Are You an “Other?”

different-3I have recently, in the past month or so, had several people tell me that I don’t “seem to like most things.” Me, a mother of two (with one on the way), wife, sorority sister, television and movie addict, hairstyle connoisseur, food truck follower, Candy Crush zealot, politics geek, numbers guru, etc. (you get the point), I was told that I don’t like most things.  This is not the first, second, third, or even hundredth time I have been told this.  And each time, I have to consider the source when taking such a critique.

In most cases, I have been offered this unwelcome criticism by someone outside of my inner circle. My hometown roots don’t always align with my SoCal lifestyle. And, my brown skin, kinky hairstyles, and proclivity for Soul and R&B music just don’t mesh with the bubblegum nature of my current Orange County, California social environment. Why? Well, not because I actually don’t like things, because I don’t necessarily like the things I am supposed to like. Deep, right?

Now, this is not a dig at the popular YouTube channel hosted by Pharrell entitled “I am Other.” It features the illustrious Issa Rae who has embraced her self-described “awkwardness. But, it is her “awkward black girl”-ness that helps shed some light on what I am talking about.

I find that my interest in all things hair, food, movies, family, and the like often leave me on the outs in certain social groups. If I am unable to coherently discuss beer brewing, major league golfing/baseball/football/basketball, pop music, or other traditionally American institutions, I am left sitting there like a mute. And, expressing any sort of dislike regarding these iconic subjects makes me some sort of renegade. It makes me weird, unintelligible. It makes me the “other.” You know, some nondescript blob of whirliness which won’t fit into some predefined mold or categorical box. I have always noticed it but since realizing my worth, it has become so much more pronounced to me.

In its basic form, to identify someone as the “other” is to find them intrinsically different from oneself. Identity, being a localized thing, then becomes a 3-dimensional attribute defined by both those we surround ourselves with and those we avoid. All of our social ties become a part of our identity.

The science of identity is so very important in this conversation and plays so heavily into the way we assign value to ourselves and those around us. We tend to value those who are more like ourselves and devalue those who are different. Accents, ethnic differences, food preferences, places of origin, family make-up, education, and occupation are all dummy variables we use when analyzing someone else’s implicit worth to us. It is both fascinating and disturbing.

For this reason, concepts like misrecognition, stereotyping, and shame are so very important. When folks, especially those with outward differences like race or gender, experience othering, it can lead to some pretty devastating consequences. Self-hatred, in-fighting, and anti-social behavior are all symptomatic of othering. It plays with people’s understanding of self-worth and innate value. The touching of black women’s hair as if it is some type of foreign artifact is an example of othering. Questions like, “How could you not have listened to the Beatles growing up? Where did you live? Under a rock?” That’s othering too. To imply that someone’s differences makes them inherently lacking or incomplete in some way is how we create and identify others.

And, sometimes it hurts. It really doesn’t feel great when someone makes you feel like a square peg in a circular slot. Sadly, women of color experience this all the time. In social and professional environments, being a dual minority seems to be a model combination for othering. Yet, we continue to thrive in spite of these devices. Women of color have proven time and time again that our differences are what make us so capable rather than deficient. And, by expressing ourselves in ways that feel natural and authentic, we have accomplished great things.

I have chosen not to conform when confronted with these critiques. I used to try and change a bit to make those around me a little more comfortable. But now, I have learned that the problem of othering is theirs not mine. I have chosen not to carry the burden and stress associated with other folks’ inability to recognize my humanity as just as valuable as their own. I have embraced my inner “other.”

Are you an “other?” If so, do you embrace it or conform?

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