Nuggets From John Powell's Call

Posted by Chris Johnnidis on Sep 11, 2019
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Recently we had the privilege of hosting an Awakin Call with john powell, skillfluly moderated by none other than Preeta.

john a. powell is one of the foremost public intellectuals in the areas of civil rights, racism, ethnicity, housing and poverty. Despite a distinguished career, powell spells his name in lowercase on the simple and humble idea that we are part of the universe, not over it. He has introduced into the public lexicon the concepts of “othering and belonging.” For powell, "othering" hurts not only people of color, but whites, women, animals and the planet itself, because certain people are not seen in their full humanity. Belonging is much more profound than access; “it’s about co-creating the thing you are joining” rather than having to conform to rules already set. Born in Detroit the fourth son of a minister and sharecroppers, powell has focused his life’s work on how a belonging paradigm can reshape our world for the better.

The whole call practically felt like a highlight, for me, so here are a quite a few lightly-edited nuggets from the call:


Question: What are the realities of racial "progress", or developments over time, in this country's context?
  • We just commemorated the 400-year anniversary of the slave trade in the New World and English colonies.
    • Race as we know it didn't exist at that time.
    • By some accounts the concept of white as a race didn't evolve until almost the end of the 17th century. So it was 66 years after the slave trade started that the concept of white evolved.
      • So whiteness and blackness is not just given -- it's created. And it was created by elites for a certain purpose.
    • There was a big rebellion, called Bacon's Rebellion, that involved both African workers, or former African workers and enslaved people, and British English indentured servants. They weren't "black" and "white" at the time; they were English and African or whatever part of Africa or tribe they were from. They came together, and there was a wrinkle in it, but they came together demanding better conditions, demanding democracy, demanding the right to participate.
      • The wrinkle being--they were also demanding access to Native American land.
    • The rebellion was relatively successful for a while, and the elite who actually were part of a corporation, were terrified about this and decided they had to create a wedge between the African workers and the English workers. And that's when race really start taking hold. After the Rebellion, when they finally squashed it, they only punished for the most part the Africans -- they didn't punish the English.
    • They started creating different conditions, different circumstances, and a different narrative, and then they eventually created something called the Slave Patrol, which was by some accounts the first draft in the world. They drafted Englishmen who were barely above, if at all, their slave counterparts.
    • At the time, there was much more what we would call intermarriage in relationships.
      • The reason that’s important is that some people think it’s natural for people to want to be with their own, [but] there's no natural "us," and there's no natural "them."
    • These are largely socially constructed. And it took a while, it didn't happen immediately; a few years later, they developed anti-miscegenation laws, which people thought of as strange. And think about it, you don't need a law saying two people can't marry unless two people are inclined to marry. The very need of the law reflects what you were saying -- that people were actually coming together.
    • And so the new colonies created laws saying you can't come together, and when there was public marriage and people came together, they had public whippings and sometimes even hangings to send a message that this is not being tolerated.
    • So it's really important to understand that whiteness and white was the middle stratum and above that stratum were the elites, who even when they first created the concept of whiteness as a race, did not consider themselves as white.
      • They were again the English elite.
    • Then the role of this middle stratum was allegiance to the elites and patrol over and dominance over blacks. And variations of that has continued to this day. It's gone through many different iterations. There's a new one every year.
  • But to a larger point, this is actually "when you strip people of their humanity, when you deny people their full participation, when you refuse to see the divine in people--that is called othering…Around the world, we "other" people because of religion, language, immigration status, sexual orientation…We are very creative in finding ways to say that someone's not part of the 'WE'."  
    • And race is a very powerful way that's done in the United States. It was done for reasons to control. It was done to extract money and labor.
      • So it was already sort of capitalism and racism combined. Today we think of it as sort of one or the other. From the very start, the two things were connected and still are.
    • But there are other forms of othering as well. If we move around the world, and even in the United States, we sometimes "other" people because of their religion, because of their language, because they're immigrants, because of their sexual orientation. We are very creative in finding ways to actually say that someone's not part of the "WE".

