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Foreignness & Belonging: Toni Morrison's Guidance on Negotiating Difference

15 min read

"There is little doubt that the voluntary or involuntary displacement of people all over the globe tops the agenda of the state, the boardrooms, the neighborhoods, the streets... Who is the foreigner? is a question that leads us to the perception of an implicit and heightened threat within 'difference.' We see it in the defense of the local against the outsider; personal discomfort with one's own sense of belonging (Am I the foreigner in my own home?); of unwanted intimacy instead of safe distance."

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Toni Morrison (b. February 18, 1931) is one of the most influential and distinguished writers of our time. She received the 1993 Nobel Prize in Literatureas the first black woman to do so—and the 2012 Presidential Medal of Freedom for being a writer “who, characterized by visionary force and poetic import, gives life to an essential aspect of American reality." In her latest work, a stunning and expansive collection of nonfiction essays compiled over the last 40 years titled The Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations (public library), Morrison, always profound and prescient, explores the many threads of how we as human beings negotiate 'difference' individually and collectively and how these negotiations impact the institutions and communities we choose to build.

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A core theme across the first two parts of this collection, titled as "The Foreigner's Home" and "Black Matter(s)," is "our uneasiness with our own feelings of foreignness, our own rapidly fraying sense of belonging." This unease provokes a barrage of questions, many of which we carry with us into our workplaces and our broader conversations about identity, diversity, and inclusion:

"To what do we pay greatest allegiance? Family, language group, culture, country, gender? Religion, race? And if none of these matter, are we urbane, cosmopolitan, or simply lonely? In other words, how do we decide where we belong? What convinces us that we do? Or put another way, what is the matter with foreignness?"

For Morrison, these questions are very personal, grounded in her own identity as a Black woman in America and her "own awareness of being a native of this country and as an alien in it." The Source of Self-Regard tackles the brutal histories and legacies of slavery and genocide in America, and the weight it bears on America's conscience, with such care, pointedness, and nuance that it would be a disservice to summarize it here. However, one of the ways in which Morrison identifies that we can begin to generatively grapple with 'difference' and our own unsettled feelings of 'foreignness' is to explore and understand the "tribes" to which we already might belong:

"I am nevertheless convinced that clarity about who one is and what one's work is, is inextricably bound up with one's place in a tribeof a family, or a nation, or a race, or a sex, or what have you. And the clarity is necessary for the evaluation of the self and it is necessary for any productive intercourse with any other tribe or culture. I am not suggesting a collection of warring cultures, just clear ones, for it is out of the clarity of one's own culture that life within another, near another, in juxtaposition to another is healthily possible."

In her essay titled "Hard, True, and Lasting," a lecture she delivered at the University of Miami in 2005, Morrison traces how this introspective and exploratory process of clarifying one's own tribe leads to an even more important set of questions, namely, 'what am I looking to protect and preserve and why?' For her, these questions center around her personal work to understand her own experiences of Black culture:

"Now in order for me to try even to identify those things [that are worth preservation], I need to know a lot or try to find out a lot about the civilization within the civilization in which I grew up. I mean the black civilization that functioned within the white one. And the questions I must put to it are: What was the hierarchy in my civilization? Who were the arbiters of custom? What were the laws? Who were the outlawsnot the legal outlaws, but the community outlaws? Where did we go for solace and for advice? Who were the betrayers of that culture? Who did we respect and why? What was our morality? What was success? Who survived? And why? And under what circumstances? What is deviant behavior? Not deviant behavior as defined by white people, but what is deviant behavior as defined by black people?"

Morrison underscores that it is incumbent on Black writers and artists, as it is incumbent on artists and members of all 'tribes' in general, to shed light on the cultural values and social structures that represent "the very best of the group sensibilities...the noblest impulses." The following questions apply as much to organizational identities and cultures as they apply to social ones:

"What are the nurturing structures worth keeping in the community? What are the culturgens that provide emotional safety, the customs that allow freedom without excessive risk or certain destruction, that allow courage minus recklessness, generosity without waste, support without domination, and in times of deep, deep trouble (as in some of the black countries abroad) a resource for survival that may very well include sustained and calculated ferocity?"

