The Other (One)
What’s wrong with segregation?
I ask my students this when we talk about the underlying causes of the Tulsa Race Riots – the ongoing circumstances in place just waiting for something to trigger them. Dick Rowland stumbling into Sarah Page might have been an incident all by itself, but it wouldn’t have burned Greenwood to the ground without combustibles already in place. There were causes - one of which, I respectfully suggest, was segregation.
If they’ve paid attention when we discuss Indian Removal, or Reconstruction, or Immigration, they should have an idea where I’m going with the question. Otherwise, they stumble through the clichés on which they were raised. Segregation is bad because everyone’s the same… we’re all equal… it’s wrong because it’s bad…
To their credit, some variation of ‘separate is inherently unequal’ eventually surfaces, whether they know Brown v. Board or not. They understand intuitively that when two groups are persistently kept apart, one will likely get a better deal than the other.
But what if it COULD be equal? We have Men’s bathrooms and Women’s bathrooms – separate, but similar. What if we could guarantee consistent quality, and equal value? Would segregation still be bad?
They’re sure it would, but aren’t often able to express why. Maybe they’re going on gut conviction; perhaps they’re simply THAT indoctrinated. Either way, we must discuss ‘The Other’.
When we lack relationships with people different from us, or when those relationships are so strictly defined as to preclude true interaction, we can’t help but see them as fundamentally unlike ourselves. We can’t know who we don’t know.
I don’t claim my district has eliminated all conceivable racial issues, but we’re a fairly diverse bunch – racially, economically, and to some extent culturally. We have lots of interesting colors, religions, a few very vocal non-traditional sexualities, and enough different home languages to keep things challenging.
I, on the other hand, graduated from a nearby suburban school 30 years ago with a senior class of around 700, of which exactly two students were black – both guys, and both of whom played football and were nowhere near my social circle. There was one Vietnamese kid, and he was really good at math. That was it in terms of diversity.
Well, there was one gay kid. We all kinda knew he was gay, but he didn’t seem to be aware of it, so we just let it slide. He knows now, and we’re all Facebook friends, so that seems to have worked out.
I had a strong, albeit largely subconscious, sense of ‘The Other’. My students don’t – at least not to such an extent.
I wasn’t particularly racist or sexist by the standards of my peers, but I walked in the sort of conviction and clarity only possible with limited knowledge, and in the peace of truncated understanding. Separate is inherently unequal, but also inherently obscuring. You can’t love, accept, or even properly argue with what you don’t know and can’t see. You don’t even know what questions to ask.
When anything involving other cultures or races comes up in class, my kids are well-armed with polite clichés and politically correct worldviews. They may even think they mean them.
But they lack depth because, for so many of my kids, the idea of a world in which culture or race are a deep divide, capable not only of circumscribing what you do, but how you think, feel, or function – shaping reality itself… it’s just not there. At best it’s abstract and distant.
In their defense, that’s true of 90% of anything we talk about – they’re Freshmen. They live in a perpetual ‘now’ with themselves, themselves, and those who amuse or arouse them this exact instant. And themselves.
They’ve been hearing the same handful of safe racial, religious, and sexual platitudes their whole lives, along with Stranger Danger and anti-bullying campaigns, but most have neither overtly experienced nor consciously perpetrated any of things being warned against. It can’t be real to them, any more than feudalism, factory labor, or war.
Most can’t consciously fathom ‘THE OTHER’. If only we could add odor to it, as with natural gas, so we'd be warned when it begins to affect us...
History is full of ‘Them’. It’s fundamental throughout time and place. Babies gradually learn to distinguish ‘Me’ from ‘Not Me’. ‘Family’ is different than ‘Not Family’. In some bucolic regions, ‘Neighbor’ is still different than ‘Not Neighbor’.
As an evolutionary or historical approach, it’s not such an evil thing. As the earliest hegemonies or social contracts developed, they would inevitably have ‘Us’ and ‘Them’ moments – whether over resources, food, land, or women.
Much like ‘all snakes are poisonous’ or ‘reality TV is fake’, universals are a practical necessity when life is otherwise nasty, brutish, and short. The benefit of attentive discernment is outweighed by the risk. You may find a few exceptions to your rules, but the payoff is too small to justify the energy invested. “Look! A non-poisonous snake! I’ve devoted precious time and mental capacity to identifying it so I can… have absolutely no use for it. And if I’m wrong I’ll die painfully!”
Unless you happened to be in a Disney Movie or After-School Special, the chances of making a new bestie when you reached out your Capulet arms to embrace a Montague stranger were slim compared to likelihood you’d become someone’s slave or lose your teeth so they could make a nice necklace. ‘The Other’ was scary. Dangerous.
To be fair, evolving from ‘All against All’ into ‘Us’ vs. ‘Them’ was actually a huge improvement socially and politically. At least you had an ‘Us’ instead of simply an ‘I’. At least societies could be built.
But the world has changed. We are safer, healthier, better educated, and more entertained and entertaining than at any other point in human history. In the U.S. in particular, we celebrate ‘diversity’ in its ever-multiplying forms, and speak of being a great ‘melting pot’. Our foundational ideals, in fact, proclaim unequivocally that “all men are created equal, and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.”
Apparently this was unclear to some, so we added a 14th Amendment which explicitly states that a people is a people is a people. There are no gradients or levels of personhood or value in the eyes of the law or in the ideals of the United States.
That’s led to a number of kerfuffles as various individuals and groups seek to be part of ‘Us’ rather than being content in their roles as ‘Them’. They wished to be less ‘Other’.
Some wanted to attend the same schools, ride the same busses, eat the same places, and live in the same neighborhoods as ‘Us’. Others wanted to form different sorts of families, promote different types of faith, or live some very different lifestyles, but with the same rights and respect as ‘Us’.
It can get rather complicated. To our Founders’ credit, though, we’re mostly still trying to make it work. Contrary to how it sometimes seems, we’re getting closer and closer. But it’s weird.
Yet the prevalence of ‘The Other’ persists. At times it seems there are more ‘Them’ than there are ‘Us’, even 225 years after those ideals were so effectively used to birth a whole new country whose primary task was to prove them workable.
I have a few ideas...
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