The antidote for othering

I grew up in what is Ecuador’s privileged majority: the mestizos, the result of Spanish colonizers mixing with the Indigenous population.

Mestizos were the group that achieved independence from Spain in 1822 and has remained the largest ethnic group in my country (over 70% of the population). We have most of the money and power in the land, and historically, we have been the oppressors of the marginalized (Black and Indigenous folks).

In Ecuador, we are the equivalent of the USA’s “white racial majority,” metaphorically speaking.   

In addition to my ethnic background, I also grew up in economic privilege. I went to a private school, lived in the “good side of town,” and had an involved, educated parent who supervised my life and advocated for my needs.

I know what it’s like to not have your ethnicity or your financial and educational situations be barriers to opportunities.

Then I moved to the USA when I was sixteen and, suddenly, none of that mattered.

All that mattered was that my appearance, the color of my skin, and my accent put me in a particular category: third-world country immigrant.

And that is not a good category here.

In the thirty years I’ve been in this country I have experienced enough moments of prejudice and outright racism to fill a book.

And while these moments no longer surprise me, they do still catch me unprepared to respond quickly.

But when I first arrived, when these situations first happened to me, I was truly bewildered.

Why would the white assistant principal call me into his office within minutes of arriving at my new school as a junior to let me know he would be watching me? He didn’t even know my name. He didn’t know that I had never been in trouble in school in my life.

Why would the security guard follow me around a JC Penny when I was just window shopping and having fun at the mall as teenagers do? He didn’t know I have never stolen a thing in my life and that honesty and integrity are major values to me.

It was baffling and painful to experience “othering” for the first time in my life.

John A. Powell, director of the Othering and Belonging Institute at UC Berkeley defines othering as “a process where we deny someone full humanity. We deny that someone is equal to us and worthy of equal regard and respect.”

Othering is often the response to fear and lack of information. And both of those come out of a lack of exposure. If we only know about a group of people through media, through isolated experiences, or through the opinions of politicians, we form a reduced understanding of the members of this group.

This reduced understanding can lead us to form the “conscious or unconscious assumption that a certain identified group poses a threat to the favored group” (Powell). And that assumption can breed anxiety, which can breed hate. Historically, othering has been the strategy used to rationalize atrocities like slavery and Jim Crow, the extermination of Indigenous tribes, the Holocaust, and many others.

Humans are biologically wired to create categories and we are trained by society on what those categories are and who belongs to them, which creates in us unconscious biases. These biases affect the way we react to those who belong to those categories.

That vice principal, that mall security guard, and all the people who’ve dismissed me as dangerous, uneducated, poor, and many other things that I’m not, didn’t know me. They knew the idea of me and reacted accordingly.

That’s the essence of othering.

And the antidote is relationship.

It is much more difficult to dehumanize someone whose name and story you know. Powell encourages “bridging” or “reaching across to other groups and towards our inherent, shared humanity and connection, while recognizing that we have differences.”

It means making a conscious effort to get to know the very people we see as a threat to our way of life. It means listening to their stories and values, even if we don’t agree. It means not trusting external sources to tell us what to think and how to respond.

It is not easy, and it doesn’t come naturally to us, because sticking to “our own” is safer. But it is necessary.

And for us, Christians, it means taking a hard look around our faith communities to see whom we have excluded, and who is missing. Whose humanity have we dismissed as less deserving of our regard, and worse, of God’s love?

The relational Jesus was the embodiment of inclusion as he touched the unclean, embraced the spurned, and communed with those in the margins. As his followers, it is our charge to lead the way in the “un-othering” of America.

By Gabriela Buitrón

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