When groups come together, and the people in it start trusting each other and feeling a sense of belonging, the magic of community happens. And yet I have come to realize that there is a dark side to communities: in order to create a sense of belonging, we need boundaries. In order to know who is a member of our group, we have to know who is not in our group and where that dividing line is.
These boundaries are helpful for the people within the group, because they help the group gain a sense of togetherness, a collective identity that’s different from the rest, an in-group feeling.
Yet these boundaries also enable the ugly side of communities: we need an outside in order to define the inside. We need the “other” to feel the “us”. And as a consequence we feel less connected to the out-group. This has been well observed in social psychology and my friend Shira recently reminded me of the “in-group bias”: we treat in-groups better than out-groups. In the words of social psychologist Marilynn Brewer: “Ultimately, many forms of discrimination and bias may develop not because outgroups are hated, but because positive emotions such as admiration, sympathy, and trust are reserved for the ingroup.” I observe that in my work almost daily and I’m constantly surprised by the willingness of in-group community members to treat each other better than the out-group. This shows up, for example, in how generously members share their resources, how much risk they take in their interactions with each other and how willing they are to listen to each other.
The in-group gives us a feeling of safety and stability. Yet ironically, in the bigger picture, excluding others makes us ultimately less safe. Psychologist Susan Krauss Whitbourne put it this way: “The virtual fences we build keep the outsiders away and allow us to go on with our daily lives feeling protected and secure. However, it is precisely these fences that keep us from bonding with our fellow human beings and in this way, undercut our true security.”
This shows up in varied ways in today’s society: our challenges at overcoming systemic racism, the fear and hatred that is stirred up by politicians around migration issues, deeply split political parties, a lack of diversity in organizations across the globe. All of these phenomena feed on the idea that we are one group and that we are distinctly different from “the others”. We are deeply afraid of losing our mental or physical boundaries, because it would mean that we’ll loose our sense of identity, our sense of belonging, our internal cohesion. And who are we then, if the in-group and the out-group merge?
What can we do about it?
As community builders, we are often the ones who help shape boundaries. And I feel we have an obligation to take this issue very seriously and act intentionally. So what are tangible things we can do? Here are some vague ideas as a starting point, I’d be so grateful for any comments and inputs from your side!
1) We need to keep in mind how most of the in-group/out-group distinctions are arbitrary.
Psychologist Susan Krauss Whitbourne recalls the example of sports team fans: it is totally random if you were born in New York or Boston, but depending on that random fact you will strongly feel for one baseball team over the other. And as a result you might think poorly of the other team’s fans. But in the end of the day, these distinctions are made up. Genetically all humans are pretty much the same (99.9% of our DNA is the same). As community builders, we are the ones creating these arbitrary distinctions and we have to learn to be careful and intentional about it.
2) We need to remember how painful it is to feel excluded.
Krauss Whitbourne mentions a story of a classroom experiment by a teacher called Jane Elliot: “In 1968, the day after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Elliot decided to address the problems of racial prejudice by dividing her third grade class into groups on the basis of eye color. As profiled in the PBS Frontline Documentary, “A Class Divided,” Elliot showed how easy it was to turn her 7-year-old pupils into hate mongerers by making the brown-eyed children the targets of discrimination by the “better” blue-eyed children. Within minutes, the blue-eyed children sadistically ridiculed their unfortunate classmates, calling them “stupid” and shunning them in the playground during recess. Then she flipped the situation and showed that the brown-eyed children, when on top, exacted the same punishments onto their blue-eyed classmates.”
This is a powerful exercise. Being excluded from a group feels terrible. Most of us have felt that way. Yet when we are in groups, we quickly tend to forget that. Maybe we as community builders can find ways to build such exercises into our group experiences that remind our members of that pain? At the core it’s all about empathy beyond the boundaries of the group and I’m sure there must be many other ways to strengthen that.
3) Can we design paths for out-group members to be part of our communities?
Are there ways how our community boundaries can become less rigid and more fluid? Can we create formats where we invite and interact with non-group members? My sense is that could end up strengthening and enriching the community.
4) Community builders need training in Racial Equity and Inclusion.
There are well established training programs for Racial Equity and Inclusion, and I feel this should be part of every community builder curriculum.
Very curious what inputs and perspectives you all would have on this! For me there is a big piece here around diversity inclusion within communities that I’m still processing. I’d be grateful for any resources and feedback!