Us and Them, Within and Without …

All good people agree,
And all good people say,
All nice people, like Us, are We
And everyone else is They.

                                                                                      Rudyard Kipling, “A Friend of the Family”

The pervasive belief in “us and them” is killing us. In every possible way—from slow, subtle and not-so-subtle, psycho-spiritual death to actual, targeted violence. The sad truth is, though, this is nothing new.

Throughout history, our evolved human survival-imperative ability to discriminate—to distinguish between things and categorize friend or foe, healthy berries or poison, novel event or dangerous situation—has served equally to divide us as persons, groups, and nations, and to perpetuate a fearfulness of difference that seeks to other the different, colonize them, exploit them where possible, and erase them. Nothing new.
Yet, now, there are more and more of us humans, more and more complicated social structures. The definitions of who constitutes “us” and “them” have become more narrow. Socio-culturally, we have become increasingly confused about the features of likeness and sameness, thus experiencing a profound forgetting of, at least, two important realities of our existence: that likeness has never meant sameness, and, that difference is the fundamental underpinning and essential strength of the natural world. Colonialism and capitalism are built on and prosper from the exploitation and manipulation of difference. From gender to race, caste to ability, age and, even, education, difference maintains and legitimizes the powerful.

The element of difference is the source metal out of which an amalgamation of beliefs, codes, norms, and social systems are smithed in power-preserving fires that benefit the dominating few and disinherit the many. Snuffing out the forge of pathological sameness is about changing the beliefs, codes, unexamined assumptions, and norms that fuel the fire itself. The work of justice-making is about creating a groundswell of conscious awareness of, then changing, the underlying belief systems and social codes that make up the forge on which our lives, and our very bodies, are hammered and shaped. This is more crucial now than ever.

Or, as David Berreby observes, his book, Us and Them: “Today it is clear as never before that human kinds—those categories we use to explain human acts on every scale, from a morning walk (“Why were those men wearing turbans?”) to all of history (“Is war inevitable?”)—don’t depend on what people are, but on what people believe.

We, as trans/gender-expansive and queer folks, know a little something about the ways an intricate web culturally transmitted assumptions, beliefs, and codes become the manipulated means of “othering,” divisiveness, intentional disenfranchisement and oppression. We know because, in order to survive, we have had to intentionally dismantle all that culturally transmitted, assimilated nonsense about what it is to be a person, how persons come into being, and how we all discern who we are. We know.

Yet, in important ways—ways that, ultimately, harm us all—we forget this. And, as humans throughout time have done, when we forget the deeper truths of our condition, we recapitulate them—on others and, worse, on ourselves. We as trans/gender-variant folks know in intimate ways that people come into the world as persons and that it is culture that defines, codifies, and rewards or vilifies persons based on pre-existing, constructed beliefs about normalcy or deviance, superiority or inferiority, etc. We know these arbitrary norms reflect, always, the dominant group. As Ta-Nehisi Coates points out so powerfully (Between the World and Me): “race is the child of racism, not the father.”

This is true on all levels of intersectional oppression. The constructs of gender and sex are the fraternal twins of androcentrism and sexism—an insidious coupling of fragility and fear of impotence and irrelevance. The gender binary and homosexuality are the children of androcentrism sneaking around with a misunderstood, but no less enticing, mythic hetero-human, all painted and primped, strutting seductively, adorned with flashy bobbles and shiny beads. The myth of an Arian race is the child of anti-Semitism. The idea of “whiteness” and all its assumptions are the offspring of racism. The lineage goes on.

Yet, we forget. It’s not all that surprising, really. Humans are prone to forgetting if we’re not attentive to remembering. It’s as natural as our good-berry-bad-berry discriminating faculties. These instincts assured our survival.

But, honestly, I am wearied of watching our collective forgetting cannibalize us from within. Lately, I am concerned by a pervasive lack of awareness in our practice of change-seeking, that people, writ large, are not the problem: we—us, people—are in fact the answer to the dehumanizing, discriminatory systems we have all inherited through cultural transmission. We are all the recipients of culture. The targets of our efforts for change are the particular, and collective, ideologies of difference and normativity—the contrived beliefs regarding human nature, normalcy and deviance—intentionally preserved, curated, and manipulated to serve and benefit the powerful. The hindrance of a just and compassionate society is not the people, themselves, and who they are; it is what they believe.

Yes, it is true that some people are the problem because they are people who preserve certain oppressive ideas, curate them, and manipulate them for their own self-serving agendas.

This is certainly true of gender and race. But cis-gender people are not the problem; systemic misogyny, institutionalized sexism and transphobia are the problems. White people, in total, are not the problem; enculturated, systematized “white-ness” is the problem. These ideologies were, indeed, crafted and institutionalized by some affluent, self-serving, power-obsessed men whose light skin would be denoted “white” and whose bodies were iconicized as the superior human form, ordained by God (who is presumed “male”)—these, the false ideals heralded as all that is good, and right, and intelligent and “naturally” better. We know this.

But, in all our oppression(s), our half-healing pain, and our fatigue, we forget.
We forget that these are the very iconic beliefs we, ourselves, had to examine, interrogate, and reframe for the sake of our own survival, authenticity, and integrity precisely because we, too, were born into these frameworks and assimilated them—more, we must continue the ongoing process of social analysis proceeding, first, from personal examination of the layers of conditioning at work within us. For the truth is, there is reciprocity of affect and effect: what has been transmitted to others has been, also, transmitted to us with similar results, internally and externally. When we forget this, we are doomed to recapitulate the systems and practices that oppress us. More, when we forget, we stymie our own efforts.

This is so because the creation of a truly just and compassionate society relies on transforming the people—collectively, and writ large—enticing, encouraging, and inspiring ourselves and others to awaken the just, compassionate, egalitarian core within and live that into the world we inhabit. In such a world, the relative minority that feeds itself on separatism, greed, and facilitation of intolerance and hate will have no foothold. They will crumble under the weight of their own inhumanity and their mythological false ideals will fall into the recesses of antiquity. The creation of the just society we seek begins with us—within ourselves—and it moves out from there in ever-widening, increasingly influential spirals of relationality. We cannot cry we are hated if we, too, act in hate. We cannot call out oppression if we, too, oppress one another from within. We cannot protest exclusion if we, also, exclude.

It is a simplistic socio-political and cultural framework that oppresses us as trans and queer people. We cannot dismantle that framework with an equally simplistic analysis. More, we cannot achieve the justice we seek by making use of the systems, processes, and practices of our oppressors.
I long for healing of the breaches in our own communities, but also for a meaningful process by which we lead by example, envision and model this new thing we wish, work, and hope for achieving. And, I long for partners and allies in the work of vision-crafting ways to practice the thing we dream of, so that we all can be, collectively, a part of making a just, values-based, compassionate society a lived reality. I likely have more questions and curiosities around how to do this than I have answers. But I am willing and increasingly eager to be in community with others trying to figure it out and work together.


About liammichael

I am a gender theorist, theological activist, writer, trans activist-advocate, and educator. I also work directly with trans and LGBTQ persons through workshops, support activities, and community-building. My work is informed and shaped by a deep concern for addressing the intersecting layers of disenfranchisement and oppression which stymie our efforts to create a just and meaningful common good. I work with, consult with, educate, train public sector groups, secular groups, and faith groups seeking to be affirming, accommodating, and celebratory of trans/non-binary and gender non-conforming persons. This space is a small part of the work.
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