Marginality: In Nationality, Religion, Profession, and Race
1.While reading Can We Truly See the Other, it struck one reader that she is two “others.” Born in America with Mexican heritage, the family then moved to Mexico; and she now lives and moves back and forth between the two cultures. In Mexico, she is seen as American, and in America she is seen as Mexican. Never fully one or the other. Always marginal. At first, marginality feels like a deficit, but is there also a positive side, a unique contribution marginality can make to both cultures?
2. We were doing an “identity” exercise as part of a residential When Cultures Meet Workshop. All participants would be working on their identities, and the staff pressured me to work on my White identity. I resisted. Others would be working on deep emotionally-charged identities – racial, sexual, aging. Whiteness wasn’t that for me. In the end, I did it for the team. And I got into it, although with a headache.
White identity: WE Whites created civilization; WE brought civilization to peoples across the world; WE created great and lasting literature, philosophies, music, scientific breakthroughs; WE created magnificent cities with awe-inspiring architecture; and more… (Please don’t tell me about all the other gifts WE brought – slavery, oppression, genocide, cultural extinction…That wasn’t my mandate.)
What was painful to me was this: I am a first generation American; my parent came to America as children from Russia, poor and speaking no English. As heritage goes, in Russia they were not known as White. They were Yids, kikes, vermin, and such. Definitely, not White. That was my deep emotionally charged identity.
3.Jewish Marginality. One of the many things Hitler had against the Jews was that they weren’t real Germans regardless of how long they lived in the country, the wars they fought on behalf of the country, or the contributions they made to the country. They were internationalists, citizens of the world, therefore either actually or potentially disloyal. He was partly right, but the point he missed was that as “citizens of the world” they were not full citizens anywhere. Wherever they lived, they were marginal.
That got me to wonder: What if marginality itself is an identity? Marginals are part of the culture, yet never fully inside it. Marginality brings to a culture some not always appreciated gifts. Marginals are potentially free of blind loyalty, groupthink, unquestioned patriotism. My country/organization right or wrong is not the Marginal’s motto. We may love and be proud of our country/organization, yet, in our marginality, we are freer of blind attachment and, as a consequence, we are more able to see and accept its faults as well as its virtues.
4. By now, I assume that some of you organizational specialists and consultants are beginning to recognize marginality as significant part of your identity. That is your gift (again not always appreciated) to the systems you serve. You help insiders see what their chauvinism and patriotism keep them from seeing. However, this gift can come in empathy-free packaging.
5. Marginals may see themselves as bearers of truth, as forces not for destroying systems – organizations, countries – but for helping them live up to their full potential. Some insiders may appreciate the gift, while others might see Marginals as disloyal, ever critical, not true patriots or team players, as disruptive forces, and as problems to be eliminated. And, with some accuracy, they may feel that Marginals don’t really understand or appreciate the inside experience. Our organization exercises (Top, Middle, Bottom, Customer interactions) are often humbling experiences for experienced consultants (Marginals) who become Top Executives or Middle Managers in the exercises only to find that what seemed so simple from the margins was considerably more complex on the inside. The humility that comes from living on the inside might well temper the righteousness of one’s evaluations from the margins.
6. And how does marginality relate to otherness- for example, to the Black and Brown experience? Isn’t marginality an additional layer to that experience, one that brings with it the unique marginal perspective – making visible what was invisible, the blatant aggressions and the not-so-obvious yet painful microaggressions that pass for business as usual on the inside. That perspective can make for painful, yet useful, listening. And there is a challenge (questionable, I suppose): Can that painful and useful gift from the margins come with understanding or even empathy for the inside experience?