The price and cost of belonging

I listened to a podcast conversation between Annahid Dashtgard and Jerry Colonna this week that inspired me to write about my relationship with race and belonging. I first heard Dashtgard on an episode of Colonna’s Reboot podcast, and then read her book The Bones of Belonging to learn more about her journey, before discovering her podcast.

Dashtgard made a comment about the price people paid to be white in America, and that really struck a nerve with me. In an anti-racism cohort last year, the facilitator had asked a similar question of “What did you give up to assimilate into the white-dominant culture of America?” In answering, I realized I had learned from a young age to disclaim any of my Korean heritage so that I would fit into the incredibly white suburb where I grew up. And my Korean mom let me, as she had decided to assimilate into the culture as part of marrying my Wisconsin-born dad – she played her part in conforming to the norms of the white suburb where I grew up, throwing neighborhood picnics and becoming the president of the PTA.

Dashtgard’s comment related that price of belonging to the perfectionism that many people of color feel when trying to exist in a white-dominant culture. If you have given up part of yourself and your own culture to assimilate to the dominant culture, you don’t want to lose your place in that culture. You want to belong, but you don’t, as your place feels fragile and tenuous, able to be revoked at any time if you make one wrong comment or one inappropriate action that shows you don’t fit in. This pressure to always say and do the right thing in any situation is incredibly oppressive, and leads to the poorer performance of minorities due to their experience of stereotype threat even if there is no explicit bias, as described by Claude M. Steele in his book Whistling Vivaldi.

In one sense, me disclaiming my Korean heritage so that I could fit in and pass as white worked extremely well. Throughout my career, I got the benefit of the doubt, and was given opportunities based on my potential, which is likely correlated with me passing as white, as well as being a straight male. Those opportunities led to great career success, and financial security beyond my childhood imagination.

In another sense, it didn’t work at all, because I never felt that sense of comfort that comes when you truly believe you belong to a culture. I always felt I had to perform and exceed expectations to earn my belonging, as if my membership in American culture was conditional on my performance. I envied others who felt entitled to just exist without having to do anything to earn their place in their family or their community or their workplace (unsurprisingly, those people were mostly white). I never carried myself with that assurance, and that lack of confidence limited my career progress because I was too afraid of making mistakes. I felt I had to be perfect and that any mistake risked me being exposed as the imposter I felt I was, which could lead to my whole life being destroyed.

The pressure I felt to always exceed expectations and never fail eventually led to me burning out after working too many hours trying to earn a promotion at Google. Fortunately, I was able to learn from that experience, and start engaging with my own limiting beliefs around that perfectionism through years of therapy and coaching, which eventually led to a much healthier and satisfying life.

And yet I still struggle to feel like I belong, still feel pressure to prove my value in every moment, as these childhood habits are still wired into my unconscious nervous system. This helps me in some ways; my hypervigilance and sensitivity to what is happening around me means that I detect subtle cues while coaching that can lead to deeper conversations. It also helps me to be a better parent. But it has a cost, as I live much of my life in a fight-or-flight activated state with stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline flooding my body.

This complex melange of belonging, but not really feeling like I belong, was exemplified by a minor incident a couple months ago. I started a thread in a leadership Slack group to discuss the possibility of distributing bonuses in a more equitable way, where everybody was included in the decision as to who was providing value, rather than just the management team. The thread was immediately hijacked by two highly active community members who told me that it was a terrible idea, dismissing it as a popularity contest, and one told me it was bad for me personally to even consider the idea.

Unsurprisingly, both of these members were white male VPs. They showed zero curiosity about why I might think as I did, but immediately judged me as stupid for even considering this possibility rather than accept the system as is. I was enraged at their dismissal, and posted an angry response, which then let them make smug comments about my disproportionate response and feel justified in having dismissed me. I realized I wasn’t going to win, disengaged, and actually didn’t even open the Slack for three weeks while I reflected on what happened.

And I think it relates to the theme I’m exploring in this post. They knew they belonged in that community. They felt it in their bones. And they knew that the existing compensation system worked, because the system had rewarded them by promoting them into positions of power, acknowledging their great skills. For me to question that system meant that I was clearly too stupid to understand how well the system worked, so they competed to make jokes at my expense. And I went straight into the fight response of fight-or-flight, because their dismissal meant that I didn’t belong in this community of which they were prestigious members. But my angry response meant that I wasn’t able to be as “objective” (prized by the white-dominant culture) as they were, which further exposed me as an outsider. The whole thing played out in a way that bolstered their status, while I retreated in shame.

You may be wondering why I’m writing about this minor incident, as there’s nothing explicitly racial in this interaction; to an outside observer, I am just as white as they are. And yet I don’t carry myself the way they do, with that self-assured belonging. I don’t automatically assume that I’m right and that other people need to defer to me in situations. I’m always questioning my assumptions, and looking to understand others’ viewpoints because I might be wrong and I want to catch my own mistake before others can do so and mock me for not understanding, not belonging.

