Reflections and a Reblog – “Why Are You So Different?”

Why Are You So Different?
Posted on November 6, 2013
Carol A. Hand

Years ago, I accepted a position at a university as an assistant professor. I did not know at the time that I was only the second Native American faculty member the department of social work had ever hired for a tenure track position. The first left 30 years before I came because of the anti-Native discrimination she experienced, a perception that the state district court affirmed in a decision that awarded damages. The anti-Native bias was still palpable and unrelenting during the 3 years I spent there. Unlike my predecessor, I chose not to pursue legal action. Doing so would have locked me in an angry, ugly battle for years. Instead, I turned to writing, grateful that I could escape from a toxic environment with such unhappy people. The following essay is drawn from the series of stories I wrote about my experiences and reflections during those years.

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Why are you so different?,” my colleague asked. I suspect that, in part, my response to this question contributed to being ostracized and pathologized by faculty who were unable to hear the many ways this question could be asked and the many possible, legitimate, responses.

As I read this neutral question on a written page, there are so many possible meanings. There are so many ways tone of voice, spoken inflections, facial expression, and body language suggest intent. Meaning or intent is also nested within context. The individual histories of the person who asks and the person who is asked frame the meaning, the way the question is interpreted. The history of relationship between the asker and responder matters, as do differences in history and degree of belonging within the system where the question was asked. Power differentials, both in terms of hierarchical status and long-term relationships with the system, matter as well. And equally important is the congruence between how the question is asked and the publicly stated mission of the agency in which it is asked.

As a child, I asked this question many times. As I pondered the amazing diversity of the six-pointed shapes of snowflakes that fell on my dark mittens on a winter day, I asked, “Why are you so different?,” with a sense of wonder and awe. As a child who grew up between two cultures yet not fitting neatly in either, I asked myself, “Why are you so different?,” with a sense of genuine puzzlement. Embracing that sense of difference actually led me to engage in authentic efforts to learn to understand the world from as many diverse perspectives as possible. My favorite children’s story was about the Churkendoose, a little bird that was a mixture of a chicken, turkey, duck, and goose (Ben Ross Berenberg, 1946). “Difference” in this story was simply that – difference. Ultimately, there were no values assigned to being one creature or another, and no interpretations of being superior or inferior as a result of difference.

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As a teenager, the question was more emotion-laden. I wondered why I could not simply be a part of the cliques that reached out to include me, but not others whose difference was more visible and seen as inferior. (Those who were excluded were the most interesting to me.) Difference that meant inclusion or exclusion was based on family socioeconomics, religion, appearance, perceived intelligence (either too much or too little), or being “cool,” whatever that meant. I respected peers who did not seem to care about their exclusion. Instead of joining cliques, I reached out to those who were excluded, not in an attempt to forge an anti-clique, but to understand the position of difference as a somewhat consciously chosen stance of resistance. I admired the courage of those who were willing to carry the responsibility of thinking critically, who were willing to challenge norms and social expectations in visible, creative ways.

As a young person searching for a place to belong, for a role and career that had meaning, difference had new connotations. It was time to believe in the message of the Churkendoose, a time to explore as wide a range of diversity as possible. I spent time in the hills of Appalachia and on Indian reservations, and worked in the inner city of Chicago while I attended an exclusive Catholic women’s college. I survived the streets of Hollywood, and experienced the possibilities and disappointments by being part of a New Age commune. Among my friends, I have counted priests and prostitutes, artists and legislators, people who were poor and rich, blue collar workers and university professors. Difference enriches my life and my understanding of the world. Like the snowflakes on my mitten as a child, it is a source of never-ending wonder and engenders curiosity.

I did not hear this sense of wonder and curiosity in my colleague’s question. It was intoned in a way that sounded more like an indictment. For more than a year, the indictment remained her preferred way of relating to me. It is at least honest to ask, accusatory or not, “Why are you so different?” “Perhaps,” I wondered, “is there a possibility of building deeper understandings across our differing perspectives?” Unfortunately, it was not possible with this colleague or others in positions of power at this particular university.

