Greatness: “Othering”

In college, I took a class called “Search for the American Identity: Race, Class, and Gender.” It may have been called “Quest for the American Identity,” (that’s how I remember it), but that’s probably just my Fantasy Lit slant on things. Probably “Search.”

Anyway, as part of the “Race” segment, we read several articles on the topic of “Othering,” that is, pursuing cultural practices that isolate the participant’s community from another community, preventing integration and emphasizing differences between the communities. The ancient Greeks were experts at this — y’know the word “barbarian” which we use to this day? It’s from the Greek meaning, “Someone who isn’t Greek.” But they applied it in exactly the way we do today.

“Othering” is the concept behind the phrase, “those people,” as in, “you know how those people are….”

It is, of course, highly poisonous. It teaches us to think of ourselves as real people, and Others as not-quite-real-people. Whatever it is that makes them Other is also what keeps them from being real people.

Interestingly, the Covenant of the Old Testament sort of inverted Othering, providing the Hebrews with a set of cultural practices specifically designed to set them apart from the communities they encountered. From within, the Jews were just as racist as the rest of us, looking out at the Gentiles in precisely the way the Greeks looked at the barbarians, but looking back on the Old Testament, many of the cultural laws seem specifically designed to promote Othering by Gentile communities, which may well have been a large part of God’s design for the establishment of a chosen people.

That’s not my point, though. That’s just an aside.

One of the many articles we read in that section focused on Othering in Hip Hop music. Specifically, that Hip Hop is published, promoted by, and consumed by the White Man, as an Othering form of entertainment that allows us to look down on black culture even as we are creating it.

I’ve been thinking about that more and more lately — mostly because I finally have a significant commute to work, which is the only time I actually listen to music of any sort. I have been listening a lot to Hip Hop (okay, it sounds silly, yes, and it looks silly in type, especially capitalized, but that’s the name — I don’t really listen to Rap), and I’m seeing more and more what that article was talking about.

I keep thinking of the Eddie Murphy sketch where he went in full costume as a white dude. Near the end of the sketch, he’s sitting in a bank talking with a loan officer, and they’re both laughing, and Eddie says, “Hahaha! Silly negro!” That’s kinda the effect you get sometimes, listening to Hip Hop. That, or, “They really are a vicious people!” That’s Othering. That’s bad. And we need to be careful about it, otherwise we’ll end up like those Muslims, condemning people based on their cultural traditions, rather than their individual vices….