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What, really, is our role?

close up of corn crop
Photo by henry perks on Unsplash

Do humans have a natural role on this planet? I recently watched Growing Native: Great Lakes, an American Public Television special about the tribes that live around the Great Lakes, and was fascinated as one of the tribal members talked about the white corn. She explained how the people need the corn, but the corn needs the people too—to separate the kernels and plant them individually. Left to itself, an ear of corn will fall to the ground and all those kernels will sprout in one place. They’ll compete with each other for space and not much corn will survive. Her point was that people have an essential role to play in the natural order of things.

Conquerors or Cultivators?

This idea made me realize that I’ve always perceived humans as “takers”. We extract resources from the natural world to meet our needs and wants. I’ve heard admonishments that we need to be one with nature and take care of the natural world, to conserve and protect it. But I always saw this as paying back what we’ve taken, repairing the damage we’ve caused. I guess I never realized that humans have an important and necessary role in the natural order of things. We are needed.

Watching this program and listening to the people of the Great Lakes describe their ways, I realized—it’s not just a matter of restoring what we’ve destroyed. It’s that we, ourselves, are an integral part of this natural web of life. Without us, the corn doesn’t thrive. Without fire, the oak savanna ceases to produce food. We play an essential role, just like the insects and the foxes.

Somehow, this makes a huge difference. In white culture, we’ve thought of ourselves as separate and superior to nature; the conquerors of nature. We see our role as conquerors. If you take that role from us, we have no place in the system; we are nothing. And so we resist and ignore and continue to destroy. But if we knew that we are needed, that nature needs us… what would that make possible? If I know I’m needed, I am naturally drawn to help: “Of course I’ll be there!”

A Role in the Solution

It feels like this is similar to racism and the backlash against Critical Race Theory. No one wants to be made to feel like a monster. And yet we need to see our society clearly—both the damage done in the past and how that damage continues into the present. If we frame it in terms of white people are inherently bad and have created these systems that benefit them and damage everyone else… of course people will fight back.

But if we see white people as having a role to play in the solution, in building a just society, then it’s much easier to get started. Making people feel bad about themselves immobilizes them or embattles them. But if I know I have an essential role to play in the solution, it draws me forward. Black people can’t do it alone. People of color can’t do it alone. Nature can’t do it alone. We are needed. So let’s get to work!

How To Step Forward

How we go about this work is just as important as what we do. I read an article recently from Meg Bolger who has stopped using “Privilege Walks” as a tool for teaching social justice. A Privilege Walk is a group exercise where everyone stands on a line. Then the facilitator asks a series of questions. If you grew up with both parents you take a step forward. If not, you take a step back. And so forth. By the time the group completes the questions, you see very clearly who has the advantage and who doesn’t. Bolger said it was a powerful experience, but demoralizing. White people feel guilty and people of color have to put their trauma on public display.

Now, contrast that with what the Danes did in their video All That We Share. They called in 100 people and separated them into easily identifiable identity groups. Then they asked the class clowns to come to the front of the room. At least one person from every group stepped forward. The facilitators asked all kinds of questions: quirky, serious and also personal questions. By the end, everyone realized there was more that united them than separated them.

This is what we need to do. We need to find the things we can connect on and get to work building a society where all of us can thrive.

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