How do Native Americans fit into this? You said that race didn't really exist until 60 years after the slave trade, how did the so-called New World Europeans, when they came to the new world, see Native Americans?
  • It's interesting because the interactions with Native Americans happened before the interactions with African people both in the colonies in the United States, but also in [what's now referred to as] Mexico and Latin America.
  • First, actually they tried to enslave Native Americans.
    • It didn't work for a couple of reasons. One was the disease.
    • The Europeans introduced germs that the indigenous people did not have a lot of resistance to fight them.
      • When the Europeans first had contact with them, the Europeans were defeated. They went back to Europe to regroup and when they returned, 90% of the Aztecs had died.
    • So when they try to enslave them. they simply didn't have the sort of physiological makeup to be effectively enslaved.
  • Plus one of the things that made it hard to enslave them was that they were on their own land. So in terms of escaping, in terms of sort of disappearing into the land, which was strange to the Europeans, they couldn't effectively follow them.
  • So this is not sort of a great design. It is a design, but it's also full of twists and turns as we sort of fumble through history. So to some extent, they then left the Native Americans--while taking their land. And then later committing genocide in their direction.
  • So in terms of working with the land, initially cotton and then Caribbean sugar, you needed people who could stand the heat and people who could stand the disease. Unfortunately for Africans, they could withstand both.
  • So these were sort of pragmatic decisions. They weren't ideological decisions, but then there's a whole ideology or narrative or story that grew up around it.
How did this process of "othering" and the creation of race harm this middle stratum of whites as well?
  • It's interesting and there's a lot of literature on this. In some ways W.E.B. Dubois wrote about this, and people are writing about it today.
  • If you think about the United States for example, there's a book called "Fighting Poverty in the US and Europe: A World of Difference" by Alberto Alesina and Edward Glaeser. As economists, what they show is that the economic and health well-being in the United States, especially for that middle stratum, white people, is actually lower than their European counterparts.
    • Just think about something like healthcare. We're one of the few "advanced industrial countries" that don't have health care. The United States is the only country right now, the advanced industrial country, where life expectancy is going down and not up, including for white people. The suicide for whites actually, which is unusual, is very high. It's also on parody now and to some extent even higher in some cases than it is in the black community.
  • The other very graphic example is Truman. As president, he proposed Universal Health Care. Think about this--this in the 40s, saying we need universal healthcare.
    • The bill in congress almost passed; he had the votes, he was ready to get it passed and sign it into law. And then someone asked a question--because Truman had integrated the troops--"If we have Universal Health Care and the federal government is involved, will the federal government require that the hospitals and health care facilities be integrated?"
    • Truman said yes, and the good people of the United States said we don't want it. We’d rather go without health care than to share space, to share contact on equal footing with blacks.
    • And though health care was needed for the entire country, it was needed the most in the South. And so this categorical, vitriolic position was hardest in the South. So the southern whites in particular--it hurt blacks as well, it hurt Latinos--but it also hurt southern whites.
    • And even today when you look at many people who are most ambivalent or hosted to the Affordable Care Act, it is the people who needed the most--the white people who need it the most.
    • Like building a spite fence: when you build a fence to hurt your neighbor and in doing so you hurt yourself, but you’re still willing to do it to hurt your neighbor.
  • Now I should say, when I say "white" I need to be careful, because whites are a heterogeneous group.
  • There's nothing inherent in whiteness that makes this vitriolic position real. It's actually part of our history that there have always been some whites, or people who are called white, who rejected this and have been on the side of anti-racism. But the dominant expression in whites, including coming from the elites, has been to foster this kind of separation, with this kind of argument of: you can't make common cause with those people--which is what the argument was after the Bacon Rebellion in the 17th century.
I'm struck as you're speaking: even naming the issue has a certain language of othering itself. Having to use the language of whites, blacks, all of this. What's the role of naming? And how do you how get to a belonging society, with words that are more belonging-ish, so to speak, while still naming the reality?
  • Some people have argued that since race is socially constructed, shouldn’t we just drop it? But first of all this misses the implications of “socially constructed.” It's not individually constructed, it’s socially constructed. And if we really want to get beyond it, we have to change the conditions that support it.
  • It's not just an idea. For example, the United States is very segregated, not just in terms of schools, but in terms of neighborhoods, in terms of where people worship, in terms of how people work. We had laws for many years saying that blacks could not actually have a job where they oversaw or were the managers of whites (it was a similar position, frankly, in terms of women).
  • First you create the category, but then you have to create the conditions to hold the category in place. That takes a lot of work. And so we're constantly dealing with new ways of re-inscribing and new challenges.
  • Now “naming it” both helps re-inscribe it, but it also can help challenge it. So naming it can be libratory.
  • So when we say anti-racism...we can reject white supremacy, but I suggest that's not enough. We actually have to reject “human supremacy”--believing that humans are better than everything that's not human, including animals, etc. That they are here just for our playfulness or exploitation.
  • So naming it can entrench the problem, but it also can disrupt the problem. But we won't disrupt the problem just by naming it, and we won't keep the problem in place just by naming it. We have to look at our practices. We have to look at our laws, our policies, how we live, our norms, and institutions, our structures themselves, to reflect the kind of aspirations that as a society we want to have.
I'm reminded, recently Chief Justice John Roberts (controversially) said in an opinion, “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race, is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” And he was saying that basically to say let's stop creating categories--kind of anti-integration, anti-affirmative action--saying let's stop naming this, let's just move on.
  • Right, he was actually proposing colorblind strategy.
