June 11, 2020

“Othering” is a Powerful Thread in the Fabric of what Makes America.


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Phrases like, “We apologise for being born white” and, “White silence is violence” are unsettling and empty at the least, and self-pitying at the most.

I flinch at these statements, not because I am non-white and non-American. I flinch because I know that sentiment all too well.

I grew up in India, looking different, and have been living in South Africa for over 10 years as a foreigner, still looking different.

As I experienced life, I woke up from the illusion that there is no oppressor, no victimiser, no aggressor. But I also realized there are no oppressed, no victims, no sufferers. We are all both.

But I wasn’t always sympathetic or understanding to this idea. For a long while, I believed in the “Other.”

I was born and bred in northeast India. It is a remote, far-flung region of India with our own unique art and culture, music, food, and crafts. When we relocate to big cities like New Delhi, Mumbai, or Bangalore, looking for employment and a place to stay, we are treated differently.

We are called “chinky” (a derogatory term to describe people of Eastern Asian descent) and sometimes physically and sexually assaulted for the way we look and dress. When we look for accommodation, a place to rent, we are refused on the assumption that we are “savage” because we eat meat, which to most Indians, constitutes eating dogs.

But despite all this, I’ve made a beautiful discovery about our human capacity: Each one of us has the power within ourselves to change the world and how we want to experience it.

To me, rallying cries such as, “We apologise for being born white” and, “White silence is violence” will never equal retribution. They will not deliver justice. They will not right the wrongs. They will not resuscitate the dead.  

Such rhetoric serves as a reaction to the symptoms and not a resolution to the biggest crisis facing humanity today. 

Not climate change, poverty, or a lack of leadership. The biggest crisis facing humanity is a lack of humanity. The global collective has inherited a dehumanised global culture.  

The other day, Melinda Gates tweeted in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder: “I don’t have all the answers about how I can use my voice and my philanthropy to be part of the solution.This isn’t an issue we can just throw money at. And the protests on the streets, expressions of outrage, and sending apologies to the African-American community would only temporarily assuage the effects of racism.    

No one seems to be looking at the cause of racism. People are looking at only where it is easiest to look—at the “Other.” In the social sciences, this is called an observational bias, which is a tendency among people “to see what we expect to see or what we want to see.” 

“We push to find the one simple reason things have gone wrong. We look for the one action, or the one person, that created this mess. As soon as we find someone to blame, we act as if we’ve solved the problem.” ~ Margaret Wheatley

By focusing on the “Other,” we often distract ourselves from the more difficult, but longer-term solution to the real problem. 

It is Stereotyping that Dehumanises.

Othering is the tendency to differentially treat those whom we see as “in our group” versus those whom we see  in “some group other than our own group.” Othering occurs in all kinds of people and societies, and can happen rather easily, sometimes at the drop of a hat.

Barack Obama referred to this as “tribalism;” we can also view it as hostility toward the unfamiliar or unknown, and a pushback against those who are different.

George Floyd was dehumanised. And the police officer who killed George Floyd was deindividuated. 

Deindividuation facilitates dehumanisation. Deindividuation is the perception of seeing a person as a member of a group or community rather than as a person. 

Brené Brown wrote in her book, Braving the Wilderness: Once we see people on ‘the other side’ of a conflict as morally inferior and even dangerous, the conflict starts being framed as good versus evil.” 

In this case, “Black versus White.” And an us versus them mentality emerges. This is how the phenomenon of othering occurs. 

“The sorting we do to ourselves and to one another is, at best, unintentional and reflexive. At worst, it is stereotyping that dehumanizes.” ~ James Baldwin

What’s worse is that John Powell, director of the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society at the University of California, Berkeley, observed that othering is largely driven by politicians and the media, as opposed to personal contact. Most of the time, people don’t even know those they other.

The dehumanization we condemn is in us.

Scholars say that physical differences don’t make a race. What makes race are the laws, policies, shared social meaning, associations, and practices that affect life chances and opportunities based on those differences. Racism is systematically designed for oppression. 

John Powell and Stephen Menendian wrote in “The Problem of Othering that:

“The Jim Crow segregation laws had relegated black Americans to separate and inferior schools, jobs, train cars, restaurants, theatres, public bathrooms, parks, and even water fountains.”

