Beyond Kumbaya

Beyond Kumbaya: How to Turn Them into Us

Posts like this usually start with a story of the author’s experiences of being an outsider. There is a defining hardship, or an identity that sets them on the margins. I can’t start out that way. I’m a cis hetero white married able-bodied upper-middle-class college-educated Christian female in America.

What could I possibly know about being “the other”?

As it turns out, I am “the other” to someone. So are you. Our tribal minds are quick to place people into categories… neat little boxes that put a label on someone, tell us if they are safe or not, and we sometimes do little to question our first assumptions. To anyone who doesn’t match how I just described myself, I am “the other.” And they are “the other” to me.

I’ve never felt so aware of my “otherness” — and the “otherness” of people in general— as I have since the 2016 election. Of course I knew there were differences in people and that not everyone saw the world the same way I did. It was just easier to gloss over those differences, to say, “let’s agree to disagree.” That feels like such a luxury now. Agreeing to disagree isn’t going to get us out of the painful divisions that are tearing apart families, relationships, and communities. We always had differences; now those differences are slapping us all in the face and demanding we come to terms with them.

A recent conversation at a Sunday morning gathering centered around these differences and started with these questions:

Why do people struggle with the “other,” the outsider, the different?

How can we keep ourselves from rejecting the other and be more inclusive, welcoming, celebrating? Less afraid? Less quick to judge and fear? Be better listeners, advocates?

There were lots of theories about the “Why” portion, from our primitive survival instincts that tell us to seek out people just like us because they are safe and to view difference as a threat, to our internal war with “otherness” inside ourselves, those parts of us that in an effort to appear “normal,” we’d rather disown or not let anyone see. There’s also the fear of being proven wrong by someone who thinks differently than we do; as long as we stay in our own idealogical bubbles, we don’t have to find out if our beliefs stand up to scrutiny.

The “How” question consumed most of our conversation. I started a running list of their thoughts, my thoughts, whatever popped into my head. Each of these ideas on how to bridge the gap with others might be simple, but they’re not easy. Each point could be its own article (or book!). For now, I offer them en masse, so you can consider each one and reflect on its relevance to your relationships.

One thing to note: as the title implies, this isn’t about a Kumbaya solution. Yes, coming together and holding hands, united in what makes us similar instead of divided in what makes us different, is part of the goal. And it’s not a panacea. It might make us feel good for a few minutes, but we have to begin from an even more basic place in order for lasting healing to happen.

Here are some steps and mind shifts you can make to break through the us vs. them walls:

  • Accept the other within yourself. Are you owning all parts of yourself, including those that others might reject? Until you stop shaming, rejecting, or negating those hidden pieces, it will be difficult to even begin to see others as anything but “other.”
  • Reflect on your own “other” status. When have you been the outsider, the square peg in the round hole? How did that feel? What did you long for? Let your personal experience feed your empathy and response to others.
  • See people as human beings, not as objects. Whether they look, talk, and act like you or not, we can sometimes lose sight of others’ humanity. People aren’t here to either advance or deter your personal progress. We are all on our own human journey. (Read: “Leadership and Self-Deception” by The Arbinger Institute)
  • Notice if you’re reducing “the other” to a single, one-dimensional stereotype or identity. We are each more than our skin color, religion, gender, sexual orientation, occupation, economic status, and voting record. Get to know the whole story of the whole person. (Watch: Chimamanda Adichie’s TED Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story”)
  • Ask “What’s it like to be you?” If you have the benefit of conversation, asking this simple question can open up new understandings about what led to someone’s beliefs and choices. It can also turn any one-dimensional assumptions you have about them into a rich, three-dimensional story.
  • Find out for yourself. There’s always a chance that the story you’re carrying around about “the other” is someone else’s story! You inherited or absorbed the narrative from a person you trust, love, or even fear. If you’re relying on second- or third-hand information about whoever is “the other,” commit to finding ways to learn more through your own lens.
  • Let go of love, and simply see and hear. Just like the pervasive invocation of Kumbaya, we get the message that we have to love our enemy, the outsider, the stranger. Yes, it’s true: love is the answer! And… sometimes, in the beginning stages, it’s too much of a leap. Release the I-must-love-my-real-or-perceived-adversary pressure, and choose smaller gestures. Focus on seeing, hearing, and engaging with those who are different from you. Make eye contact. Say hello. Hold open the door. Make small talk. Offer to help. Listen. Read and watch content that offers a window into their world. Be sincere with opening your heart to the possibility of connection. Allow yourself to be curious and show simple kindness, which will most likely lead to allowing your heart to love.

In the end, this all requires that we be vulnerable. We have to be open to influence, be willing to be wrong, and to have our worldview challenged and possibly changed. The stories and constructs that guide our lives might be torn to shreds. That’s how we grow: we routinely get ripped apart and then glued back together with new ideas, perspectives, and lessons.

Our strength grows with each turn-our-world-upside-down experience.

We become more clear in why we believe what we do.

We become more receptive to the beliefs and perspectives of others.

We start to live “love your neighbor as yourself.”

And we become more resilient because our world and hearts have opened and expanded to include a larger community of fellow travelers.