Author: getofscs

In Groups and Out Groups

Human beings have the capacity to recognize aspects of themselves in other people, allowing them to build communities and form meaningful interpersonal connections. The flip side of noticing similarities is that humans are equally cognizant of how they differ from others. For whatever reason, we tend to latch on to those differences and demonize what we simply may not understand or relate to. We cling to what we know and what we recognize of ourselves in others, writing off those whose differences we deem irreconcilable.

I was not fully aware of the practice of othering until I started high school, which of course was ruled by cliques. My school was unique in that the cliques did not form around the stereotypical high school social groups; they formed around artistic ability. I attended a performing arts high school where the dancers were friends with dancers, singers were friends with singers, and so on. There was of course some crossover but by and large, people stuck with their groups. Within each discipline, the groups were again divided by skill and talent, with those considered more talented gravitating towards each other. Each group also carried preconceived notions about their counterparts in other disciplines: the dancers were rude and cliquey, the theater kids were too loud and entitled, the visual artists were anti-social.

For members of my school’s specific social groups, it was easy to see members of the same group as individuals. They were the people they conversed with on a day to day basis, created art with, collaborated with. They knew each others names names, their pronouns, what they brought to lunch each day. However, when thinking about a group that a given person was not a part, the thinking became plural. Members of certain disciplines were viewed as a whole rather than as the individuals that the groups were comprised of, leading to the stereotypes I mentioned earlier.

I was somewhat of an odd case because my best friends were spread across different arts for my entire high school experience. I also didn’t mesh with the group I was “supposed to”. While the majority of my friends were dancers, I certainly was not. While I recognized that the stereotypes the groups made about each other didn’t necessarily have any verity to them, I didn’t do anything to actively combat them either. At times, I found myself slipping into plural thinking and making generalizations about one art discipline or the other that I wasn’t a part of. It’s not something that I’m proud of but it’s important to acknowledge.

High school cliques are a relatively benign example of othering, a phenomenon which is incredibly harmful on a larger, more serious scale. Othering can lead to incredibly hateful thoughts and behaviors, which fuel bigotry and prejudice. There is an important distinction between noticing a difference that you have with someone and making an assumption about them based on said difference. There’s nothing wrong with knowing someone is different than you; it’s only a problem if it affects how you treat them or measure their worth.

The Differences We Share

For four years, I’ve lived in a sleepy town in Western Massachusetts named Easthampton. A lake sits squarely in the middle of the downtown, wedged between the cultural district and the town hall. An American flag flutters over the lake during all seasons and in the winter, a dock is constructed in the middle of the lake where a light up Christmas tree rests. In the past few years, town hall¬† put up a menorah during the winter holidays and has flown an LGBTQ+ rainbow flag. I’m from a small new England town pulled between two different demographics: a younger, freshly-out-of-college population who is pushing Easthampton to become more inclusive and an older group who have lived in Easthampton for generations, fighting to keep Easthampton in the past. Where these two groups unite is over maintaining the town’s cultural ethos of small businesses and local artisans. Once empty walls are now covered in colorful murals in a downtown full of locally owned stores that each contribute something unique to the artistic scene. Each season holds different celebrations and traditions, whether its summer music and food truck festivals, caroling in town square in the winter, or the annual fall “bear fest”, where different businesses paint colorful bear statues and hide them around town.

A collage of many of the things that define Easthampton

Last week, I had the privilege of talking with several students who were raised in different places than me, some of them in different nations. I spoke with one person who grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania called Bethlehem and when she described it, it sounded very similar to home. She described an annual music festival that reminded me of the ones hosted in Easthampton as well as a culture of local artisans and vendors that I’m sure would have meshed perfectly with those in my home town. It was fascinating to me that these two towns hundreds of miles apart could be so similar.

I began to observe some very noticeable differences when I spoke to a Dickinson student who spent most of his life in Bogota, Colombia. He told me that in his home city, there are no defined seasons like there are where I’m from. Instead, they have wet seasons and dry seasons that don’t correspond to the seasons I grew up with. While this might seem inconsequential, the pattern of the seasons holds a lot of weight in my town. As I mentioned before, there are annual events and traditions that revolve around the weather. Easthampton has an apple orchard that generates a large amount of revenue each fall as well a semi-famous ice cream shop that draws in business for the town each summer. New England is renowned for its fall foliage and gains a lot of annual tourist money from it. In Bogota, most of the climate variation comes from what elevation you live at, since the city is built right next to a mountain range. We also talked about differences and similarities in our education systems. In Colombia, learning English is something everyone does in school, ensuring bilingualism. In the Massachusetts education system, other languages are taught, but most students don’t even reach proficiency much less fluency.

Another student that I spoke with was originally from Pakistan but moved with her family to the United Arab Emirates when she was 11. She was from Kashmir, Pakistan, which has been the site of an ongoing conflict between Pakistan and India. On one side of Kashmir, she described a mountainous area and on the other side, agricultural fields. She recounted struggling with the language switch when she moved to the UAE but eventually mastered English, which is primarily what she speaks there. She explained that this was because the UAE is mainly a country of immigrants and that people originally from the United Arab Emirates are actually minorities in the country. English is the language they use to communicate with each other. As a result, the place in Sharjah where she currently lives is much more culturally diverse than the small, sheltered town that I’m from. Easthampton is primarily white and even though there are many parts of the United States that are culturally and ethnically diverse, Easthampton unfortunately is not one of them.

It was illuminating learning firsthand the ways in which the place I grew up is so different from the experiences of others. I had no illusion my experience would be similar to that of others living across the world but I wouldn’t have been able to tell you concrete examples of how these differences manifest. I’m looking forward to learning more about my classmates as the semester continues!

Sources:

https://pixels.com/featured/easthampton-ma-collage-sven-kielhorn.html

Visit Bethlehem

https://www.cepal.org/en/about/headquarters-and-offices/eclac-bogota

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sharjah

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