  • Concerning a school integration case in Seattle, Roberts said the State can't look at the race of the children because that's discriminatory. But what he didn't pay attention to--and Kennedy took him to pass on this in his concurrence, saying: we are not beyond race. The reality is that black children and white children live in different communities. And so if you don't do something to disrupt that, once institutions and structures are in place, they actually will do a lot of the work in terms of reproducing themselves, and if you're going to change that you have to be affirmative about it.
    • It's like saying I don't notice that in many instances almost all the boards of rich corporations are run by white men, but I'm not going to notice that because that would be racist--but I'm not going to change that either.
  • You don't use a single indicator to describe people or even a personal well-being, but if you were to use a single indicator, it would be wealth. And by some accounts the black community by 2050-2060 will have either zero wealth or negative wealth. And that's if we do nothing.
    • So Roberts would say, “Well, we should do nothing. We shouldn't notice the problem.” So I think of what James Baldwin said, “not every problem that we face can we solve, but we can never solve a problem unless we face it.” So we have to face it. We have this history that it continues to define not only our past but our present, it continues to define who we are.
  • And then the last thing in terms of Roberts comment. We know now from the mind science, and from structures themselves, but most of the work in terms of “how we see each other”, it's not done at a conscious level. Empirical science shows that we actually do categorize at an unconscious level along racial lines and other lines, and it has consequences, and we can't tell the unconscious to stop doing that. So again, I think Roberts is being at best disingenuous.
As a nation, what does healing look like to you and how do we get there?
  • First of all, we have to recognize that we need to heal and it's not just personal. It's not just the healing of black people, healing of Native American people. It's basically the healing of the country.
  • If you look at our well-being indicators to United States, a metric stand out to me: there are about 400 million guns in the United States--outside of the military. That's more guns than people.
    • Part of the very argument in favor of the second amendment was about concern of race and racism, concern of slave revolts. So it's already cooked into the second amendment, this deep anxiety and fear. This fear and anxiety, I think, takes on different expressions; we are not necessarily worried about a slave revolt anymore, but this is part of our national DNA. We are anxious and scared people and the way we try to solve it, is like "get a gun."
  • We have to confront the hard edge of the racial hierarchy and the racial disease. It's not with Black people or Latinos and Native people or Asian people. Oftentimes when you have studies you look at the people who are victimized by these conditions and think about how do we fix them. That is not to say that there's not stuff that needs to be done.
  • But the heart of racism in the United States is the concept of whiteness and white supremacy -- which is not the same as people who are phenotypically white. You have an increasing number of people who are phenotypically white, in America, who actually try to reject the institution of white dominance and white supremacy -- even as we have more people under President Trump, and President Trump himself, who are embracing those concepts.
  • So you have this complicated process going on and one of the difficulties is that people don't know how to do it, right? It's like people don't know how to heal. You could think of it as if I have asthma and I'm trying to heal myself, but the environment is toxic.
  • So it's both a collective national problem on one hand, and an individual expression on the other. We can't heal until we recognize it.
  • The United States, to this day, has never apologized for slavery. And by some accounts, slavery in the United States didn't really end until 1945. But whenever it ended, we as a country are still struggling with (1) just even recognizing it and (2) saying it was wrong. That seems like a small step. If we can't recognize, if we can't acknowledge our history, our past that's actually reflected in out present, then we can't really heal.
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How do you help heal that middle stratum as you called it? In some ways recognizing that there was a sin of slavery, that there was a history of slavery -- I'm just wondering would that set them off further? What would it take to heal that group -- for them to also recognize the ways in which they were victimized and hurt?
  • Slavery is a defining part of us, but it doesn't completely encapsulate us. We're still writing our story.
  • We can write a story where we all belong.  Sometimes, people say, "We have to create a space where we are interconnected." I say, "actually we don't; we have to create an awareness." The interconnection is already there.  We're from the Earth.We are part of the Earth. The problem is that we fail to recognize that.
  • Four Splits (similar to racism, colonialism, imperialism, exploitation):
    • 1) a split from nature; 2) a split from the Divine, however one defines it--a split in separation from the Earth; and then 3) separation from each other; and then the final one is 4) separation between mind and body.
  • Each of those separations are wounds. Each of those cleavages need to be addressed and healed -- because we are part of each other; because we are connected -- not just to each other but to the Earth. We can't thrive and survive and have a wonderful life while the Earth is actually suffering.
  • Toni Morrison wrote about this. She said, we spent a good deal of time looking at how slavery actually distorted and truncated lives of black people. And it did. But we paid very little attention of what it has done to white people. So part of this--and what Toni Morrison was saying was not an indictment. Just like saying you've been injured too. And how do we all heal?
  • Fear that to talk about slavery is to criticize America. And to criticize white people. Some truth to that. There's a critique about America, but it doesn't mean we don't own America, doesn't mean we don't love America, doesn't mean we don't care.
    • In fact, for those of us who have kids, it's like saying as I raise my child I'm never going to say anything critical to them. Really? To me that's not an act of love. That's an act of irresponsibility.
  • That's why I always try to insist that the ideology of whiteness, which is extremely problematic, is not the same as white people.
  • And to remember that there always have been, and always hopefully will be, with growing number of people who are called white, who actually support and believe in the idea of inter-connectedness and the idea of mutuality and the idea of equality and the idea of love. Sometimes when we talk about white people or even whiteness, we actually paint with too broad of a stroke. So I think part of the healing, it's not to simply call people out, but the calling in and to help people go through this process.
  • I'm not big on simply engaging in making people feel guilty or ashamed or whatever. We've all done things that we wish we hadn't done. But we are not defined in our personal life and our collective life by a single act. None of us are, from my perspective, a hundred percent evil or bad, and none of us are a hundred percent good. We've all done things and we're growing, that's part of the life process. But we can only grow, again, if we recognize the need to grow.

