Othering is Everywhere
We are all paying closer attention these days to the violence and oppression systematically directed toward black people, poor people, all people who are “other” by race, gender, class, sexual orientation, conditions of health or disability. That is as it should be, finally, finally. (And this is not new news; we cycle through paying attention again, over and over and over.)
Excellent resources are increasingly available to educate us right now about what to do, right now. [See links at bottom of this post.]
And…I want to address one of the underlying causes of all of this “othering” and the pain and suffering it causes.
We are evolutionarily, neurobiologically programmed to see and react in fear to “other” far faster than our revered conscious brain can process what just happened. All living beings are have evolved to instantly perceive “us v. them.” Our survival as individuals, and as species, depends on that. Friend or foe? Kin or other?
All the mental training and goodwill in the world won’t overcome that deep biological programming. It has been embedded in our brains for tens of thousands of years, and it’s not going away. And now, as a society, we are facing the inevitable reckoning when “us v. them” has become institutionalized and internalized. Entire categories of “us” as human beings are being labeled, targeted, persecuted as “them.”
We can train ourselves to not instantly react to our reactions. See Shakil Choudhury’s Deep Diversity: Overcoming Us v. Them for explicit strategies in overcoming our implicit biases. Practices in many, many social, educational, psychological, spiritual traditions train us to see, underneath the differences, the universal common humanity that allows us to honor, revere, and celebrate those differences.
But it’s a long, hard road. I recently saw an excellent short video from NICABM by psychologist Thelma Bryant-Davis counseling mental health practitioners about moving from cultural competence to anti-racism. In it she shared her own experience of inviting someone to speak to her multi-cultural psychology class, and that presenter shared with her that, when she came across campus to the classroom in her wheelchair, not one person she met on the way made eye contact with her; everyone looked away from the “otherness” of someone in a wheelchair. She felt invisible and “erased.”
Othering happens all the time. It’s a deeply ingrained part of being human. And we have to work very hard to not act on it ourselves individually, and then to challenge the systems in our society where it has been cemented into erasing others or rendering them invisible.
Ten Things White People Can Do to Work for Racial Justice by Oren Jay Sofer
Anti-Racism Resources by Jack Kornfield
America’s Racial Contract Is Killing Us by Adam Serwer (Atlantic Monthly May 8, 2020)