WCW's Women Change Worlds Blog

When Getting Along Is Not Enough

Maureen Walker When Getting Along is Not Enough bookIf conventional wisdom is to be believed, women are notoriously good at getting along. Cultural pundits, from scholarly theorists to political wags, suggest that women are better suited and somehow more prone to connect with others for good. This notion may have a certain surface appeal, particularly to those of us who want to promote healing in a world marred by mortal violence and near-normative violations of human dignity.

However, women who dare to change worlds know that getting along is not enough. Just getting along allows us to be friendly neighbors, cooperative colleagues, best friends, and maybe even intimate partners. But it is not enough to allow us to build authentic, in-depth connections that bring out the best in ourselves and others, and in our society as a whole. In order to do that, we must delve deeper and ask ourselves hard questions—particularly, as we honor the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., around the issue of race.

After the 2016 election, analyses and demographic parsing revealed entrenched racialized divides among women. Race emerged as an undeniable constant: as a signifier that gives meaning to our lives, shaping our beliefs about who we are, who we can be, and how we should be regarded by others. Furthermore, race delineates the parameters of belonging and determines the measure of worth we accord others—how we perceive their credibility and deservingness, and how we enact power in our relationships with them.

Although the notion of race itself may be a biological fiction, it is a political reality, one that has functioned as a pernicious strategy of disconnection, violence, and violation. Whether through collusion, co-option, or coercion, women are deeply implicated in sustaining the norms and systems of racial disconnection.

Women of good will (and that, I believe, includes most of us) regularly enact racialized ideologies in real life. Indeed, these ideologies may be in large part cultural legacy, implicit yet potent, unknown even to ourselves. We can begin to know how race shapes our relationships by observing our habits of disconnection. For example, what are the feelings and thoughts we dare not express to someone of a different race—even when that person is dear to our hearts? Certainly not all feelings and thoughts are meant to be shared; some are private and rightfully so. There is, however, a distinction to be made between privacy and secrecy.

Privacy may represent thoughtful restraint, in service of further growth in the relationship. Secrecy, on the other hand, is a habit of disconnection that functions to protect and preserve a preferred image or narrative. Such withholding creates “dead zones” in a relationship. We might observe how and under what circumstances we create these “dead zones.” How big and unnavigable do we believe them to be? How readily do we criticize “them” and what “they” are like when we are in same-race company? What parts of ourselves and of our experience do we withhold in order to preserve and protect the appearance of connection, rather than allowing ourselves to be more fully known and present in a relationship? This is a habit of disconnection that stifles our desire for connection and belies our intentions to engage the richly textured realities that define our shared humanity.

I wrote When Getting Along Is Not Enough as an invitation and a guide for remaking the meaning and function of race in our lives. One of the practices that enables this transformation is what I call “disruptive empathy.” The two words don’t flow easily together, intentionally so, because empathy is not an easy skill. We tend to think of empathy as demonstrations of niceness, kindness, and caring—laudable actions all, but not stand-ins for growth-fostering empathy.

A popular metaphor that more accurately captures the disruptive dynamics of empathy is “walking a mile in another’s shoes.” To walk in another’s shoes implies at minimum the willingness to shed our own. This process is disruptive because it requires a certain level of willful de-stabilization. Specifically, we have to loosen our attachment to the narratives about self and other. We must be willing to be surprised and accepting of parts of ourselves we previously found embarrassing or shameful. In other words, the anchoring value of disruptive empathy is courage, not comfort.

I like to describe disruptive empathy as a dynamic process facilitated by three intentions: awareness, respect, and compassion. Here are just a few of the questions that facilitate the movement through this experience.

Awareness: What am I feeling and thinking? Desiring? Remembering? Is there a cherished narrative or image that I want to shield from scrutiny?

Respect: What is the purpose of this encounter? Am I trying to win? Placate? What might happen if I risk genuine curiosity about this other person?

Compassion: How did this person come to be where she is in this encounter right now? What aspects of our shared humanity is this encounter revealing? Under what conditions do I speak, interpret, and behave similarly?

When Getting Along Is Not Enough is not a mandate for forced harmony. It is an invitation to shed the illusions that allow us to settle for the appearance of harmony, rather than richly textured and authentic connection. It is an invitation to transform the life-limiting imagination of who we can be and how we must engage each other as racialized beings. This book is intended to help us on a shared journey of healing and ask: How might we dare to change worlds? Who, together, might we become? And most important, are we willing?

Maureen Walker, Ph.D., is a senior scholar at the Wellesley Centers for Women and a founding scholar of the International Center for Growth in Connection, formerly the Jean Baker Miller Training Institute. She is the author of When Getting Along is Not Enough: Reconstructing Race in Our Lives and Relationships, a book that offers a roadmap to personal transformation and cultural healing to repair the damage wrought by racism.

