Earlier this year, Dr. J. Derek McNeil, President and Provost, visited the on-campus classroom of Social & Cultural Diversities, CSL 509, to engage in discussion with Dr. Paul Hoard and students on two articles published in The Other Journal this spring. Dr. Hoard authored “Beyond Fragility: Interpassive White Rage” and, by invitation from Dr. Hoard, Dr. McNeil responded with “White Rage: In Discourse with Paul Hoard.” The Social & Cultural Diversities course provides a framework for Master of Arts in Counseling Psychology (MACP) students as they think about the effects of power and privilege using theories and models of multicultural counseling, cultural identity development, and social justice. Here is a brief excerpt of the classroom conversation between Dr. McNeil and Dr. Hoard where they explore imagination and curiosity for community and belonging in this time of rebuilding. For more of this dialogue between Dr. Hoard and Dr. McNeil, read Issue 35 of The Other Journal

Paul Hoard: Thank you so much for what you’re bringing. In this conversation, you’ve put out these three: orientation, belonging, and caste. You blended them together but you also differentiate. So can you orient me to how you’re using those words?

Derek McNeil: I think there are different ways to belong. So, for instance, after 20 years in Chicago, I think the Chicago Bears belong to me. I have no relationship with them whatsoever, but when they lose, I feel it. That’s a sense of belonging. My daughter thinks of me as her father. There’s a mutual interactive quality, a sense that we are linked for life. There’s a sense of our attachment, and that’s a different type of belonging. So I actually think we’re talking about different belongings. There are institutions, and you may belong in a certain way, but you have some sense of the boundaries of that. So a sense of belonging is so subjective and it’s shaped by anything you feel you can identify with. That’s why it’s a fuzzy concept and it needs some differentiation. When I talk about orientation, that is a choice to think or frame things in a certain way, or sometimes unconsciously I frame things in a certain way.

We are very much engaged globally, and our frames are still regional or local. And so we’re having to figure out what’s the frame that we work out of now that we’re in a global space where people are not one identity anymore. How do we engage with folk who hold 15 different identities in an intersectional sense? I think those are the complexities of the society we’re living in. Some part of each person in this room, I’m not going to understand. And how do we in that posture, in some ways, remain curious as opposed to threatened? And I think that’s the heart of your piece: it’s hard to remain curious when you feel threatened. 

We’re one of the most hyper-individualized nations culturally in the world now. I’m an individual self. We’ve made that a supremacy. Most of the globe is not as hyper-individualized as we are. And so our crisis right now culturally of isolation and loneliness is because we’ve so highly valued our separateness, not our communion. You all will face a crisis of working with people who feel isolated and depressed. We talk about depths of despair, and that’s all because we have highly valued hyper-individualism. That’s part of the dilemma for me. Western psychology says, “Go inside and know who you are,” as opposed to “You are because we are.” As long as we’re hostile and don’t trust our institutions, it’s harder to have an identity based on roles.

Paul Hoard: You’ve mentioned we have all these institutions that have been so problematic and there’s a lack of trust. And I think one way to hear it at face value would be: “Oh, it feels good to me when I hear you say we should trust institutions. People like me built those institutions and people like me have attempted to reform those institutions and have given them new names but have done the same thing as we made changes.” So what’s the hope in one sense that it won’t be just a rebranding of these same? Even then our own social locativeness might require a different ask of us in what it means to rebuild.

Derek McNeil: I’ll say it this way– I can’t let you build it without me. And some of this is again about power and finances, but I think the solution won’t come simply from white folk building a new institution. It will come from us together saying, “What are the institutions we need? We’re going to build together.” So you no longer can build the institutions of the future without engaging people. And that means you’ll have to get over the guilt and shame to actually see yourselves connected and linked to build something new. I don’t want anybody building something on my behalf anymore: I’m not sure if I’ll visit because you haven’t really thought about what I might need and how I might expand you. We need to have an expanded conversation– that even I need–to help pull you out of your guilt and shame of 400 years. If I’m simply waiting for you to rebuild something better, which can be the white progressive posture, you’re trying to do something the same way your grandparents did. You actually need to engage people.

You will have to listen and learn the important questions of any person sitting in front of you and particularly people of color and of gender difference. You’re going to have to sit and learn, which means you have to relinquish some power in the space for communion. And that’s not what I was ever taught. I was taught to maintain a certain clinical boundary and to maintain my big black chair in a corner and you sat on the couch. And I think we’re going to have to relinquish some of this sitting in the big black chair and sit on the couch together and say, “I actually need you to learn some things from you.” That’s a different way of engaging in the sort of clinical exercise.

Paul Hoard: You talk about white folks jumping in and saying “Let’s build it better,” but that still holds onto this myth that we can do it right, that we can fix it, that we have the way to do it. And again, that’s the myth of exceptionalism.

Derek McNeil: So I think we have to have an imagination with each other about how I interact with you socially in a different way that you don’t find me a threat and I don’t find you a threat. What’s that communal space look like where we’re not threatening to each other? It will have to move past power dynamics to talk about communion, but you have to begin with power dynamics or you’ll never get to communion. It won’t be safe enough to get to communion without dealing with power dynamics.

Paul Hoard: Yes, this class has used power as a primary lens. And I love that we can’t stop there, that it’s not just about identifying all of the power dynamics, and then that’s going to solve it. But what is it that we’re moving towards? Communion and then building trust with each other.

Derek McNeil: Martin Luther King said the beloved community is this notion you have to have something after the fight, after this struggle. You have to have some imagination for something beyond. And the question is, can we cultivate an imagination for what it looks like? And right now it is still hard to cultivate an imagination for what it looks like. But how do we pursue an imagination for a beloved community? I’ll just use that language. He [MLK] wasn’t the first to coin that. And how do we actually have an imagination beyond the power dynamics? Because otherwise we’ll be stuck in trying to identify your power moves, which is great in terms of critical theory analysis, but not great in terms of building community. You’re going to fail. I’m going to fail. So the question is: How do we actually recognize that failures are going to happen? And if community is the longer-term thing, I’m going to have to tolerate some of your failures and you’re going to have to tolerate some of my anger about it and vice versa. So I’m really pushing us to raise a question about our belonging in a much deeper sort of way that aims at why faith becomes important. This [faith] offers me a framework beyond the present conflict that we’re in, beyond the present failure we’re going to have with each other, beyond the struggle. I need a framework that allows me to work towards something that most frameworks limit me to working towards. But somehow we’re going to find safe enough spaces to interact with each other if we’re going to heal from some of the brokenness of our institutions.