeless people. This is national surveys, national testing of how we react to different people at an unconscious level. And the Dalai Lama in a book that he's written, he talks about engaging experiment with someone where you see someone homeless, the part of the brain doesn't light up. And then they say, what kind of vegetables do you think that person likes and the part of the brain lights up. All of a sudden the person is human again.

So, we have to be very conscious of how we actually engage in processes, individual and collectively, the other. It's not just a mental process. It's also a structural process. So, think about things like apartheid. What is apartheid but other than saying, apartheid means separation. You're not part of this community. You're not a part of who we are. Think about how we used to lock up people who were disabled, and put them off some place because it made us uncomfortable. Think about the continued segregation in housing and schools all across the country and right here in the Bay Area. All these are structural expressions of saying, you don't belong.

Think about young black and Latinos being shot every day in the United States by police. And part of the response is black lives matter. What they're saying is, we belong. We belong. And the killing is ane extreme expression of saying, no you don't. Your life doesn't matter.

We all live in structures, but we're not situated the same as structures. So, part of this, how do we make structures do the work of belonging as well as the mind science? These are important issues, and it's not just interaction between people. So, we see today that government, which has a major role in creating a space where we all belong, has in many ways abandoned that space. Government has been repurposed to serve the elite, to serve corporation. Some people call it that Neo Liberalism. But I say if Neo Liberalism is the vehicle, then the anxiety about the other is the fuel.

It is what actually supports the role the government should be repurposed for the elite. And if you think about when did this happen? How did this happen? It started Nixon, Regan, Goldwater. Nixon said, law and order. Sometime I turn on the television. I go through. When I was growing up, there was one program on television about law and order, and it was called Dragnet. Now, every channel any time of day there's some program about law and order. Law and order is about fear. And when Nixon talked about law and order, what he was saying is that those people marching in the streets who want to belong, called the Civil Rights movement, they are out of order. They're out of place. The place is not in my community. The place is not in my school. Their place is not in my life. Their place is not at the voting booth. They don't belong.

And that resonated with the fans of Samuel Huntington. That resonated with them. They weren't talking about people robbing, killing, or stealing from each other. They were talking about people claiming the right to belong. And Regan wasn't going to be outdone by Nixon. So Nixon talked about law and order. Regan talked about a war on drugs, and when he said that, I wrote something at the time saying, really what he's saying is war on the black community. And when people talk about, how do we have tanks in Ferguson? I say go back to Nixon, and when you're in a war with people, they're not people. You're claiming. You're declaring that they don't belong, that their lives don't matter.

We're not just dealing with issues interpersonally. We're dealing with an economy that's extremely rigged toward the elites. We're talking about an economy that's corporate, a financial economy. But when we think about this economy, we think about who we are. We could think of ourselves as economic beings, and I say we're not just ... We're human beings, not human havings. So, our identity is not just around what we have, but it's also around who we are. So, we have different ways of sort of organizing our being around the economy, around power and agency and politics, and around who we are. And that last one, in some ways, is the least developed. And it's least developed especially for people who think of themselves as left of center or progressives. In part because we're nervous about leaning into questions about being, which quickly takes us into spirituality and religion, and we walked away from that and conceded that to the right.

We can't concede that to the right. When you look at the economic inequality in the country, and I know you probably can't make sense of this chart, but the gist of it is that before we had economic polarization, we had political polarization. And the political polarization started in the 1970s. It started in response to the civil rights movement, and the anxiety that conservative whites were feeling about blacks and Latinos and other groups claiming to belong. And the political polarization then created the economic polarization. And the attack, in terms of economic polarization, wasn't just on people. It was on the government itself. The role of government to help people. And so we had a repurposing of government, and so now we think government can't do anything.

As Reagan said, government is not the solution, it's the problem. And we often times say, well, government is too big, or we talk about deregulation. And it's not really deregulation, because there have been thousands and thousands of new regulations, but they're mainly to protect capital. You're going to hear later tomorrow, if you're here, from Naomi Cline about stuff about what that means. When government can't protect people, when government can't protect the environment, when government can't protect each other, all it's doing is being a servant to the elites.

