“Taking the concepts of the self and other, think about your community (your home, your college or university, or some other community in which you are involved) and consider who belongs and who is an outsider. What group or groups do you experience primarily as plural others, rather than as individuals? How does that affect your perceptions of them? What are the social and practical effects of othering?”
Over the summer, I worked on a congressional campaign. Our campaign focused heavily on community-based fieldwork which means that we were trying to build lasting connections between people and the campaign across the district. Part of my job was organizing our volunteers and training them to go out, canvass voters, and speak to members of the community across our really diverse district. Our district contained precincts with quite varied demographics. Some areas were largely white, conservative, and rural; others were more democratic-leaning, primarily white, middle-class suburbs; and other large portions of the district were predominately Hispanic, non-white urban areas. In my opinion, one of the challenges in the type of field organizing work we were doing on the campaign was bridging that gap–helping people look past their preconceived notions of who is a part of their community and who is an outsider in order to effectively build those connections within the larger community, the district, and make a difference in the election outcome.
I often noticed how people’s sense of outsiders and who they perceived as “others” impacted their words, their actions, and their willingness to engage with different aspects of the campaign. The majority of people (adults) with the time and commitment to volunteer for a political campaign are often older, white, and upper middle class. That demographic has the free time and economic flexibility to volunteer more than other demographics. It’s there where I noticed the problem. People, at first, were often unwilling to extend any of their efforts beyond what they saw as their immediate community–their small branch of suburbs wherein they felt secure because of the relative uniformity and sense of sameness. To ask them to volunteer in other areas was to ask them to step outside of their comfort zone, to go beyond who they consider to be members of their community, and instead interact with and form connections with people they considered to be “others.”
The effects of this are clear. It creates and maintains separation among people that should be coming together, both socially and for a common cause. When people refuse to interact with those different than them, it promotes stagnancy in thinking, increased polarization, and enforces a cycle of otherness in which both the root cause of the divide and the reason for the increasing divide is the perception of some people as “outsiders.”