Prerequisites for Empathy: the RuPaul Rule

I spent the morning with this excellent blog post from Marian Dingle, a math teacher, national conference speaker, and leader out of Atlanta, courtesy of my morning tumble down the education-Twitter rabbit hole. Dingle’s point is straightforward and profound: if you want people to feel as though they belong, don’t treat them like guests. She, much more eloquently than I usually do, illustrates the fundamental difference between inclusion and belonging. To be included is to be invited in. When you belong, you don’t need an invitation.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about why institutions, and especially school communities, struggle to move from pursuit of inclusion to policies and practices of belonging, from inviting everyone in to actually giving everyone a voice and a stake. There are, of course, schools where the barrier is simply racism, whether overt or implicit – we can’t pretend that there aren’t people out there who believe that those different from them do not and should not belong in their spaces. But I would contend that much more commonly, the barrier to belonging is a much more psychologically fascinating one: insecurity and all the fear, flailing, and freak outs that come with it. More often than not, I see communities resisting policies and practices (and even conversations) that could foster true belonging because secure members of those communities – that is, those who already feel a sense of belonging – are afraid that they will either a) offend someone or b) lose their own sense of belonging by their efforts.

The thing is, belonging is not a zero-sum game. No one else’s belonging can take yours away. Moreover, we know that diverse communities are more adaptive and resilient in the face of challenge and less likely to fall prey to constraining norms or the vagaries of peer pressure. When more people belong, we’re all able to belong better.

Whence, then, the fear? Why do communities – especially ones, like the majority of schools, that pride themselves on the strength of their communal bonds – resist the move from inclusion to fostering belonging? Let’s return to Marian Dingle’s analogy. When we work from a paradigm of inclusion, inviting guests in to the communal home, we might feel good about inviting folks in (think of the feeling of satisfaction that comes after a successful dinner party) but it’s real easy to find excuses not to open the doors. Maybe we haven’t cleaned house in a while. Maybe we’re worried that the fridge isn’t stocked with the right food. Maybe there are a few loose wires hanging about from a recent renovation. When we think about creating a space in which everyone belongs, these worries dissipate. Everyone has a stake and everyone gets a voice. There are still individual responsibilities, as well as an institutional obligation to create a space that is safe and accessible to every member of the community: everyone’s got to pick up their room and the administrators of the space have to make sure hazards are mitigated. But everyone gets to add to the grocery list tacked to the fridge, naming their own needs, wants, and dreams.

When we operate from a position of anticipatory shame – what if I let someone in and they make me feel bad about my stuff? – we inevitably shut down and shut others out. We undermine the strength of our own belonging, making it brittle. When we operate from a position of inquiry and curiosity – I wonder who else is into what I am? What cool, exciting things might I not yet know about? – we build the foundations for new bridges of connection, the basis for resilient belonging.

All of this is predicated on self-efficacy. If we don’t have a baseline confidence in ourselves, if our resting state is one of shame, fear, or insecurity, if we can’t allow ourselves to be vulnerable, to be seen, then there’s no way we’re ready to let others in, to give or receive empathy, or to belong in community with others (which is, of course, the only kind of belonging there really is).

As with Dingle’s metaphor, there are many before me who’ve said it better. So, to put it much more simply and to quote an icon:

Amen, Ru.