“Nothing disrupts dehumanization more quickly than inviting someone over, looking into their eyes, hearing their voice, and listening.” – Sarah Schulman, American author
There’s a character in one of my favorite movies that is continually rejected by the residents of the small town where she has lived her whole life.
In the movie, the character, Fran, is beautiful and talented. Instead of being satisfied to work as a cashier in a local shop, she dreams of pursuing a career in singing.
She goes out of her way to make everybody feel loved and accepted. Some people in her community feel threatened by her determination, kindness and beauty. And so, they start to “other” her.
It’s interesting to watch the subtle ways they do this. In one scene, Fran walks past a group of people and she overhears someone say the word “her.” It’s clear they are referring to Fran, and the tone of voice leaves no doubt that they are alienating her, making it clear that she is not in their group.
Similarly, in another scene, a group of women agree that they aren’t friends with “certain people.” No one points a finger or mentions a name, but one of them rolls her eyes in Fran’s direction.
When the local pastor verbally attacks Fran within earshot of this group, no one makes an effort to defend her. They “othered” her long enough and often enough to come to regard her as less deserving of respect and dignity than them.
These unpleasant scenes beg the question: why do we other? Why not learn from, or at the very least, accept people like Fran?
Who and Why Do We “Other”?
To understand why we other, we first need to understand what othering is.
It’s easy to think that identifying or noticing differences in others is always othering. But othering involves actively creating division because you can’t accept or tolerate others – it’s creating an “us” versus “them” with the intent of vilifying or marginalizing other people. When you regard others as less than you, it’s easier to turn a blind eye if they face discrimination.
When looking at why we behave this way, it’s convenient to dismiss othering only as a manifestation of fear. And while fear plays a role, othering may also include any of the following:
• A person might engage in othering when they don’t know, or don’t understand, how to handle another person or situation.
• It’s easier to other than to spend time and effort understanding why people do what they do, and why they are who they are.
• We are not born with prejudice. We are taught to trust what is known and familiar to us, and to be suspicious of outsiders.
• People other because they consciously choose not to bridge the gap between them and others.
The Ugly Truth About “Othering”
During last Friday’s #MTtalk, we discussed the ugly truth about othering. An expert in this area, Dr Eve Kedar (@kineretk), joined as our guest contributor. Here are the questions we asked and some of the responses:
Q1. What does “othering” mean to you?
@MarkC_Avgi A form of ostracization based solely upon people’s differences from what a person or group deems acceptable.
@DreaVilleneuve Othering is living in bias and assumption in the presumption of norm. It’s “you’re not like me” without thinking about it.
Q2. Please share an example of othering that you’ve observed or experienced.
@kineretk How we look, how we are abled, the color of our skin, our perceived social, economic class… the foods we choose. All of it, the stained glass windows of our world.
@BrainBlenderTec I used to see both sides as I never was a conformist so I was excluded AND embraced for having fringe ideas, but now times are changing and generations are embracing diversity.
Q3. How does othering harm individuals and organizations?
@lg217 It harms individuals because it makes that person feel that they are not worth anything, which could lead to depression. It harms companies because it could lead to a bad reputation and no one would be part of a company who others anyone.
@yehiadief To feel you’re not part of the group kills society.
Q4. What causes othering?
@ZalkaB Entitlement, culture and personal bias, generalized beliefs, community-based patterns of being superior because of fear, instability (lack of money, funds, being able to secure your own future).
@itstamaragt Media plays a huge role in it, but it comes down to how an individual perceives those who aren’t like them. A lack of education on the differences of others contributes to othering significantly.
Q5. Why is othering so hard to stop doing?
@33ang33lcuddles I guess some people’s identity is based on validation from the group. They are scared to stick up for whoever it is that’s being othered in case they get othered themselves.
@farismismar Mostly media, then peers, and last a negative past experience with a few, which leads to a generalization used towards the othering of the whole people.
Q6. How do we turn othering on ourselves? (Question submitted by Dr Eve Kedar)
@kineretk Sometimes when we are marginalized by society/religion, we can agree with it and not value ourselves sufficiently.
@JusChas We give in to the misconceptions that others place on us. It happens so frequently that we believe the labels.
Q7. What can we do to prevent othering ourselves in this way? (Question submitted by Dr Eve Kedar)
@harrisonia We can stop “othering” ourselves by first acknowledging that society’s norms are not the ONLY way, kind, or type. We can embrace what’s unique about ourselves and stop trying to live up to the narrow-minded focus of the broader society.
@sharo_shak Self-love and self-acceptance – these are the keys to a way of being that leaves no room for othering yourself.
@APhotoStudios AWARENESS and then when you do it – STOP. Practice makes perfect.
Q8. What are the benefits and challenges of working with people who are different from ourselves? (Question submitted by Dr Eve Kedar)
@DrRossEspinoza The benefits are growth, wisdom. The challenges are that it can be uncomfortable, painful.
@MicheleDD_MT Challenges – truly understand our privilege as a member of the favored or dominant group. This is difficult for many people. Also, identifying and challenging our biases is tough. It takes courage to admit that “my beliefs are wrong.”
Q9. What can leaders and managers do to address othering in the workplace?
@LadderHR Hire a diverse workforce that is representative of the community you work in. Promote employees with diverse backgrounds that are representative of your workforce. Train employees. Establish a zero-tolerance culture towards othering. Encourage teamwork.
@GenePetrovLMC As with most things, the leaders need to be the standard bearers and the teachers. If they allow “othering” to occur, then it will. They have to be cognizant of it and take the time and energy to address it. Also, invite guest speakers in to talk about this idea.
Q10. How do you embrace otherness? (Question submitted by Dr Eve Kedar)
@SayItForwardNow I commit to seeing the light in everyone, and to recognizing that we are all connected.
@Yolande_MT Accept people as they are – not with the expectation of who they should be, or who you want them to be.
@Midgie_MT Embrace otherness with curiosity, questioning and a willingness to learn from others.
To read all the tweets, have a look at the Wakelet collection of this chat.
One of the consequences of othering is a lack of empathy. Empathy is a hot topic nowadays, but we still don’t always get it right. It might be because we don’t understand the definition of empathy, or we’re not sensitive to a situation or context.
Next time on #MTtalk, we’d like to know how you understand the word “empathy.” Please let us know via a vote in our Twitter poll.
In the meantime, here are some resources relating to the topic we discussed:
Boosting Your Self-Esteem
Bad Behavior at Work
Egos at Work
Avoiding Unconscious Bias at Work
Religious Observance in the Workplace
Managing Mutual Acceptance in Your Team
Managing Arrogant People
Working With People You Don’t Like