I was reminded of a passage from Hyemeyohsts Storm’s work, Seven Arrows (1972). If we place people in a circle, facing inward toward a multifaceted object in the center, each will see only one side, and each view will be incomplete. If each person can share their perspective with others in the circle, a fuller picture will be possible for all. Afraid of difference, we will see only what falls within our limited gaze. How can we teach this partial frame as the one truth? Why would one want to insist that this is the only true reality? And why would anyone be willing to believe such a ridiculous assertion? Difference is the rule, not the exception, and a wondrous gift promising the possibility of wider, deeper vision and understanding. The alternative is to live trapped in a small prison, much like the hell Sartre (1976) describes in Huis Clos (No Exit), surrounded only by people with whom we feel no affinity, consigned to a life that has little possibility for exploring the wonder that surrounds us every day.

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Photo Credit: Free Images on Pixabay 

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Works Cited:

Berenberg, B. R. (1946). What am I? New York, NY: Wonder Books.

Sartre,J.-P. (1989). No exit and three other plays. New York, NY: Vintage International.

Storm, H. (1972) Seven arrows. New York, NY: Ballantine Books.

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Copyright Notice: © Carol A. Hand and carolahand, 2013-2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Carol A. Hand and carolahand with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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14 thoughts on “Reflections and a Reblog – “Why Are You So Different?””

  1. Quote: ” If we place people in a circle, facing inward toward a multifaceted object in the center, each will see only one side, and each view will be incomplete. If each person can share their perspective with others in the circle, a fuller picture will be possible for all. Afraid of difference, we will see only what falls within our limited gaze. How can we teach this partial frame as the one truth? Why would one want to insist that this is the only true reality? And why would anyone be willing to believe such a ridiculous assertion?”

    A sociopath sitting in that circle will assert that what he sees is the only truth in the object. He’ll sway those sitting beside him to agree with him and eventually the entire circle will follow suit.

    In this world are the leaders (rulers) and the led (slaves) Minority rule, majority followers, ruled, enslaved. To understand “why” we need to realize that man’s society is primarily dysfunctional. Why that is, is because “ponerologists” rule, control the power. Ponerology is the name given by Polish psychiatrist Andrzej Łobaczewski to an interdisciplinary study of the causes of periods of social injustice. (Wikipedia) I was raised in a racist community, was ostracized and beaten as a child, parents and teachers turning a blind eye, or encouraging the violence. My home was also dystopian, rife with domestic violence. This is how I view human society. What I experienced, contrary to popular belief (denial is the default position of the human mind), is normal. These conditions are global and as social injustice is foisted upon more people, these conditions exacerbate everywhere. Organized sports in “civilized” societies are the politically correct way to inflict violence upon “the other.” These perpetuate the myth that “we” are better than “they are” and if they beat us it’s because we’re being cheated, or we’re allowing ourselves to become weak. So we must increase our desire to fight back, to win at any cost. Since it’s easier to win against the weak, they become the oppressed – re: Syria, Iran and Afghanistan today in relation to the US military and corporate machine. Sports, war, racism, rape, enslavement in sweat shops, child beating, misogyny: it’s all the same mindset driving it. Essentially, within the patriarchy that is screwing this world to death, nothing can change. Humanity needs to take a step in the opposite direction, not as a collective, but as individuals, and teach itself that it’s survival and peace have but one solution: to become compassion itself.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you for your honest, thoughtful comments, Sha’Tara. And to be honest myself, I’m not sure how to respond. I believe I have shared a similar vantage point in terms of abuse and discrimination (https://carolahand.wordpress.com/2016/02/19/living-in-the-space-between-cultures/). It almost killed me more than once (https://carolahand.wordpress.com/2013/10/26/reflections-on-river-teeth/). Fortunately, I was also able to understand the vantage point of others from an empathetic, compassionate lens. I agree that we need to begin with ourselves, but I know there are many things I simply cannot do alone. Fortunately, I know what it’s like to work with a community of people dedicated to creating something liberatory. Although fleeting, those experiences are enough to give me hope. It’s something I am still willing to try despite past failures and disappointments. It’s how I am able to live in the “tragic gap,” balancing both deep sorrow and joy.

      Liked by 3 people

  2. I believe I have read at least a portion of this before, because I remember relating to this question.

    Oh yes, I can relate to the question you were asked here (for a different reason), because I have been asked similar questions since I was a child: by my parents, grandparents, friends and neighbors. Unlike you, however, being the not-deep-thinker, volatile mess that I am, I was almost always deeply offended and angry after being asked one of these questions, and so I responded in anger.

