Othering is, I believe, a necessary precursor to oppression. “Othering” involves what the sociologist Yiannis Gabriel has described as “casting a group, an individual or an object into the role of the ‘other’ and establishing one’s own identity through opposition to and, frequently, vilification of this Other.” It has two parts: setting one apart from oneself and treating the Other as less than oneself. Once a we/them perspective is taken oppression can readily follow if you have convinced yourself that the Other is less than you and that you are better than the Other.
Othering can take many forms and be applied in many ways. I see the othering process as one of reduction rather than addition. It involves paring down what one perceives. We tighten our focus to highlight the bad in the other. We tighten our focus to ignore the bad in ourselves. That leads to a shrunken and distorted perception all around. Otherers are under the constant threat of noticing worthy qualities in the Other and noticing unworthy qualities in themself. It’s a sword that cuts both ways.
Othering moves us to imagine our highly filtered perception is true and complete – or at least inviolable. That is why, I believe, that anger spikes when our othering is called out. We have sacrificed a lot of humanity on the altar of othering and the pains of that are so very hard to bear – so hard that we drive our sins from our consciousness and put up barriers against perceiving them even when they are in plain sight.
Lately there’s been a lot of attention on policing and how police have been biased in their perceptions of people of color and behaving in oppressive ways. I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately. And I’ve been talking about that, too, for quite a long while. I’ve been really angered by what I have seen, heard, and read. I couldn’t imagine treating people in the ways I’ve seen police treating people who are protesting! You are with me on that, right? So terrible.
I wonder to what degree my attitudes about police are complicated by my own othering. To what degree have I set police (and other poster children for systemic racism) apart from myself? In what ways have I participated in dehumanizing my perceptions of them and whitewashing (pun intended) my image of myself?
I met via Zoom with the Ossining Chief of Police yesterday and had a very helpful conversation. I had dropped by the station on June 15th with the intention of speaking with the community relations officer and learned the department doesn’t have a person who is assigned to that role. The sergeant I spoke with recommended I contact the chief and request a meeting. One phone call later and our appointment was on the calendar.
Though I had never had a direct conversation with him before, I have liked what this chief has brought to the department in the few years since he was appointed: Body worn cameras for each officer, supervisory review of camera data and sharing camera videos with the Civilian Complaint Review Board (the CCRB had been in place since 2000), adoption of the 21st Century Policing recommendations, implicit bias training for the entire department, and just last week codification of the “8 Can’t Wait” recommendations into the departments policy manual.
As a reason for my call I had said I was interested in learning more about the department’s plans for addressing systemic racism. As you might imagine, the chief seemed a bit wary at the beginning of our call. He expressed some unhappiness about the pressures to respond to a wide array of demands and expectations. For many people in the town, the first and only call for just about any issue is to the police whether that be noisy neighbors, traffic issues, or (in my case) help with unwelcome wildlife in my kitchen. And now, they are feeling as if the whole weight of undoing racism has been placed on their shoulders.
Over the course of our conversation, the chief described his love for the town and his connection with the people in it – which inspired his push for the police department to host block parties and kickball games in various parts of the Village. These social events have been opportunities for officers to connect with people in the community outside of responding to complaints, and to just get to know and be comfortable with people. They also provide opportunities for the police to connect people in the community with services such as food pantries and health care and, by involving local businesses, encourage good relations between people who live in the neighborhood and the owners of businesses that sell to them.
The chief described how when the police are called in to intervene they are often seeing people at their worst – which can be hard to get past even years later when encountering the person under different circumstances. He said he thinks people have an overly simplified view of what happens when they call the police. People call, the police arrest the violators and take them to jail and the problem disappears. Out of sight, out of mind. What people don’t get is that those same people will be coming back to the community sooner or later and the arrest and incarceration are not likely to address the issues that prompted the call to the police in the first place.
I was reminded of how we deal with so many aspects of our lives. A friend of mine who worked for a carpenter said his boss had a saying for times when his work was of questionable quality: “it looks fine from my house.” Out of sight, out of mind.
That’s how othering works, too. By ignoring our own shortcomings we avoid the guilt and shame that we would surely feel were we perceiving the whole picture. And focusing on what we see as the shortcomings of others helps us justify behaviors toward others that we would never tolerate if directed at ourselves.
The problems we create but fail to own, the problems we ignore once banished from our perception, are still in existence. Putting them out of sight has not, and will not, bring the repairs that are so sorely needed. Perhaps we can begin a process of “de-othering,” of expanding our perceptions of ourselves and others so that we can experience the commonality of humanity in all of its glory and its limitations. If we do that we can re-own the problems we’ve disowned and find ways to ameliorate the harms associated with them.
I’d like to think that we have passed a tipping point for undoing racism and are at least seeing the problems we’ve created and maintained as ones that require our immediate and sustained action. I’m looking forward to you proving me right about that!