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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Fearing those we see as different from us

Kathleen McQuillan
Posted 11/9/23

An important subject has been on my mind for days. It’s about the innate fears we carry of people we see as “different” from us— strangers, “outsiders”, people who …

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Fearing those we see as different from us


An important subject has been on my mind for days. It’s about the innate fears we carry of people we see as “different” from us— strangers, “outsiders”, people who look, sound, or think in ways we don’t understand, or just don’t like. It could be their color or religion, their last name, what they wear, who they vote for, or who they love. Whatever sets us off, our tendency is to avoid them, to defend our comfort zone. And we find ways to let them know they don’t belong.
I wonder sometimes where our fear, our need for “othering,” comes from. When did attitudes of judgment and exclusion first get planted? What lets them continue to grow until they are so much a part of us that we don’t question why we think and feel the way we do about others or if they make any sense in today’s world?
The long and painful conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is an example of how fear and hatred take seed inside us and continue to grow out of control, leading to unimaginable destruction and suffering. Our own history of entrenched fear, mistrust, and disrespect between people of different ethnic and racial backgrounds seems almost impossible to move beyond. Our lack of understanding and acceptance has gone on for so long and runs so deep that it has become for some, “just who we are.” These are just two examples of how far our fears can take us down the road of shouting down any and all efforts to understand and accept those we label as “different.”
An environment of fear and loathing can develop without our even being aware—infecting our schools, workplaces, and our homes. Our communities suffer because of it. We had a recent experience with this happening right here in our mostly quiet town of Cook.
The local hospital announced a public presentation they were sponsoring on the issues of “diversity, equity and inclusion,” DEI for short. The speaker was Ellie Krug, an accomplished writer, a practicing attorney of thirty years, and a respected educator and trainer in this field. With her professional credentials and personal experience with issues related to discrimination and exclusion, the event sounded like a rare opportunity to learn more on an important topic of the day. And how often do we have a person with her experience available to speak so close to home? Reviews of her work highlighted her sensitivity, ability to field difficult questions and facilitate safe and open dialogue. I looked forward to an interesting evening out with other members of my community.
As it turned out, Krug’s presentation was unexpectedly canceled. Sadly, I heard that she’d received threatening messages prior to her arrival that undermined her sense of security coming to Cook. My hunch is that a minority of our residents held negative assumptions and judgments about her and what would be discussed. They feared the impact her story and insights might have on us. They thwarted a rare and valuable evening together with someone they deemed “different”, a threat to their beliefs or way of life and therefore, took it upon themselves to see that her talk got cancelled. And they succeeded—denying the rest of us the opportunity to engage in an educational event sponsored by our hospital.
With all the strife in the world, I’m always looking for what strategies we can find to help us get along better. The need has never been more important than now with eight billion of us teeming around the planet, trying to function well enough together to get necessary things done. First step in this endeavor might begin with facing our own fears. Especially the deepest ones that shape the way we feel, think, and behave— in essence, the ones that run our lives and may becoming something irrelevant or bordering on irrational. Anytime I’ve looked more closely at my own fears it has most often proven very worthwhile.
Another valuable experience is sitting down with people we normally wouldn’t, maybe because folks we’d never had the opportunity or inclination to get to know, maybe because they seemed too strange, or came from “over there”, or approaching them just felt too scary. I’m recalling a book title from my past, “Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway.” Good advice.
It’s a valuable chance to start to imagine another person’s lived reality. Remember that old saying, “Try walking in another man’s shoes.” It works. The power of imagination can open the door to developing empathy, the ability to identify with another person’s experience and discover the many things we have in common. Surprise! Once we go exploring, we realize that our commonalities far outweigh our differences. We finally have a chance to let go of our fears. We might even make a new friend.
Ellie Krug was offering her time to draw us into some new territory. That was probably at the heart of the great upset over her presentation. She was inviting us to get a glimpse of the world from her vantage point and hear her story including many things she has learned in the course of her life and work. What a missed opportunity!
But we humans make lots of mistakes and for many people it’s the best way to learn something new, and different. I just know that I’ll be really disappointed if we let this happen again— allowing a handful of anxious and fearful people decide the course for the rest of us. I understand now the meaning of “cancel culture” and the harm it can do. I think I just witnessed it.
After this incident, it’s clear. We’ve got some serious work to do to reclaim the image we wish to display in the colorful flags that line our main street, proclaiming Cook as a welcoming place to live, work and play. And live up to it.