So, how do we practice our being in our everyday life? First of all, this is a quote that I like. I like James Baldwin. And James Baldwin reminds us that we're all androgynous and that we're part of each other. And he ends the quote by saying, "Some of my countrymen find that inconvenient and even unfair, and at times, so do I, but none of us can do anything about it." We are part of each other, but how do we begin to live that? And we begin to live that by creating empathetic space. And empathetic space is a fancy word of saying loving space.

As Cornell West says, "Justice is the public face of love." To recognize that we're all connected, what supports those connections? You've already seen it in this conference. Being present. And it's not easy to be present, because being present also means, as Andrew suggested last night, being present with pain, being present with difficulty. Not just being present with nice stuff. Being loving and caring and being vulnerable. If we open up our hearts, we will experience more pain, but we will also experience more joy.

And as Joanna's has taught us many times, to co-create together. Our process of being here in the world, it's not just live in it, it's to co-create something better. This is the circle of human concern, or the circle of life concern. And we actually can see, as I showed you earlier, who's in the circle and who's not. Literally, some people are not seen as human in our society, and if you don't see people as human, if you despise them, you will not pass policies to actually benefit them. Even if those policies would save money, you want to punish them.

There was an experiment done where they polled people, and said, 'What do you think of letting people in prison get a high school or college degree?' People said, 'No, not a good idea.' Then they asked from the same pool, they asked people a second question. 'What if we make people in prison get a high school or college degree?' I'm for that one! Not what it costs. It's like they're other. How do we punish them? So, we can punish them by making them go to college? Yes!

So, we need to have our circle of human concern with no one outside the circle. No one. We had a meeting yesterday, and at the end of the meeting, people were saying, 'What about the Koch brothers?' I know that's hard, and I'm not saying we have to embrace their policies. I'm not saying we have to embrace their politics, but we can't deny their humanity. No one's outside the circle of human concern. Whether you're black, whether you're white, whether you're disabled, or you're gay, whether you're straight, whether you're a crook, no one's outside the circle of human concern. It doesn't mean we tolerate all activity, but we celebrate our shared humanity.

The problem is, in our society, we put corporations in the center of human concern. When we do that, all people are outside the circle of human concern. We have societies that are not structured to actually serve people. And while corporations may make good servants, they make terrible masters, and right now, they are masters in our society. Sawubona. it's a South African saying which means, I or we see you. I see you. I see you. And the response is, I am here. In order for me to see you, I have to be present. And when they say, I see you, it doesn't mean just you, it means those who come before you. Your ancestors, and those who will come after you. And I am here.

And we notice for people who are marginalized and other, they're not seeing. They're noticed. We notice them, but we don't see them. We don't see their humanity. So, we have to work at all these different levels, and it's not an easy task. And even after we acknowledge that we're related, there's a question as to what are the right relationships? Because a master and a slave are related. But it's not the right relationship. An abusive husband and a abused wife are related, but it's not the right relationship. How do we actually begin to build, think, and tell stories about the right kind of relationships? How do we actually make sure that people are sane in our stories? That we're not closeting people?

I'm going to end, but I'll tell you a quick story. I'm sitting at home, years ago, watching a television program with my daughter, and it's a horror movie. It's a bad horror movie. I don't know the good horror movies, but this one was especially bad. And there's a young white girl, blonde, and she was in the house with the monster, and the monster's in the closet. You know those movies with the monsters in the closet?

Crowd: Yeah.

john powell: So, she gets ready to open the door, and my daughter goes, 'Aaah!' And I said, 'Don't worry. Nothing's going to happen to her.' And she said, 'Have you seen this movie before?' I said, 'In some ways, many times.' And then, the Latino pizza guy shows up. And I said, 'That's the monster's food,' and of course, he gets eaten by the monster right away. And my daughter is saying, 'How did you know?' And it's only recently, it's only recently in the last few years, that blacks and Latinos get to live until the end of the movie.

john powell: So, it's also how we tell stories. It's how we do dance. It's important to learn to love. And one of the things that Joanna Macy taught me years ago in one of her powerful books, World As Lover, World As Self, again, it's not only important to love ourselves, and close up and personal, it's important to love the world, because the world is ourself. So, this conference is about reclaiming and living and practicing belonging where no humans and no life are outside the circle of concern. Thank you.