By Daniel Hunter, Earlham alumni 2001
I was leading a training in the capital city of Burma. After being silent for the first part of the training, several ethnic minorities began to speak cautiously, then increasingly and with greater certainty. Eventually, they turned to the ethnic majority Burmans and shared stories of their oppression in Burmese society. They spoke of biased laws, cultural oppression they experienced as children, and how police and military targeted them.
The response was predictable. The ethnic majority declared the way that the ethnic minority spoke out as inappropriate. “We have to support one another [against the dictatorship].” “It’s not appropriate to do this in front of foreigners.” “You shouldn’t be so angry when you talk to us.”
There are lessons here that the Earlham community can use right now, especially in light of the recent unfolding dynamics around racism and Earlham. Even without knowing all the details, across cultures there’s a general pattern when historically oppressed groups stick up for themselves.
In the case of Burma, we knew the dynamic – the majority group attacking the minority group for the way they choose to fight – was so predictable that we had brought handouts on it.
Our handout referred to these groups as “mainstreams” and “margins.” Mainstreams are those who have had society ordered to meet their needs and interests – the “we” of society. Margins are those of us whose stories, experiences, and interests are left on the fringes of society.
In that workshop the mainstream of the group was the ethnic majority (Burmans). Margins were ethnic minorities (Kachin, Kayah, Chin, Karen, etc.). Actually, I could be more precise: there are multiple mainstreams and multiple margins. As with any group, there were many mainstreams: men (who dominated the room), religious leaders (who were consistently deferred to), straight people (who never acknowledged gays or lesbians), older people, and a host of other dynamics we were totally unaware of.
What we did understand was how mainstreams and margins operate. The handout started with a bold, but essential starting point: mainstreams are clueless about the experiences of the margins.
As with other mainstreams, the Burmans were not privy to experience of ethnic minorities. They did not hear the stories of injustices committed. Instead, as with most mainstreams, they were aware of where they were oppressed – i.e. the military junta. But they were totally clueless of the ethnic minorities’ experiences. This is not a personal failing of the Burmans – it’s the way society is structured so their story was echoed back to them.
So when margins begin to organize and speak their minds, mainstreams always feel blind-sided. Mainstreams aren’t prepared to face the boiling anger and resentment. This makes it excruciating and difficult.
What happens then is as common as rain: mainstreams attack the method by which the margins tell their story. It’s too incoherent. Or too angry. Or bad timing. Or too personal.
That doesn’t mean any method the margins use is “appropriate.” But appropriate here is a tricky thing, since cultural norms are often designed to keep margins down – “we don’t talk like that to each other” or “we don’t say that in front of foreigners.” Because who sets cultural norms? The mainstream.
Effective margins grow in compassion towards the mainstream. They choose which cultural values to break (“we do say this in front of foreigners”) even while upholding other cultural practices (“we will reassure the fearful mainstream that we won’t do violence against them”).
And here is a good moment to return to Earlham, where margins have been boiling for generations and that is erupting into public spaces. The dynamics of margins’ expression and mainstreams’ fear is highly predictable.
Because it’s about race, we can add specifics about this particular mainstream/margin dynamic and the several hundred years of social conditioning.
Take a classic study in this field from the 1970s. White and black participants watched a scene unfold as two actors — who they thought were fellow participants — got into a heated debate that escalated into an ambiguous shove. White and black people alternated the roles of the shovers and the ones being shoved.
The results: when the person doing the ambiguous shoving was black, participants rated them as much more violent – and even more so when the victim was white. When the shover was white, the labels were “aggressive behavior, dramatizing, playing around” – but not violent. The stunning conclusion has since been recreated in lab studies over and over again. The same behaviors when done by white people are excused or minimized, but when done by black people are perceived as a threat/dangerous/violent.
Why? Because racial training has taught people to associate black people with fear. They see violence instead of “playing around.” Our internal feelings of objective reality are tainted. Even if we claim “we’re not racist,” we’ve grown up in a toxic society. And like smog, we’ve all inhaled it – the biased representations of black people as perpetrators, the over-represented rate of calling out perpetrators only when they are black, etc.
This taps directly into our amygdala, where we rapidly act out of projected fears. You can study this stuff – and people have. It’s called implicit bias, and it results in making snap judgments based on stereotypes.
One more study for those of us who like hard sciences. A group of researchers performed a double blind study. Participants were shown videos of people either being hurt with a painful stimuli (a needle against their skin) or a painless stimuli (an eraser). The actors were white,
black, and Asian. Participants correctly identified when the eraser was on everyone’s skin (no reaction). But when the needle was pressed, a racial discrepancy occurred: the participants noted the pain of the white person and to a slightly less degree the Asian person, but – by a striking difference – did not in the case of the black person. They were identified as in much less pain.
This kind of study has been replicated again and again. Black pain is minimized, misjudged, and played down. One of the greatest articulations of this whole dynamic comes from Dr. King’s Letter from Birmingham City Jail, where he is responding to white liberals critiques of his practices. Among other gems, he notes: “You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations.”
This dynamic continues today. In heated settings, white fear gets exaggerated and mainstreams pounce on it. Meanwhile, the black experience of pain is minimized and, as King experienced, a comparative institutional response to the precipitating issues is not forthcoming. All the while, other racial groups often struggle for distinctive attention on how racism impacts them.
It’s worth emphasizing that the fear is “real” – because society has placed it there. But the exaggerated fears must also be understood as “not real.” Feeding the fear only furthers the damage that racism does on white people’s psyche. It leads white people to further fear black people rather than de-escalating their internal walls that cause them to not see black pain, to have a scientifically shown racial empathy gap, and to erect emotional barriers preventing them from empathizing with the human condition.
Does this mean that whatever margins do to fight oppression is acceptable? Of course not. Nor does this mean that mainstreams are stuck in a cycle of staying clueless and reacting to injustice.
Can we make it through?
The Burmese group got closer and built a stronger community. It happened because the margins kept telling their stories — they didn’t get caught merely responding to the mainstream’s initial defensiveness. Instead they kept showing more stories and examples of oppression, while reassuring mainstreams of their good intent.
As facilitators, we reassured the mainstream that it was worth sitting in the fire in order to learn. We refused to feed the mainstreams’ irrational fears and encouraged them to sit with the challenging stories from the margins.
And the mainstream slowly moved. Some only a little. Others opened deeply and were forever changed, growing in compassion and ready to help change those underlying dynamics. When the margins speak and the mainstreams listen with hearts open, mainstreams can grow less clueless – and there are the seeds of social change.
Daniel is the author Building a Movement to End the New Jim Crow, an organizing guide commissioned to follow-up New York Times best-seller The New Jim Crow is an activist with Training for Change (www.trainingforchange.org) and 350.org