I want to move a little bit into your personal story because it's so powerful. You've obviously talked a lot in the past and also today about the need to shift from a paradigm of power to one of healing, one where we are each able to grow into our own true power in a healthy way. Your journey from being a sharecropper's son, growing up in Detroit in the 40s, and clearly disempowered externally by our social structures, how did you begin to grow into your own true power?
  • First I think we have to be careful how we use the word power, right? There's power over and there's power with.
  • Hobbes (all against all, protect yourself) vs. Rousseau (find peace through coming together in solidarity).
  • And so in terms of power, if you take Hobbes's position, power means essentially power over all the other things that are scary. I like to say--we love parks and we're afraid of the forest.  We have many children's stories about people going into the dark forest and then meeting a wolf or whatever.  What those allegories say, is that we like parks because we plan, control, and dominate them. The forest is more organic. It's not under our control and that's scary.  We have to shift from power over the park to power with the forest. We recognize we're in relationship.  In that sense, power, solidarity and love are not in opposition. And not interested in dominating.
  • For me, the way I got there, and I'm still getting there, is really from my family.
  • And I reject the story, which has actually been offered to me several times, of: family from the south, very poor sharecroppers, my father had to drop out of school when he was in the third grade when his mother died and go to work full time. And he said if I listed some of the things in his life -- he's legally blind, there were times when we didn't have enough food to eat, or cold -- it would sound like a really pretty powerful story of lack, if not victimhood.
  • From that you would think if you met my father that he's physically and emotionally scarred and angry, and understandably so. But if you met him you would say--the story you just told and the man I'm sitting in front of doesn't come together. He's one of the happiest, most contented, loving people on the planet. He's getting ready to celebrate his 99th birthday. And when you talk to him, he will tell you over and over again how blessed he is.
    • When we were growing up, people would come to our house. He and my mom were like a magnet because there's so much love in the family. There were nine children and yet our house was always open to other people. So often times I grew up around not just my brothers and sisters but cousins and even strangers or people who would be called strangers. And that's where I come from. And that part of it, that joy.
    • I could tell you more. I mean, literally, there have been times when doctors have announced my dad would be dead in a week and he just keeps coming back. And sometimes the doctors say--it doesn't make sense. He should be dead, given what's happening with his body. The way I make sense of it is: he's a beacon of and surrounded by love, and the effect of that is so powerful.
  • And so in my own life, I had to sort of in a sense go away from that and come back to it. There was a period of time when I was really consumed by anger, really consumed by the scourges of discrimination and racism.
  • As Cornel West said: justice is the public face of love.
    So what does that mean in the world? And what does it mean in my personal life? I feel like the foundation came from the history of my family.

