On gender, power, being an outsider, and inhabiting the “other”

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It’s not hard to notice that a lot of the people on the frontiers of “alternative” health, justice, education, [fill-in-the-blank], those helping to write the new stories, are women and what is known as “minorities.” (Which, just think about it, is a horrible word in so many ways.) Why is that? We have less to lose, for one thing. We’ve lived our entire lives on the outside of a system that, we can see from here, makes little sense. For starters, whoever heard of a functioning natural system that excludes whole swaths of reality?

Being on the outside does have its upside. From here, it’s easier to a) spot the flaws, inconsistencies, and insanity of the dominant system; b) see alternatives, and c) shift sideways, away from the mess and towards something better.

The disadvantages are many as well: a) lower status, in the eyes of the white men inside the system, means b) difficulty having much influence on the system itself, and c) risk of being disregarded or downright ignored by those in power, and consequently, d) preaching only to the choir without effecting much change.

Certainly, there are some highly effective women and men who are making great strides into new and often unknown territory. At the risk of generalizing, these people probably subscribe to this maxim of Bucky Fuller’s that is dear to me:

“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new reality that makes the existing reality obsolete.”

Sometimes, I catch myself feeling a bit envious of the highly visible, successful leaders in the alternative movements. Out of envy, I can be tempted to dismiss them as being part of a double standard, of holding themselves as exemplary, in an elite class of system-changers. I can think of one woman, a New York Times bestseller, who has a PBS show and is now promoting another book.

Maybe she’s not outside the dominant system at all, but has found a sweet spot to press within it. In the image of notable green architect, William McDonough (who himself has been on the cover of Time magazine as one of their “Heroes for the Planet”), maybe she is on the bridge of the oil tanker, steering it, instead of being down at the waterline in the Zodiak with the Greenpeace activists.

And doesn’t it take all hands, wherever they may find leverage points? Didn’t Bucky also advise to “be the trimtab,” which will be different for each of us?

And what is it like to be a white man with his seat of power and privilege inside a broken, damaging, and crumbling system? I propose an exercise that I call, Inhabiting the Other. To imaginatively take the perspective of someone who appears to be my opposite. . . .

I’m not stupid. I know it’s happening. Yet this is all I know, being on the inside, looking at those on the margins: the women, the minorities. I let myself feel that little twinge of contempt for them, that disdain. They are so weak, so ineffectual. They’ll never get it. And yet, they have a kind of freedom that I’ll never know.

Because I do feel the twinges. I wonder what the hell I’m doing it for. Security? That’s a joke. Legacy? Who knows how long all this will be around? It could all go in my lifetime, certainly in my son’s.

I’m afraid and I can’t even put my finger on what, exactly, I’m afraid of. And who would I talk to about it? My wife doesn’t seem to believe in anything any more. She’s not the hopeful, competent young professional I married. It feels like the more she goes away from all this, the more I have to hold to the center, even when I have my own doubts about it. She’s reckless, willing to throw away all that we’ve worked for, to walk away from a comfortable lifestyle. Is living in poverty some sort of romantic fantasy for her?

And how does that make me look? I’ve got peers, colleagues, who are judging me all the time, sizing me up. How can I maintain their respect with a wife who’s going off the deep end?

Things are complex. She doesn’t seem to understand or respect that. I’m just trying to get along, to navigate these rapids, to be a success. Keep my head down, stay in the boat. Where does all this leave us?

It seems to me that part of living on the threshold between stories is developing faculties and skills that we haven’t had to tap before. One of them is the ability to imagine, even to inhabit, another’s point of view. Doing this simple exercise has shifted something for me, brought me some measure of compassion for the white men in power, for all of us who struggle.

Without indulging it, I will continue to be aware of my longing to be part of the inside crowd. Not in a seat of power inside the dominant system, but—here’s a loaded phrase for me—as a thought leader in the movement to new stories. I like the observation that we have longings to awaken and enliven our soul purpose. I may or may not have a big mission here, but I do know that today, I can be my best and do my best. If that means being on the outside, so be it. I’ve gotten used to the view from here.

2 thoughts on “On gender, power, being an outsider, and inhabiting the “other”

  1. I love this post Julie. I asked a therapist friend how she thought the men in the power elite could come home and face their children at night. She told me she has worked with many in that position. She said they feel much like you described in your exercise. She said some of them are greatly burdened by guilt and seek a to live in new stories.
    Thanks for all you do.

    • Duane – I am so grateful for your thoughts here. I never know what sort of reaction (if any) these ramblings will elicit. It’s wonderful finding kindred spirits on this journey. Thank YOU for all you’ve shown me so far.

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