Embracing Diversity is the Cure to "Othering"

  • Published
  • By Dawn Altmaier
  • 92nd Air Refueling Wing Diversity Champion
If you are anything like me, you were scratching your head when you read the word "othering." I searched Dictionary.com and found no results. I went to Google, and there were over 3 million results. The most common entries were under philosophy, history and imperialism. The French philosopher Michael Foucault defined it in the most understandable way for me: "Othering is strongly connected with power and knowledge. When we 'other' another group, we point out their perceived weakness to make ourselves look stronger or better."

In other words, it is when we classify others as 'not like me.' Othering is a stepping stone to racism, classism, sexism, and all other forms of discrimination. We tend to "other" when we don't understand why a person's values, beliefs, behaviors or actions differ from our own.

Unfortunately, othering is so sneaky, that many of us don't realize we are even doing it. Even I catch myself othering my family, friends, co-workers, and peers. I other when I believe my way is the only correct way to load a dish washer, when I demand the toilet paper go over the roll, or when I say to someone, "You just wouldn't understand?"

Am I the only one who is guilty of othering? This is a rhetorical question of course, because in my day-to-day interactions with people, I hear them do it too.

I have been on the receiving end of othering. A few years ago, I went to a new unit and was labeled a "non-er". That label was short for, "You are not like us. You certainly do not do the same job as us. You could never understand us or our plight."

Had I let the "non-er" label dictate my response, I could have allowed the chasm of differences grow and expand. Instead, I took the opportunity to find out about the culture of my new surroundings and embraced the differences as a way for me to grow. It took some time to show that although I came from a different background with different experiences, I cared about them and their concerns and I was also fully capable of understanding their situation. What started as a seemingly huge gap became nothing more than a learning opportunity.

As I was writing this article, I heard someone othering outside my office door say, "In MY unit, we don't stop servicing the customer at 1500."

Yet again, someone was pointing out differences between themselves and another in a negative light--without evidence to support the negative view point. What he didn't consider is that to improve customer service, some functions shut the doors to non-emergency customers so they can complete the "behind the scenes" work they can't do at the customer service counter. It is too easy to widen the gap when we allow our own values, thoughts and beliefs mandate that everyone should behave or respond in the way we would.

This unwillingness to see another's perspective is especially true of those with whom we have highly emotional relationships--good and bad. Have you ever been annoyed at a significant other for one thing, and then started pointing out all his or her flaws? Have you ever been disappointed with customer service from an office or store and then jumped on the bandwagon disparaging everything they do? If so, then you are an "otherer" too. The problem is justifying our beliefs and thoughts, leads us to hate or at least resent others. We lose the ability to empathize or remember the golden rule (Do unto others as you would have done unto you.)

It is never too late to stop othering and start embracing. I read a quote from General Mark A. Welsh III, Air Force Chief of Staff, in the USAF Diversity Strategic Roadmap. He said, "The greatest strength of our Air Force is our Airmen! The greatest strength of our Airmen is their diversity! Each of them comes from a different background, a different family experience and a different social experience. Each brings a different set of skills and a unique perspective to the team. We don't just celebrate diversity...we embrace it."

So how can you embrace diversity? Opening your mind and softening your heart to those different than yourself will open a whole new world of improved relationships, lessened stress, healthier thoughts and more cohesive teams. You can start by talking to a person you find yourself othering. Ask him or her why they handled a situation a certain way. Also, ask them their culture, background, family, beliefs, values or anything else that may shed light on why they are not like you. Try to see things from their view point. We often 'other' because we simply do not understand why that person is not like us. Give it a try; you have nothing to lose but an excluding attitude.