    I never really fit in anywhere, except among musicians. And even with many of the musicians I have known and worked with over the decades, I really never connected with most of them at, what I would consider to be, a deep level.

    When I was younger, this was very troubling to me, and yet I didn’t care much for those who were “cool and in” either. Like you, I preferred those who always seemed to be on the outside looking in, like me (where I wanted to be, and yet resentful of it at points). So by the time I was in my early twenties, I had built up huge, nasty walls to keep people and the pain out. I became angry and volatile almost continually. To make an obnoxiously long and boring story short, I was not a happy camper.

    I am not blowing smoke here, Carol! Your approach to life, in particular, with this kind of an issue, puts me to shame. As I read this, I kept thinking, “How is she capable of processing these things in this sane, mature manner?”

    I just can’t get this done, Carol, nor could I ever! I am a hopeless case! And if my parents, teachers and former wife were here, they would testify that I am, at long last, correct!

    We should all be as “so different” as you, Carol!

    Can I get up off the couch now, Doc?;-)

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Your comments are always a breath of fresh air, Dave. There’s much to be said for uncensored spontaneity – saying what you really think and feel in the moment. These are necessary steps for authentic communication and dialogue. Thinking too much keeps one from merely living, and detachment doesn’t make one seem really “human” or warm and cuddly. But isn’t it a wonderful gift that we can reach across this difference in friendship?

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Absolutely, my friend! Absolutely!

        I can’t help it, it just comes out. To quote a famous, fictitious sailor, “I yam what I yam, and that’s all that I yam!”;-)

        Liked by 1 person

  3. As a woman, I was always sanctioned in the work place for failing to conform to men’s expectations. I suspect this was probably the main reason I ended up in private practice. It must be a somewhat different for people from ethnic minorities – at least this was the experience of most of my friends. Even if they try to conform, pervasive racism means they’re never fully accepted – no matter how hard they try to assimilate.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Great examples, Stuart! Thank you for sharing your experiences and astute observations. “Newcomers” arrive in corporatized settings to find the rules for entry, tenure, and advancement have already been set by committees comprised of people who are not like them. Newcomers, be they women or people of color, are expected to assimilate by abandoning their values about respecting the people they are hired to help, and even their common sense about the most effective ways to intervene. It’s a hefty price to pay that often robs those who assimilate of their self-respect, leaving them lost in the hell Sartre’s work describes so eloquently.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. As always your words touched me deeply. While I found much sadness in this post I also found wisdom, joy and hope. Thanks for sharing this with the world. Now more than ever an appreciation of ‘difference’ is needed.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Oh Carol this is why I love you so much! You get it! You understand so deeply things that so many just can’t seem to grasp in any way. I don’t know that there is any relevance in this, but I found it to be as interesting as your point out that when in a circle we see only one side of what is in the middle. Years ago, I took a sculpting class, and each week the model popped himself up on a table in the middle and we around the circle took our lumps of clay and supposedly created an image of him. The last night the teacher told us to walk slowy around the circle looking at each of the sculptures noting than none of them looked at all like the model. They all look like the ones who created them. And he was right. It was as if without even seeing it in front of us, we are so self-centered internally that we turned our piece of clay into an image of ourselves. Thank you for sharing this. I’m am going to show this to my daughter who is having some many problems with her 14 year old son in the hopes that we can use it to help him see that he’s only seeing his side. Love and hugs, Natalie 🙂 ❤

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for such thoughtful comments, Natalie. I love your description of the sculpting class! It’s such a perfect example of what happens when we only look at life from one comfortable vantage point. I wish you and your daughter all the best as you try to help a teenager make wiser choices. It’s not an easy time of life, especially these days. Sending you love and hugs, too. ❤

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Hi, Carol, My old pappy thinks that differences are what make us all interesting. It is sad that so many people are unable to understand. We certainly can’t learn anything by listening only to ourselves or others exactly like us. Good grief, I just realized, it may even be possible to learn by listening to The Donald!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your lovely comments, Buster, and for making me laugh with your last insight. I send my best wishes to you and ask that you do me a favor. Please convey my best wishes to your old pappy, too. 🙂

      Like

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