I believe that the process of “othering” is something that we have the ability to do both subconsciously and consciously in our every day lives. In order to determine who is an “other” or an outsider, we must first have some kind of conceptualization of “normal.” Because normal is relative, it is crucially determined by our environments and how we were raised. All of us may have different ideas of what “normal” is, and thus, we have different notions of who is an outsider. Generally speaking, however, the types of things that influence our perception of normal can be broad in scope as well, and so in bigger communities, there may be a clear idea of an unspoken “us versus them” (them being the derogatory other). One example that I was thinking about it was through college communities, and how people on a college campuses separate themselves from outsiders.
There is a particular kind of “social” aspect to college that I think many don’t talk about explicitly, but we all know is there. As a college student from the ages of 18-22 you are expected to be involved in campus life, part of clubs, living with your friends as your roommates, and just generally, very sociable. Coming into college as an 18-year-old my freshman year, I was immediately exposed to a new environment, one without parents where I suddenly had the autonomy to make all kinds of decisions, and the first thing at least I thought of was “I finally don’t have a curfew, I can be social at all hours of the day however I choose.” Your first semester of your freshman year is all about getting to know people on campus. I specifically remember that first semester (which, for me was before Covid), every time I met someone they were extremely nice to me, and they continued to be for months even if we weren’t that close. Generally everyone you met was very eager to talk to you because we were all trying to find friends. That was the process that we were all going through in the same way – figuring out who our friends were and being nice to everyone. Saying yes to going to various events or parties, sitting with tons of people at the caf, and joining tons and tons of clubs. This was the adjustment period, where we experimented with friend groups and tried many new things.
A part of me believes that a lot of us acted this way in the first part of freshman year for fear of becoming an outsider. We wanted to immediately fit in, find a community, find a friend group, and figure out where we belonged. What I’m really getting at is that the social aspect of college is what determines who is an “other” and who is considered normal. “Normal” behavior in college comes in the form of socializing, I think it’s pretty safe to say that at underclassmen we felt as though if we didn’t immediately find our group, it was anxiety-inducing. In terms of my perception of the “others,” I don’t think I see people that, for example, hang out by themselves and immediately start making assumptions about them, but it is something that I do notice – it’s a very easy way to separate ourselves into groups on campus.
I know I can’t speak for everyone and say that all our college experiences have been the same, but I think there is something to be said for how we might use college as a way to think about ourselves and others, and how we determine who is an “other.” As I was in the process of writing this blog post, I was doing some reading for a different class (Prof. Love’s ‘Islam and the West’ sociology course), and for next week’s reading we’re examining Edward Said’s “Orientalism,” and from my understanding, part of his argument as to how we conceptualize “the West” versus everyone else comes from the specific process of othering, and viewing those who aren’t “normal” by our standards as something else entirely. I’ve attached a screenshot of the part of the reading I was doing that demonstrated this to me. Particularly, when Said explains, “Orientals or Arabs are shown to be gullible, ‘devoid of energy and initiative,’ much given to ‘fulsome flattery,’ intrigue, cunning, and unkindness to animals; Orientals cannot walk on either a road or pavement; Orientals are inveterate liars…” (etc.) This description of “the Oriental” by European standards was essential in making it clear that they’re the “opposite of Europeans” and not normal (see, “nobility of the Anglo-Saxon race”). I thought it may be helpful to connect this to the broader theme of the class. The point is that in order to establish “the other,” you must first establish the norm. When someone or a group of people don’t fit that norm, we can find it very easy to alienate them or create stereotypes around those people.
As such, going back to the original prompt of this post, we determine who is an “other” and who is “normal” by our own standards of what we’re used to as well as what we think everyone should be doing. In the example of college life, it’s various activities that our peers engage in that indicate to us whether or not they are “one of us” or if we separate ourselves from them. This can come in the form of club memberships, sports, on-campus social groups, etc. If you’re not living a very social life at college, it’s not to say there’s anything wrong, but I think we’ve been programmed mentally to understand “normal” to be socially defined by indicators around us.