Us-v-Them: What is Othering?

History is filled with accounts of prejudices, discrimination, and oppression. But how do these behaviours arise and how can we minimise them? Let me introduce the term ‘othering’. A phenomenon in which some individuals or groups are labelled as ‘not fitting in’ within the norms of a social group. It is an effect that influences how people perceive and treat those who are viewed as being part of the ‘in-group’ versus those who are seen as being part of the ‘out-group’.

Othering often happens without conscious effort or awareness. Behaviours include attributing positive qualities to people who are like you and negative qualities to people who are different; believing those people pose a threat to you or your way of life; feeling distrustful or upset with people of a social group even though you don’t know anyone from that group; refusing to interact with people because they are different from you and your social group; thinking that people outside your social group are not as intelligent, skilled or as special as you and your group; and thinking of people only in terms of their relationship with specific social groups without giving any thought to them as individuals.

It stems from our natural tendency to categorise people in terms of similarities and differences. Factors that define groups boundaries can be based on physical characteristics (such as race or sexual orientation) or on geography or proximity (nationality or religion).

Othering evolved as a way to improve group cohesion and minimise danger from outsiders. In ancient times, it was important for people to form close-knit groups- helping your family members and those sharing similar genes was critical for survival.

Belonging to a social group brings about benefits such as friendships, support, care, connection, protection, and identity.

However, on the negative side, it can contribute to things like discrimination, prejudice, and hostility, especially when there is competition for resources. Othering can result in the marginalisation of people who are not part of the dominant social group. Minority groups may face economic, housing, career, criminal justice, educational and healthcare disparities. Othering can also be used to justify the past mistreatment of others. It’s a way of distancing yourself and reducing empathy and as a result, you’re less likely to feel bad about your own behaviour.

Here are things that you can do to help minimised othering. None of these strategies are quick fixes. Since othering often stems from the brain’s natural tendency to categories, overcoming it takes intention and effort.

  • Focus on people as individuals– Try to remember that each person has their own unique history and experiences as well as complex emotions, thoughts. and motivations.
  • Become aware of your own unconscious biases– Learning to recognise othering is an important step towards overcoming it. You can also reduce othering by practicing cultural humility and challenging the belief that others should be like you or that your way is better than anyone else’s.
  • Remember that diversity has important benefits– Learning about and spending time with people who are different from you is important for growth. It allows you to look outside of yourself and your immediate social circle and explore new experiences, ideas, cultures, and beliefs.
  • Be aware of language– While the terms that we use to describe social groups can often be a way of foster inclusivity, such terms can also often be used to emphasise their otherness.
  • Remember that identities are multi-dimensional and intersectional– People can belong to multiple groups based on their sex, gender, race, religion, and more. How these various identities intersect play a role in shaping that individual.
  • Speak up– One way to combat biased behaviour is to speak up whenever you see it happening. People are less likely to engage in othering when it is socially unacceptable.