Fearing the “Others”

Dance of Life 6 of Relationships


The other day I drew the 6 of Relationships from the Dance of Life Tarot. The key phrase on the card is Mirror of Myself. In the companion book the author writes about expecting the reflection in mirror to match ours and for our reflection to look out on a face similar to ours. It’s when we realize that there are “Others” who do not share our reflection that we become fearful and threatened.

This seemed especially appropriate to me right now in light of the conversations and debates that have sprung up in the wake of the Caitlyn Jenner Vanity Fair cover. It made me think about the reactions of the residents in that Texas town who called the police to stop a teenage pool party because some of the attendees were “other”. It reminded me of Trayvon Martin who was followed and ultimately killed because he was “other”, unfamiliar, unknown or Brandon Teena who was killed for being a transgendered person

Why are we so frightened by people or things that are different? I can speak for anyone else but can only work from my own experiences. I tend to initially respond to changes or anything different in my life with hostility. I do not like change, it makes me twitchy. I do not consider myself nor have I ever been accused of being racist or bigoted or prejudiced, although I certainly have prejudices. I try to respond to people as individuals and take them at face value; the way they present themselves to me. However I’m like most people and do have my pet peeves that can trigger prejudiced responses (don’t get me started on hipsters or transplants!).

I think the biggest difference in my reactions to people that trigger my prejudice button is that they make me feel endangered or threatened. I’m not worried about groups of black teens or “scary” looking people on the subway. It’s not that I don’t realize there is a potential danger there it’s that in my experience they don’t threaten me. Hipsters and transplants do because they have and continue to change my hometown, my city. They have transformed it into an unrecognizable playland for the wealthy and tourists. The shredded remains of my childhood, my memories are buried beneath an avalanche of new high rise apartment buildings and trendy eateries. I lived here in the bad times and in the worst times. For these people to whitewash all that and try to tell me what it means to be a New Yorker is insulting and triggers my prejudice buttons (accompanied by colorful and vituperative rants).

To be fair, I don’t know these people individually and the people I am friendly with who moved to NYC years ago don’t trigger any negative response. Perhaps if I got to know some of these newer transplants I’d be less hostile to them too. I believe that is the key to reducing racism, prejudice and hatred. We’re threatened by what is unfamiliar to us. If we become familiar with what threatens us we may find that they aren’t any different than we are. I grew up in a neighborhood that was very ethnically diverse. The common denominator between us was that we were all working class or poor. If we felt threatened by anything is was folks from outside our neighborhood “invading” for any reason. When I went to high school and started meeting students from other parts of the city it helped expand my horizons and learn more about the world outside my neighborhood. I think more diversity will help us learn not to fear the “other”.

This situation is further complicated by media coverage that tries to convince us that the “others’ out there want to take things away from us. Gays want to destroy traditional marriage. Blacks want to destroy white communities. Women want to invade bastions of male privilege and ruin it for the “boys”. Poor people want to suck away at public resources and force the 1% to share their wealth. I could go on for pages like this and what it comes down to is that we have something and “they” (whoever they are) want to take it from us. That triggers fear and anger and results in the violence and hostility we’re seeing.

Sensitivity training will only go so far. In fact I often wonder if it doesn’t just cause people to hide their true feelings and act in a socially acceptable manner without changing the underlying dynamic. It seems to me that getting to know “others” is the best way to lower these fears and reduce prejudice. How do we do that? I’m not sure because humans do tend to group in herds of a like mind. We surround ourselves with folks who share our viewpoints and so reinforce our fears. Perhaps we’re hard-wired to gather in tribes and protect our tribe from any perceived threat. That doesn’t mean we can’t try to expand who we see as part of our tribe. Maybe that’s the key – adopt some “others” into our tribe. Of course it helps if they’re open to our invitation and don’t try to force the tribe to dramatically change to suit their perceptions and worldview. Oh well, clearly this offers no life-altering or brilliant insight to the problem, I’m sure this idea has been presented many times before in many ways, but perhaps it will help just a few folks see things in a different light or open up a dialogue or two. Even baby steps are better than remaining in stasis.

How appropriate that I’ve been revisiting the Hanged Man from a few different decks these last few weeks.  It reminds me that every so often we need to stand the status quo on its head so we can see things differently; get a different perspective.  Perhaps that what needs to happen now.

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