The Practice of "Other"-ing

Updated: Feb 1, 2021

I generally don't like using labels to identify people, and myself in particular, but for the purpose of this writing, I feel that it is necessary to identify myself by characteristics that I was born into. I am a "white", North American (dual citizen of Canada and the USA), late baby boomer, raised Christian, heterosexual man. Since I am writing something about "other"-ing in North America, it is important to note that I am a member of the dominant "us", and as such I have, and continue, to benefit from this status for no other reason than I am one of "us". When I use the word "we", I am speaking of white folks, and in particular, white men who have played a major role in shaping the culture of these two North American nations over the last 400 years.


Simple Truths

Generally though, I think of myself as a simple person. I sense some basic truths to life, and while they seem obvious to me, I look around, read the newspaper, hop on Twitter, or Facebook, and then I feel as though I am incredibly naive, even a little crazy, and definitely not very intelligent. I feel as though I am missing something.


In spite of this, it seems to me that:

  • There is one earth, and it is the source of life, home and habitat for all human beings, and other species.

  • There is one human race, with different skin tones, cultures, and languages, but just one species, one genetic DNA code that identifies us all as human.

  • We are all born IN. We grow inside a woman. We begin life in relationship, initially with the woman who carries us, and all of the people who are in relationship with her.

  • We are social animals. We are designed to live together. This is our starting place.

  • Everything is connected.

This is "us" -- the human race. This is our world reality. One world. One humanity.


"Other"-ing is our norm

All other stories of "race", are made up, social constructs designed to serve the practice of "other"-ing, a widespread underlying acceptance of a design that there is "us", and there are "others".


We use the perception of differences (and race is just one of these differences) as a means of distinguishing who is "us" and who are others, who belongs and who does not; who has access to the benefits of being "us" and who does not. We are raised to be skilled and practiced at "other-ing". We pass the stories and practice on to children, and "other"ing becomes the norm. We learn how to actively bypass the notion of one human race.


We practice honing our skills for quickly distinguishing people as "others". We assign characteristics to "others" that shape how we choose to relate. We choose the story of "others" that we tell. We determine if it is a story of fear for our survival, igniting a need to protect and proceed in aggression, to eliminate, control, and hold dominion over the others; or a story of superiority over others, assigning relative lesser value of the other, acting accordingly to remove, exile, dispose, kill, or use for our advantage as a source of labor, or as vessels to violate for sexual gratification.


Insurrection --a result of othering

This week a gathering of thousands of people, overwhelmingly "white", descended upon the Capital Building in Washington DC. They did so at the urging and direction of the President of the United States of America calling for them to march on the Capital, claiming that he had been violated in an election that had been stolen from him. They proceeded with carrying out an insurrection -- "a violent uprising against an authority or government". The authority that they were violently rising up against was the Constitutional, Article I, Legislative Branch of the Federal Government, gathered in session, to perform the ritual of counting the Electoral College votes and acknowledge the Presidential candidate with the most votes who will become the next President.


The crowd approached the security barriers intended to prevent people from entering the building and disrupting the session of Congress enacting their Constitution defined duties. The front edge of the crowd overpowered the Capital police, broke through the barrier fence, and then violently smashed doors and windows to break into the Capital, bypassing the security checkpoints and enter, with some carrying weapons, explosives, and tools for securing hostages. These violators roamed and entered Congressional offices and gathering spaces throughout the building, before eventually leaving after reinforcements from the National Guard and other policing arrived to secure the building hours after the breach.

The who, the whys, and the hows of this event will be uncovered in the weeks, months, and years to come, but the U.S. Capital is known as "the People's House", and my immediate, albeit simple, observation, is that these people, engaging in insurrection, acted as if "their house" had been invaded, taken over by "others" from within this country. In their minds, "others" were stealing something that was theirs, the Presidency, and the control of "their house" . They came to the Capital prepared to symbolically, practically, and violently take back ownership and control of this country that they believe is theirs, and to do this by any means necessary.


Othering is built in by design

The practice of "other-ing" always leads to violence and death. We have seen this over and over again...in the public lynchings, the police shootings, the beatings, and rapes of black people...the massacres of Jewish people...and the desecration of sacred religious sites...the treatment of immigrants at the border, separating children from parents, and housing them in cages...the sterilization, euthanizing, torture, segregation and institutionalizing of people identified as intellectually disabled or mentally ill...the beatings, rapes, and murders of gay and transgendered people...the State directed genocide, decimation of culture, and murderous attacks on indigenous people...and this is only a beginning recognition of our North American experience.


The commonality of these historical realities, is that "other"-ing is the practice that enables and rationalizes horrific acts to be committed to "others", in the name of "us".


Other-ing is such a very normal aspect of our lives. We are born and raised in it. We are used to it. We expect that there is an "us", and "others" who are "not us". We have structured it in our social designs, and our political and economic systems. We fence it in geographical boundaries. We design education systems based upon it. We apply laws according to it. We use the justice system to confirm it, and determine who gets targeted by the police and who does not, who is convicted of crime, and who goes to jail.


Survival or Extinction?

However, our survival as a species depends up on our capacity to live as if it is just "us", one human race, sharing a home on this planet. We perilously continue to act as if this is not the case.

  • The current pandemic makes us acutely aware that we are all connected. Our local and personal decisions about reducing spread, or not, do not remain local, and have huge devastating impact around the world.

  • How we steward, or misuse, the earth's resources does not simply impact the location where the resources are located, extracted, and used, but it is felt around the world.

  • Nations around the world risk losing democracy with large swaths of their population willing to hand over their authority as citizens to demagogues who personify the practice of othering.

  • Our collective capacity for mass death and annihilation from an ever expanding nuclear arms proliferation threatens extinction. Nuclear arms development is the dangerous direct result of the practice of "other"-ing.

These critical global survival issues could be our wake up call. We could begin by reflecting on the state of othering closer to home, becoming aware of the status of "us" and "others", and how this distinction is embodied where we live, in our neighborhoods, towns and cities, an our nations.


Starting a journey toward "right relationships" between "us"

It is hard to imagine that there can be justice in any nation, let alone across the globe, so long as othering is the foundation for citizens relating. It will be a long journey from our current state of other-ing to living as if it is just "us".


But if we actually embraced and shared the principle of one humanity, one earth, one shared home, just "us", we could begin the work of doing justice, realigning our relationships with each other and the planet, after centuries and millennia of being out of alignment. It will require seeing "us" differently, shifting our view to assume value, gift, contribution, and the beauty of differences.


It is a simple principle, but not easy. There has been generations of pain inflicted, trust broken, inequity with all of its inherited costs -- economic, health, and opportunity. The truth and reconciliation initiatives in South Africa and Canada (as well as more than 30 other countries), are relationship based efforts intended to restore justice, discovering the "right relationship" between "us", making room for acknowledging the harm, while holding the respect necessary to re-create a new basis for relating.


There have always been people who think, act, organize, and create, according to a principle of "just us" as one humanity, sharing this planet as our home. The justus cafe is a place to share stories, experiences, ideas, and art of social change that reflects the work of doing justice, leaning into the healing that can come from living as if it is just "us".

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