I am grateful for this tendency, as it meant that after far too many years of blissfully taking advantage of my privilege in a white dominant culture, I finally started investigating it after George Floyd. I have worked to understand what activists have been saying for decades, and learned how it applies to my own life. I have taken some small actions to do better, and will continue to strive to do more.

But the Slack incident is more typical of how white people respond when confronted by something they don’t understand that feels threatening. They are so secure in their sense of rightness and belonging that their first response will be to mock the new idea and belittle anybody that believes in it. They will condescendingly explain how the system works well as is, and if there’s a problem, it must be with the person experiencing the problem, not with the system. It’s a perfectly self-sealing belief system, as it doesn’t even experience alternatives as threats, but as so ludicrous as to not even be considered seriously (Tim Urban’s book What’s Our Problem is a great example of this). So I’m not sure how we get past that.

But it also points the way to the future inclusive world that I want, one where diverse perspectives are valued rather than dismissed, one where people assume competence rather than ignorance. In that vein, I highly recommend Chelsea Troy’s article on the five behaviors to build an inclusive culture, which include moderation (managing the flow of meetings so that everybody speaks), soliciting opinions from those who will be affected, appropriate attribution of credit, assuming other people are competent, and capitalizing on alternative perspectives. Imagine what our governments and companies might look like if leaders adopted those behaviors!

Instead, we have an explicitly anti-inclusive hierarchical dominance culture, where the people at the top get all the credit and rewards, and others are meant to genuflect to their superiority. In such a zero-sum system, people are rewarded for pushing other people down (as those guys did in that Slack thread), because they get more when others get less. This culture is an outgrowth of colonialism, where the European conquerors took whatever they wanted from indigenous peoples around the world, because they could, aka might makes right. In America, colonialism became plantation culture, where slaves existed as resources to be exploited until death by the plantation owner who reaped all the profits. Today’s corporate structures reflect that dark origin e.g. most Amazon employees are paid below subsistence wages while Jeff Bezos profits from their labor to become one of the richest men in the world.

It is a horrible system for most of us, as it benefits the 1% by exploiting the 99%. So how does it continue? Heather McGhee’s book The Sum of Us makes the case that racism has been exploited to perpetuate the economic system, as the emotional benefits of belonging and the struggle to stay inside the circle of whiteness outweigh the very real economic and health costs of this system on everybody outside of the privileged few.

So what’s the alternative? It doesn’t seem realistic to simply return to a tribal, indigenous culture, as I don’t see how that scales to the globally interconnected world we now live in. But I wonder if the way to create a more sustainable and inclusive system is by valuing people and relationships (as exemplified by Chelsea Troy’s inclusive behaviors) more than resources and output. A few provocations in that direction:

  • What if we take the advice of relationship counselor Terrence Real’s book to consider our fellow humans as an Us with whom we are in loving relationship, rather than individuals we must outcompete for resources?
  • What if we try to live into Kate Johnson’s words in her book Radical Friendship, that “Belonging is a decision” where “We’re on the same side of humanity, the only side, the side that wants to feel safe, be valued, and live full and meaningful lives”?
  • What if I stop thinking of myself as a half-Korean, half-Midwestern nerd that doesn’t belong in any culture, and instead realize that I’m a human that belongs with other humans?
  • What if we stop thinking of other people as resources or leads or (insert racial epithet here), and instead connect to them as humans trying to get by in this confusing and changing world?
  • What if we stop measuring ourselves by how many resources we accumulate, but by how well we connect with our communities and other humans?
  • What if we made belonging the default, rather than the price we pay to get into an unhealthy exclusive culture?

I don’t have an answer, but I keep coming back to my 2023 intention to connect with courage and vulnerability. That feels like the way forward for me. What about you?

4 thoughts on “The price and cost of belonging

  1. Ugh. Red mist. I had that happen at a community that I was part of, ages ago. You could imagine exactly what happened, which is that I tore into them, and then left the community and never looked back. They got everything they wanted, I did not. It happens over and over again in my career. And the old white guys – yeah, they always believe that they’re just doing the normal correct thing, and of course why would they leave? This is their space.

    Fuck ’em.

    I wish I had a better answer than that, and maybe one day I’ll find one. But right now, they’re in the system that wins for them, and the system is self-reinforcing. I don’t know how to beat it. I don’t know how one gets “justice” or “fairness” or anything that remotely resembles it.

    I cut out all that shit from my life to the maximum degree possible, and then live the life I want to live. And I’ve been monstrously privileged to be able to do it. And even then, recalling the times it’s happened to me is just a miserable, rage-inducing experience, and I want all the folks who participated to be flung into the sun and burned to ash.

    I wish I had some sort of constructive approach. The only thing I have is that I’m never, ever putting myself in a situation where someone has that power over me again.

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