What racism and ‘helping others’ have in common, and what we can do about it

Agnes Otzelberger
The Good Jungle
Published in
6 min readSep 14, 2018

Many of us who’ve committed our lives to a social or humanitarian cause will often be adamant that we see all human beings as equal. The uncomfortable truth is none of us really do. Biology and our culture have programmed difference into us. If our constant ‘othering’ is the problem behind so much of the inequality, inertia and conflict we see in our work and organisations, then what can we do to overcome it?

I cannot recall how many times, in conversations on transforming the international aid and development industry, or indeed the wider ‘helping professions’, I’ve heard the phrase that we need to stop othering people. That we need to think of ourselves as part of one humanity so we can work together in solidarity rather than through a condescending relationship of ‘power over’, pity and charity.

And I’ve always found myself profoundly agreeing with that, while at the same time noticing how hardwired this ‘othering’ is in us human beings, and wondering what it takes to change it.

‘The mind is a difference-seeking machine’,

says Mahzarin Banaji, social psychologist and professor for social ethics at Harvard. And this habit is a gift that has helps us navigate the overwhelming complexity of life. This is a sabre-toothed tiger, that’s a harmless herbivore. This is a poisonous weed, that’s an edible one. This a table, that a chair. In evolutionary terms, our othering habit has been critical for our survival.

But in contemporary society, this is somewhat out of date. Human evolution seems to be lagging behind our current environment, which is less defined by predatory mammals than by the social rifts of this century. Through a mixture of nature and nurture, we create labels and biases along the many lines, from ethnicity, sex and gender, or class, to politics, beliefs or professional identities.

The heroic identities we construct in our work for the social good are built on these same mechanisms underlying stereotyping and racism. With similar results. Ram Dass and Paul Gorman call it the ‘helping prison’:

The ‘helper’ and the ‘helped’ become states of mind and ways to behave we get entrapped in. These states of mind alienate us from one another.

That alienation is not solidarity.

So, I wanted to know what would help me move beyond just agreeing with the idea, to actually embodying it.

Since quitting my 9–5 role in the international aid world to try and get a fresh perspective on this ‘industry’, I’ve been working on turning the focus inward. Because, as Vimala Thakar put it,

‘the source of human conflict, social injustice, and exploitation is in the human psyche, [so] we must begin there to transform society.’

The power of ‘Just Like Me’

The practice that’s been most effective in making a dent in my own ‘othering habit’ goes by the name of ‘Just Like Me’ and was first introduced to me by two wise people, Joel and Michelle Levey, who’ve devoted their lives to bringing ancient wisdom traditions to the frantic modern West. A course at the Nalanda Institute for Contemplative Science, this past year, has given me more insights into how Western psychology and neuroscience explain the mechanics behind this and other compassion-based practices.

Just like me, in a brilliantly simple way, challenges my habit of experiencing myself, my thoughts and feelings as something independent and separated from everyone and everything else. And so, gradually, it’s helping me widen the circle of people and beings for whom I have true, caring concern, arising spontaneously: from my nearest and dearest to people who at first seem like they’re from a different planet.

Joel and Michelle developed this version of Just Like Me inspired by the work of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education (CCARE). Its roots go back thousands of years, to Mahayana Buddhism, which aims to strengthen both mind and heart with a view to transforming suffering in the world.

What I love most about this practice is how adaptable it is. Most of us struggle to find the time and discipline to sit in stillness, but with this one, it doesn’t matter whether I’m sitting on a meditation cushion in silence, queuing for a sandwich, traveling by bus or walking down a busy road. You can do it for any amount of time, from a few seconds to hours.

Keen to give it a try?

The script is below. I also teach a programme that helps you deal with ‘othering’ and other, related processes that impede empathy, solidarity and compassion in our work. Or you can join me on 18 September 2018 at Healing Solidarity, a free online conference, where I’ll take you through it step by step.

Register for free to attend Healing Solidarity, 17–21 Sept 2018: www.healingsolidarity.org

There is just one more thing I’d like to leave you with, before introducing you to the script of “Just Like Me":

This practice is not about denying disagreement, violence or injustice. It is critical that we do give ourselves the space and permission to feel the anger, bewilderment, rage or whatever challenging emotions that come up in us if we encounter an 'other' whose behaviours violate our values, or safety. (Tara Brach’s RAIN is a useful practice to have up your sleeve for that.) I say this because practices like the one I introduce here are so often misunderstood as 'pacifiers' intended to make us apathetic towards injustice and suffering (and are indeed often mis-used in that way). This is where grounding the practice in a clear intention comes in: it can help us avoid this trap of wanting to bypass difficulty and escape into some kind of superficial bliss that disconnects us even further from what is happening.

So, here it goes:

Just Like Me (by Joel & Michelle Levey)

This practice can be done in pairs, by two people facing each other, or alone, by bringing to mind a friend, a colleague, a neutral person, or a difficult person. It can be done silently, when meeting someone new. You can use any or all of these phrases, or any that seem appropriate.

The steps

Become aware that there is a person in front of you — in reality, or in your imagination. A fellow human being, just like you.

Now silently repeat these phrases, while looking at them.

This person has a body and a mind, just like me.

This person has feelings, emotions and thoughts, just like me.

This person has in his or her life, experienced physical and emotional pain and
suffering, just like me.

This person has at some point been sad, disappointed, angry, or hurt, just like me.

This person has felt unworthy or inadequate, just like me.

This person worries and is frightened sometimes, just like me.

This person has longed for friendship, just like me.

This person is learning about life, just like me.

This person wants to be caring and kind to others, just like me.

This person wants to be content with what life has given, just like me.

This person wishes to be free from pain and suffering, just like me.

This person wishes to be safe and healthy, just like me.

This person wishes to be happy, just like me.

This person wishes to be loved, just like me.

Now, allow some wishes for well-being to arise:

I wish that this person have the strength, resources, and social support to navigate the difficulties in life with ease.

I wish that this person be free from pain and suffering.

I wish that this person be peaceful and happy.

I wish that this person be loved.

Because this person is a fellow human being, just like me.

After a few moments, thank the person in whatever way feels appropriate.

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