At one time, Irish, Italian, and Polish were not considered White in America. Currently, we see some of those of Irish, Italian, and Polish descent who experienced discrimination in the labor and housing market historically oppress others as they have been absorbed into the construct of whiteness. Initially, the colonialist came from England, a Western European area, and as per our history books did so due to religious persecution, they were Protestant. The colonist went on to commit genocide against our indigenous brothers and sisters who looked different than them and steal their land. Creating a sense of “Otherness” has a long history in American society.
Initially, many immigrants to what we now call the Americas were from Western Europe. When those from Eastern Europe, especially those of the Catholic faith, wanted to settle in, they experience hate and were seen as the “other.” America has been great at “othering” people to create a form of positionality in a hierarchy of power. We must remember besides our indigenous population, we are a nation of immigrants, some forced, others came as migrants, looking for opportunities there were not available in their home country.
Otherness has played a powerful role in institutional racist policies and practices such as the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Lawyers, doctors, business owners, framers, etc., were taken from their homes on the west coast of the continent of Africa and brought to America, where they and their descendants were enslaved for generations. One form of otherness that continues to impact life chances is skin color—it’s an easy way to separate people. Our skin color is based on the geography of our ancestors, it’s not biological. While race is a social construct, not biological (real) it continues to be used to justify who should have privilege and who shouldn’t.
The National Origins Act in 1924 established a quota system to limit the number of immigrants entering the United States. It was an effort to reduce the number of these “less-desirable” Italian, Eastern European, or Jewish immigrants. The law deliberately based the new quotas on census data from 1890, more than 20 years earlier, when most immigrants in the U.S. were white Protestants from Northern and Western Europe. We established quotas for certain countries, typically those that are perceived to have people that don’t appear as the dominant Eurocentric group—those with beautiful darker melanin skin.
In 1935 a similar act was implemented against Filipino immigrants, with the Tydings-McDuffie Act. A quota system was established that only allowed 50 Filipino immigrants into the United States per year. The Bracero program (1942) temporarily allowed workers from Mexico, Barbados, the Bahamas, Canada, and Jamaica to work in agriculture. However, they were not eligible for citizenship in the United States. The Civil Rights Act (1965) mandated that the old quota system be replaced. The Immigration and Naturalization Act replaced the quota system with a preference for immigrants who already had family relationships with U.S. Citizens or legal permanent residents.
Currently, in the state of Florida, the Governor, who is of Italian descent, is working hard to dismantle all diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) programs. He has requested and received data from state colleges and universities about how much funding is being spent on diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives—it is less than 1%. He has gotten data on how many employees at the colleges and universities are filling roles that fall under the DEI umbrella.
White, Yellow, and Black are colors. As humans, we are ethnic, such as African American, Asian American or Italian American. Ethnicity sets us apart from others because of national origin and tends to be reserved for those with cultural distinctions such as customs, language, and food. We have seen historically that creating othering as a way to justify inhumane and brutal behavior that has impacted many different ethnicities in the past. I would argue that the one that continues to suffer the most is those of African descent.
While Americans only occupy 5% of the world’s population, we incarcerate 25% of the prison population. We know that 1 in 3 African American men within their lifetime will be under the control of the criminal justice system. The infant mortality rate of African American children is comparable to third-world nations. African American women and our indigenous sisters are more prone to die during childbirth than any other group. Otherness is literally killing us.
As a nation, we must do better. We must do away with the idea of otherness and recognize that we are all human and deserve to be treated with respect. When you know better, we should do better, but that has yet to happen. I am hopeful, but considering what is taking place in our nation, I don’t know that I will live to see when “othering” is not a political thing to do to gain or maintain power.
By Dr. Tammy Hodo
 Hattery, A. & Smith, E. (2007) African American Families. Sage Publications