6.5. “Othering”

“Othering” is the primary force that drives communities apart.

Othering is the primary force that drives communities apart.

We know this. But we don’t usually acknowledge how sneaky it is, how it can take on different forms and slip under our radar.

Of course, we’re all familiar with the flat-out prejudicial, discriminatory, oppressive kind of othering—in which a privileged group makes themselves morally or intellectually superior to some other group.

One thing a lot of people miss about this is that it doesn’t have to be explicitly hostile.

The way men often treat women as helpless and in need of protection, or treat them as sex objects even as they simultaneously genuinely love them and want to have a fulfilling relationship, are examples of this more insidious type of othering.

If you’re in one of these marginalized groups, it makes sense that you’re going to engage in defensive othering as well, in reaction to having those stereotypes continually flung at you.

You can do this in one of two ways.

You can start othering the dominant group that’s demeaning you, by starting to believe that you’re morally superior to them.

But the sneakier and more common type of reaction is to say: “Yes, there are some people in my group who really are that way…but not me.”

This kind of reaction is problematic because you’re partially internalizing the derogatory stereotypes, and so you’re helping to perpetuate them.

And at the same time, you’re othering people in your own group—people with whom you could be standing as one, rejecting those false stereotypes.

But othering isn’t always so cut and dried.

After all, we don’t just imagine ourselves superior to groups. We do it to individuals as well.

And we do it, frankly, because we feel like it’s justified.

After all, if we really are better, then it isn’t an unfair label. It’s just the truth.

But whether it’s true or not, this kind of putting ourselves up on a pedestal can really blind us to the ways we treat people unfairly.

It blinds us, because we take our inherent goodness as a fact. And then we say to ourselves, “I’m a good person. Therefore, I don’t treat people unfairly. I’m not racist or sexist or prejudiced in any other way. So when other people accuse me of behaving that way, they can’t be right. They must be wrong.”

That kind of backward logic is why it’s so hard to get through to prejudiced people. Because they either think they’re right. Or they can’t fathom how a goodhearted, well-intentioned person like themselves could nevertheless end up participating in oppression.

We all have a tendency to think of ourselves as above-average. And that puts all of us at risk of elevating ourselves above others.

It feels like justice. But it’s terribly unjust. It destroys communities.

We can’t build strong communities, unless all of us take a good, hard look at the way we “other” people, and commit to not putting ourselves on a pedestal above others.


This is the 97th in a series of over 150 videos about how to create real, lasting social change. Click here for a list of all titles, videos, and transcripts.

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