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Wearing the shoes of 'The Other' in Northeast Tennessee

Ed Wolff, Community Voices Columnist • Apr 21, 2019 at 7:30 AM

“The Other.” That is the phrase we might use for all those who are not like us and are not part of an influential majority. “The Other” could be those of a different denomination within one’s religion, those of a different religion, those whose skin color is different, those whose sexual orientation differs from ours, those who are economically at a different level, those whose political expressions differ, those of a different gender, those who were not born and raised within our community, and those with a different educational “achievement, to name a few.

The reason I mention this is because in this region of Northeast Tennessee, we are obviously heterogeneous, or at least appear to be in the public square. It seems to me that in order to qualify as a decision maker, one with power and influence, or one who appears to represent the people, one must be a white, heterosexual, evangelical, educated, male who has been born in this area and preferably here for a few generations, a Republican, and preferably part of upper middle class. If you question that, just walk into a public governmental office, look at the pictures in the news media (other than the obituaries and criminal activities), and attend many of the social, nonprofit and charitable events.

I bring this issue up because of our area’s desire to become more regional from the perspective of those outside our area. However, in order to achieve economic growth, we need to attract those outside our area. From many economic and ecological perspectives, we have many positive attributes. From a socio-economic perspective we are greatly deficient. If many of my conversations with those who have relocated to our area are any indication, their major dissatisfaction can be summarized in a comment, “Everybody looks and thinks the same.”

Recently, I listened to a leader of our community who addressed this issue. The person said that when we look beneath the surface, we see a myriad of people with highly identifiable differences. First of all, over 50% of our area are women. There are those in the medical and educational professions. There are Asians, Africans, Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, African-Americans, Indians, Buddhists, Hindi, Muslims, and others who bring to us a wealth of wisdom, perceptions, understandings, and experience that could widen and deepen our vision, mission, knowledge, community, and future growth. I believe what this person says. If so, why do they not participate? Why are they not among our leadership? Why are they not part of our full social community? Why do they not participate in supporting our community through the myriad of non-profit organizations?

One reason might be that we feel uncomfortable in the shoes that we are in if we move out of our established socio-economic settings. To even think about “putting on another pair of shoes” brings us fear. We would experience changes that we can’t control. All of life that we’re used to could be different.

Then there is the issue of power and control, which I have mentioned in other articles. Bringing in “outside” sources might influence the way we or others may think. Concepts and opinions on how our local culture exists might be opened to challenge and change. People from the outside might “move” in a different direction than we are used to or desire. People and operations that are protected and venerated might come under question. Considering new ways of decision making might redirect the current system. Employment opportunities that become more open would take away the ease of employment for those with connections.

Another factor might be that when we exclude the other, we might sense a greater degree of importance. When we minimize the effectiveness of others, when we demean those who are not “the same” as us, when we critique the messenger rather than evaluate the message, we feel more important and believe we are more highly qualified.

I was dismayed a couple of years ago when, in the midst of a conversation, the person expressed concern over the loss of our “American culture” that has existed up until now. (That’s an interesting viewpoint since I thought our nation’s culture was created, developed, and strengthened by welcoming “The Other” upon our shores.). The issue has become more intense since immigration has shifted from Europe to the East and South. Skin color identifies ethnicity more easily.

Some years ago I was the leader of a faith community that included several gay couples. I was initially uncomfortable thinking about guiding and supporting them. My uncomfortableness was created by a lack of knowing this group of “Others.” However, as relationships developed, it became apparent that their desire for strengthening their faith, living secure, being part of a community, and all the other yearnings were no different than mine. In fact, the friendships created were much stronger.

Over two years ago, we created Black/White Dialogue. We wanted to bring our different perspectives together and create deeper relationships of understanding. I believe that is happening, even if it is slowly

I have had the outstanding experience of being present in an Islamic prayer service. I was overwhelmed at their commitment to a relationship with God. (By the way, Jesus called God “Allah.”) I have been privileged to be more strongly connected to those of the Muslim faith.

Inclusiveness is an experience of freedom. Mistrust disappears. Misunderstandings are minimized. The overall community is strengthened.

Ed Wolff is a retired minister and progressive activist.

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