Sunday, August 17, 2008

Smiling Othering

Othering is "a way of defining and securing one’s own positive identity through the stigmatization of an 'other.'" It is the "[s]implistic recognition of normal human diversity, combined with ethnocentric thinking [that] can lead to a tendency to depict ‘others' somehow, categorically, topologically, intrinsically, DIFFERENT." It is also incredibly common.

Othering is so common, in fact, that people are often unaware that they are doing it, and will even Other you to your face - while smiling at you. I've been thinking about how to best handle this type of 'smiling othering' since reading two excellent posts about this phenomenon.

The first example comes from Female Science Professor, who writes about a conversation she had at a recent overseas conference:
When I was introduced to a senior scientist I had not met before, we talked about scientific topics of mutual interest at first... Then he told me: “I once worked with a Female Scientist.”

...It’s kind of hard to know how to respond to that. He was trying to make friendly conversation, and perhaps he feared that I had preconceptions about him based on stereotypes of male scientists from his country. But what can I say?

- Me too!
- How did that go?
- I’ve worked with a male Scientist.
- Do you think it will rain later today?

The challenge was increased when he added, somewhat randomly “She’s taller than I am.” Now what to say?

- Most people are.
- How did you feel about that?

I decided to avoid a direct response and return to discussing Science, including the work he did with the Female Scientist.
The next is from Carmen at Anti-Racist Parent, who got Othered at a Staples. She was waiting in line to make some photocopies, when the man in front of her turned around and asked if she were Hawaiian:
I say: “No”

And he insists that I look Hawaiian and I shrug my shoulders and say I’m not, at which point he asks the dreaded question that ALL ASIAN AMERICANS HAVE HAD TO ANSWER AND THAT MOST OF US HATE: “Where ARE you from? Which country?”

Me (sighing inside–I mean, I just want to make 5 lousy photocopies): “I’m from the United States of America.”

Him, now a bit flustered: “No, I know that, I mean, where are your parents from…where are your people from?”

Me (not willing to give in): “California”

Him: (now he’s bemused and acting like I’m retarded rather than being frustrated by my obvious deference of his questions): “No, I mean what is your ancestry? Where are your ancestors from?”

To which I tell him that if he’s asking about my ethnic background, it’s China/Chinese.

Him: “Oh! Ni hao?”

Me (now being deliberately obtuse): “Sir, if you are inquiring as to whether I speak Cantonese or Mandarin, I do not.”

Him: (now laughing amiably because he thinks we’re having a jolly little conversation): “Oh, I’ve been to China several times and have picked up a few useful phrases. Have you ever visited China?”

Me: (now just annoyed, I mean, he’s a nice older fellow, but really, I JUST WANT TO MAKE MY PHOTOCOPIES): “No, I’ve never been to China.”

Him: (he’s now VERY SURPRISED and in ADVICE mode): “But you HAVE to go to China. It’s where your people are from!”

And I just shrugged and made my photocopies and he left, finally.

In both examples, the conscious intent wasn't to make anyone uncomfortable - in fact, the speakers were trying to be friendly. The result, however, is to point out - repeatedly - that the male/white is normal and accepted, while anything else is remarkable and calls for an extended explanation.

I'm going to guess that most of our readers have been Othered at various points in their lives, and sometimes by people who seemed to mean no harm. So my question is - how have you been othered, and how did you deal with it? When someone seems good-natured even as they insist that we are different, how should we respond?

(image via Sociological Images)


natalie said...

The f-word has a similar personal story about false kindness - about a woman who gets told she's "fat" by strangers all the time. Sometimes this sort of thing isn't innocent at all - it is veiled aggression, and needs to be called-out.

Casmall said...

The NYT has a piece about the how the Dems need to de-other Obama.

Habladora said...

Hummm... it seems like there is really a very active campaign to Other the whole Obama family. The NYT article Casmall refers to can be read here, I believe.

Lyndsay said...

People love to ask me if I'm part native or part Asian. I really don't know why people care. For some reason many people have an interest in ancestry. I've never understood why people care. If it's important to the person they will tell me at some point.

Susan said...

Weighing in a bit late: Ian Hancock, linguist and Romani scholar, tells about when his eight-year-old daughter came home from school upset because her teacher had, perhaps teasingly, threatened another student with "If you don't behave, I'll sell you to the Gypsies!"

Hancock called the teacher that night and explained that his daughter, who was a "Gypsy", had been distressed by the remark. The teacher apologized profusely ...

and the next morning announced to the whole class, "We have a real Gypsy girl in our class! Melina Hancock is a real little Gypsy!"

Now I have a phrase for this: "smiling othering". After all, the teacher probably didn't think she was doing anything negative or unkind -- by essentially telling the class, "Melina Hancock is different! She is not like us!"