Such types of laws were designed to maintain group-based advantages and to keep resources with the “in-group.” The Jim Crow segregation laws were similar to the aparthied laws in South Africa. The police and criminal law systems in America and South Africa were created to stigmatise and dehumanise “dark skinned” people in order to maintain “in-group” advantages. 

In 1954, a sociologist noted: “Race may be widely dismissed as a biological classification, [but] dark skin is an easily observed and salient trait that has become a marker in American society.” Dark skin is imbued with meanings about “crime, disorder, and violence,” therefore stigmatizing and dehumanising African Americans.  

Such associations and shared social meanings affect the perception of the “Other.” Othering gets established in the thinking and behavioral patterns of the people, and lodged in group culture and the media. Baldwin wrote, “The mass media—television and all the major news agencies—endlessly use that word ‘looter’. On television you always see black hands reaching in, you know. And so the American public concludes that these savages are trying to steal everything from us.”

Protests, marches, and the rhetoric of apologies are attacks on the effects of such a system. They are not attacks on the cause of the system itself. 

Robert Pirsig made a brilliant illustration in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance on how thinking patterns tend to repeat themselves: 

But to tear down a factory or to revolt against a government or to avoid repair of a motorcycle because it is a system is to attack effects rather than causes; and as long as the attack is upon effects only, no change is possible. The true system, the real system, is our present construction of systematic thought itself, rationality itself, and if a factory is torn down but the rationality which produced it is left standing, then that rationality will simply produce another factory. If a revolution destroys a systematic government, but the systematic patterns of thought that produced that government are left intact, then those patterns will repeat themselves in the succeeding government. There’s so much talk about the system. And so little understanding.

During the coronavirus lockdown, media outfit The South African, reported that “Dozens of incidents related to police brutality have been reported in South Africa since lockdown began…and the U.N. is concerned by the heavy-handedness.” Apartheid ended in South Africa 26 years ago, when the apartheid government was removed from power, but the systematic patterns of thought that produced racism in South Africa (or America for that matter) have been left intact. This is why those patterns of oppression repeat themselves.

“We are all still caught up or affected, in one way or another by the residual effects of the apartheid system along with colonial influence. The thought processes and societal structures engineered through apartheid still exist—they are still with us,” Ntsikelelo Mzibomvu claimed in his recently published book Reimagining Myself.

Further, an INSEAD professor, Gianpiero Petriglieri, wrote about the recent riots in America: “The dehumanization we condemn is not just on us—it is in us.” He believes that dehumanisation has been built into the fabric of the leadership industrial complex. If we do not protest the dehumanisation inherited by leadership, we will continue to get more of the same. The patterns of dehumanisation will continue.    

Changing from President Trump to Joe Biden, or someone else, will not illuminate the issue of racism. Attacking Trump is only attacking the effects of racism and not the cause. Trump is only a symptom of a damaged, inhumane system. He is a reflection of a nation in dystopia.  

“The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.” ~ Albert Einstein

It’s Time to Change Direction.

We have to stop casting blame on the “Other” and stop being apologetic about who we are. Instead, as Baldwin had said, we need the courage to stand up and look the world in the face like we have a right to be here. 

We also need the wisdom to understand that nothing ever exists entirely alone. Everything is in relation to everything else. We humans can exist only in relation to one another. There is no one person and no one action that created this mess. 

The dehumanisation we condemn is in all of us. 

There is no black or white out there—there is just us. You and I. George Floyd is in all of us. Derek Chauvin is in all of us—and in the dehumanised system that we are all part of. 

Let us protest what we inherited: the laws, policies, systematic patterns of thought, logic, and shared social meaning that dehumanises the “Other.” Peter Drucker observed that “the greatest danger in times of turbulence is not the turbulence—it is to act with yesterday’s logic.”

Our global culture, business, and leadership have all inherited a subtle dehumanised rationality. And if we do not protest that inheritance, object to yesterday’s logic, and change direction as a humanity, we will end up exactly where we are heading. 


Watch an anti-racism hour with Jane Elliott talking with Waylon Lewis of Elephant, here.

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