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Re-thinking Self-esteem

If there is one notion that’s likely to receive nearly unanimous validation in contemporary culture, it’s that self-esteem is a good thing. While there may not be agreement on what is it or how to do it, its elevated placement in Maslow’s hierarchy has led to the notion that it is something we should all have, and that we should have enough of it. In fact, not having enough self-esteem is cited as the root of all sorts of social and psychological ills. When low self-esteem is cited as the cause of a particular objectionable behavior, the explanation seems more accusatory than diagnostic. For example, there are few cultural indictments more shaming to parents than to have a child with “low self-esteem.” It is no wonder then that cultivating self-esteem has become a central, even if implicit, goal in parenting and therapeutic practices. Consequently, what started as a developmental construct has taken on the valence of a cultural meme, with a taken-for-granted acceptance of its meaning and import. Left unexamined, any construct, even one with all the apparent virtue of self-esteem, can take on the central distortions of the dominant culture. The problem for Relational-Cultural Theory (RCT) practitioners--parent, teachers, and therapists alike--is that something gets lost in translation when self-esteem becomes a proxy for the Separate Self: when it is defined as an individualistic and privatized commodity. When the construct of self-esteem is imported into a Separate Self developmental framework, the near inevitable result is the cultivation of expression of power-over practice.

Let me explain. Power-over practice does not require intentionality; oblivion to context is sufficient. Such was probably the case when I observed two young boys (presumably siblings) soccer-kicking a cereal box through the crowded aisles of an upscale grocery store. The boys were having a grand time, while two adults (presumably parents) stood by with bemused “boys-will-be-boys” smiles. The store employees stood tight-lipped and hapless, not daring to interrupt this unfettered assertion of want and will. The shifting configurations of observing adults (me included) expressed our shared un-ease through furtive glances at each other, almost certainly unanimous in our disapproval of “parental over-indulgence.” It has since occurred to me that what we witnessed could have been tinged with no small measure of parental fear. It could have been that the parents could not risk re-directing this uninhibited behavior for fear of depleting the boys’ supply of self-esteem. What became clear is this: when the “Self” is disconnected from community, an impulse is treated as an imperative, and simple desire can become a demand. We commonly understand self-esteem to mean feeling good about oneself. But what if “feeling good” can only be achieved by getting what I want when I want it at the expense of others?

I could not help but be reminded of something that my grandmother Donnie would say to young people in our family. If anyone one of us dared to violate her standards of good grooming or “respectable” behavior, she would say: “Don’t go out acting like you don’t have people.” At the time, her counsel was little more than an irritation. “Having people” could mean anything from representing your family by working hard in school to properly ironing a ruffled blouse. It’s a safe bet that my grandmother never heard of Maslow, and I’m guessing she lived the better part of eight decades without ever using the words “self-esteem.” She did, however, know a lot about respect, reverence, and dignity. What we now call self-esteem is what my grandmother expressed as self and other--awareness. Her version of self-esteem was awareness of connection to community. Further, it meant appreciation for the care that community bestows, and an obligation to represent that care in the world and to the world. Put plainly the lesson was this: how you go out into the world is not just your private business; your behavior reflects on and has consequences for the communities from which you come.

Self-esteem as a construct is not likely to go away, nor perhaps should it. However, it may look decidedly different if it were conceptualized from a more relational perspective. When I think back on the admonition from my grandmother, “having people” translates into three relational practices: appreciation, acknowledgement, and agency.

Appreciation involves knowing that the beginning of being is relationship. Furthermore, wellbeing and accomplishment are made possible through the contributions and often the sacrifices of others. This practice engenders a sense of self-worth, distinctly different from the illusion of self-sufficiency. In other words, to practice appreciation is to is live the nuanced distinction between being worthy to receive and being entitled to receive.

Second is acknowledgement: cognizance of and responsiveness within the relational-cultural landscape. As members of a marginalized community, this level of consciousness was essential for survival. This practice is akin to what RCT scholar Yvonne Jenkins first referred to as social esteem. By introducing the construct of social esteem, Jenkins challenges the notion of self-esteem as a privately held property and responsibility. In her framework, questions of being, belonging, and mattering cannot be effectively addressed without cognizance of the social-political context within which they arise. When African American elders talked about “having people,” they were saying that oblivion to context is not an option: that we were responsible to for discerning how personal behaviors might impact communal experience. In no small way, this consciousness contributes to the development of anticipatory empathy. (Being allowed to kick someone else’s property through a crowded grocery aisle actually deconstructs this quality of relational consciousness.) Acknowledgment as a relational practice enables clarity and intentionality in navigating the complex interdependencies of a stratified cultural landscape.

One of the foundational tenets of Relational-Cultural Theory is that the purpose of being in relationship. Having a sense of agency then is to claim our responsibility as co-creators of human possibility. I can think of a no more telling example of this perspective than a conversation I had with a young Indonesian man a few years ago. He told me that as a member of a religious minority in his country, he knew that he had to work twice as hard to get half as far: precisely the advice that I had heard growing up in a racially stratified culture decades earlier. Interestingly, this belief did not engender defeatism or victimhood. Rather, it confirmed the obligation to community: to advance the contributions of preceding generations and to provide “uplift” for future generations. Further, it instilled confidence in our ability and obligation to make the world a little bit better for others.

To infuse the notion of self-esteem with a more communal perspective does not eradicate personhood; rather it enlarges it. A culture that overemphasizes the primacy of the individual creates obsession with self-possession and fear-riddled autonomy. In contrast, a relational perspective insists that self comes to fuller expression through action in relationship for the precise purpose of enlarged capacity for responsiveness in relationship. There is an alternative to the version of self-esteem that manifests as “I should say, do, and get what I want when I want it.” Imagine the possibilities for cultural transformation when self-esteem (feeling good about oneself) manifests as “We belong. We can. We matter.”

Maureen Walker, Ph.D. is director of program development at the Jean Baker Miller Training Institute, Wellesley Centers for Women.

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