Answers to the above questions help to create a sense of belonging and grounding in one's identity. But at the same time, Morrison warns us against two forces that perpetuate our tendency towards separateness and Othering rather than alleviate it: (1) our pursuit of power and control over others, which sometimes results in the oppression of people from our own tribes, and (2) our "deplorable inability to project, to become the 'other,' to imagine [them]."

Looking first at the pursuit of power and control, Morrison touches upon the pathways to oppression in a number of ways. Most relevant to organizational life is her insight that the cultures, structures, laws, traditions we create in pursuit of building team, community, home, society, etc. are imbued with the flaws of the systems of control we've run away from almost as much as they are informed by our best, idealistic intentions. America itself was formed in this way, as a 'promised land' where its founders' and early settlers':

"...noble impulses were made into law and appropriated for a national tradition, but so were [their] base ones, learned and elaborated in the rejected and rejecting homeland."

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“Beyond the Myth of Benevolence” (2014) by Titus Kaphar

Relatedly and turning specifically to women, Morrison explores the contradictions embedded in transitions from powerlessness to power, from oppression to freedom, in her essays titled "Cinderella's Stepsisters," a speech delivered at Barnard College’s 1979 graduation, and "Women, Race, and Memory," delivered at Queens College in New York exactly a decade later.

In words that remain as resonant and relevant in 2019 as when she first spoke them nearly 30 years ago, she urges that "pretending that racist elements in male supremacy are secondary to sexism is to avoid the opportunity to eradicate sexism completely" and that "the persistent refusal to confront it not only supports male supremacy, it creates battle lines with forty million women on one side and sixty million on the other." And as an alternative to creating tribal battle lines within feminism, inflicting violence and hurt on other women and beyond in pursuit of individual freedom and power, and falling prey to Othering, she offers the following words of wisdom to live by:

"You are moving in the direction of freedom, and the function of freedom is to free somebody else."

Throughout The Source of Self-Regard, Morrison delineates a distinction between our tendency towards Othering, which artificially eliminates or glosses over differences between people and groups for the benefit of a dominant group or narrative, and 'negotiating difference,' which leverages self-knowledge and imagination to see differences without attaching pre-conceived significance to them:

"One of the major signs of intelligence, after all, is the ability to make distinctions, small distinctions...It would seem, then, that to continue to see any race of people as one single personality is an ignorance so vast, a perception so blunted, an imagination so bleak that no nuance, no subtlety, no difference among them can penetrate."

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Toni Morrison illustrated by Katy Horan from Literary Witches

As a critical key to cultivating belonging while also negotiating difference, Morrison requires us to challenge ourselves and expand our imaginative and empathic capabilities. This idea is most poignantly captured in her Sarah Lawrence commencement address from 1988, full of inclusive leadership lessons still relevant today:

"I want to talk about dreaming. Not the activity of the sleeping brain, but rather the activity of a wakened, alert one. Not idle wishful speculation, but engaged, directed daytime vision. Entrance into another's space, someone else's situation, sphere. Projection, if you like. By dreaming the self permits intimacy with the Other without the risk of being the Other. And this intimacy that comes from pointed imagining should precede our decision-making, our cause-mongering, our action...Imagine, envision what it would be like to know that your comfort, your fun, your safety are not based on the deprivation of another. It's possible. But not if we are committed to outmoded paradigms, to moribund thinking that has not been preceded or dappled by dreaming.


You will be in positions that matter. Positions in which you can decide the nature and quality of other people's lives. Your errors may be irrevocable. So when you enter those places of trust, or power, dream a little before you think, so your thoughts, your solutions, your directions, your choices about who lives and who doesn't, about who flourishes and who doesn't will be worth the very sacred life you have chosen to live."