Pulse of Philanthropy: We Cannot Allow Lines to Become Walls

by BRET BICOY, President and CEO, Door County Community Foundation 

In his recent Peninsula Pulse article “Where Is the Line? Defining Northern Door,” my friend Myles Dannhausen Jr. asked a wide range of people to draw the line that separates the greater Sturgeon Bay area of central Door County from what we refer to as “Northern Door.” Different people he spoke with defined that line from as far south as the ship canal in Sturgeon Bay to as far north as Baileys Harbor.

My reaction to Dannhausen’s question was quite visceral and very different from most of the others. My answer was, “Who cares?”

I have long worried that we as a society are increasingly looking to create identities for ourselves that divide and separate us from one another rather than searching for ways to unite and come together.

When I shared this with Dannhausen, his response began with the eminently practical.

“For the paper, it matters from a factual standpoint,” he replied. “If we’re going to use the phrase, we (at least internally) have to know what we’re referring to.” That makes perfect sense and is a testament to the journalistic integrity of my friends at the Peninsula Pulse.

Dannhausen then went further, saying that “ultimately, I think it’s OK to recognize the differences – maybe even vital to do so.”

There is great truth in those words as well. We all have a basic human desire to belong to something bigger than ourselves, to know that we are a part of like-minded people. What we belong to helps us to define and shape who we are. For most of us, the first groups that form our identity (outside of our family) are where we come from and our ethnic heritage.

I have been in Door County for 15 years and fully intend to spend the rest of my life here, but I will always be a Hawaii boy at heart. I was born in Aiea, spent summers with my extended family on Molokai and graduated from Iolani School. Where I was born and raised remains central to my identity because the Aloha spirit will always live within me.

This instinct to draw lines and define our identity is even more pronounced if you belong to a group that is disenfranchised from the larger society around you. My father was a Filipino man who experienced enormous prejudice during his life even though he was a highly decorated veteran and genuine hero of World War II and Korea. During the 1950s, Dad was one of the founders of the Filipino Chamber of Commerce so that businesspeople who were being discriminated against could stand together and push back against the prejudice.

Dividing ourselves into groups based on some part of our identity is not only natural, but it can also be necessary if those who have been relegated to the margins of society are to have an opportunity to thrive. Yet when taken too far, our natural inclination to draw lines can also become a destructive force.

Celebrating my identity as a Hawaii boy is entirely different than separating myself from those who are not. When I celebrate that part of my identity, I am connecting to my past and sharing the joy of an important part of me. However, when I use my identity to separate and cut myself off from those who do not belong to my group, I am both creating fertile ground for prejudice to take root and simultaneously losing the opportunity to meet someone different from me who might one day become my friend.

Similarly, disenfranchised groups collectively advocating for equal rights is entirely different from discriminating against those who are not part of the group. My father rightfully brought Filipino businesspeople together in hopes of building a society in which their children wouldn’t need to endure the same discrimination they did. However, were they to have persecuted those who weren’t Filipino, they would have been guilty of the same kind of pernicious prejudice that had been imposed upon them.

Fundamentally, there’s nothing wrong with defining the border of Northern Door. The desire to belong to a group both shapes our identity and is one of the building blocks that makes us human. Yet even if you live in Northern Door, always remember that you equally belong to the community of Door County as a whole. You also live in Wisconsin and therefore belong to the collective people who constitute our United States of America.

We must always be vigilant so that the lines that define us never become insurmountable walls that divide us.

Contact Bret Bicoy at [email protected].