You talk about a period where you were consumed with anger, as I imagine a lot of people in similar circumstances would be. What practices did you cultivate? What allowed you to move into that place of love?

And relatedly, as you talked about your father, there are certain people that are just able to radiate love in the face of radical unfairness. Gandhi and Mandela were such people. Your father was such a person. How do you think that happens?
  • I had the pleasure of meeting Mandela. It's interesting; I don't think we really know. I mean, I have practices and I'll talk about them in a minute. But you know, we have to be a little bit careful and humble at the same time.
  • And it's not to say that we shouldn't do the work that we need to do, the practice that we need. We should have some engagement, agency in our lives. But it would be a mistake to think the agency is complete. We're part of something that's so much bigger than us.
  • I did go through a period, a long period, maybe 20 years, where I really struggled. But I was also given some really incredible gifts: being graced by the family I was in, but also being graced in life. And I can't take full credit for it.
    • Within that, again, I do have a contemplative practice that I've had since the 1960's. I try to, as often as I can, commune with nature. I care about people. I feel that I'm pretty even-keeled....
  • And I always have been radically curious about life, about the world. One of my most precious moments is watching a spider spin a web. And I remember it like it was yesterday. It was probably when I was in college and the spider was spinning a web and I spent probably an hour or two hours just watching. And it's like to me one of the most beautiful things, one of the most powerful things. So the curiosity is not simply about removed things, but immediate things.
  • If you understand the unconscious and the conscious, they're in constant communication with structures and culture. They're constantly communicating, interacting, shaping, and co-creating each other. My practice is about a world where we're both inside and outside.  We are called upon to bridge, to bring these two things together. You bridge partially through engaging in empathetic and compassionate stories, and through practice, and listening.  You engage in each other's suffering.  Eventually you reveal that the internal and the external are not two different things.
  • There's this Zulu word, which is Sawubona, which means "I see you" or "we see you." It's also interpreted as "the Divine in me sees the Divine in you," and as a corollary phrase, which says "I am because you are."  Part of our work is to open that space and to be willing to listen.
  • ...and many more insights from the Q&A!

We've posted the audio recording of the call, and we will also be posting a transcript on that same page. You can learn more about john's work ("our work," as he noted) via a number of pathways, including UC Berkeley's Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society.

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Comments (3)

  • Preeta Bansal wrote ...

    Beautiful Chris! Thanks for the epic capture of a beautiful call!

  • Nipun Mehta wrote ...

    Very thoughtful gleaning of insights, Chris!

  • Elizabeth Pimentel-Gopal wrote ...

    Skillfully narrated by "Chris" - You're amazing. I'm having difficulty describing by what I learned during the awakincall...Yikes