Othering is a way of defining and securing one’s own positive identity through the denouncement of another. Whatever the markers of social differentiation that shape the meaning of “us” and “them,” whether they are sexual, racial, geographic, ethnic, economic or ideological, there is always the danger that they will become the basis for self-affirmation, involving denigration of the other group. Since American society is very diversified, it is all too common for everyone to be exposed to Otherness. Such practices are likely to have powerful repercussions and often begin at childhood and continue throughout adulthood.
In the essay, Aria: A Memoir of a Bilingual Childhood, Richard Rodriguez recalls his first experiences with Otherness at a young and vulnerable age. The concept was all too real as a Spanish-speaking child of Mexican immigrants, attending an all-English speaking school. He mentions that he was “socially disadvantaged” living in a primarily English part of town. His family was distanced and sometimes shunned by society, whom they referred to as los americanos or los gringos. He identified his family as functioning differently from the American norm, a key component of Otherness.
His keen, young mind easily distinguished between English and Spanish by the different sounds of the languages. He believed Americans to have “gringo” sounds and the firmness of their articulation meant that they belonged in public society. With this also came the realization that his parent’s couldn’t easily speak English. Though this sometimes made him uncomfortable, the separation that Rodriguez felt from society made him treasure his time spent at home surrounded by the comforting sounds of Spanish. It was the only language spoken in his home, making it private, special and welcoming. Excited, our voices joined in a celebration of sounds. We are speaking now the way we never speak out in public-we are together…” (655). This emphasizes a key component of Otherness, for Rodriguez, it was them and us. When his family was encouraged by American nuns to practice English at home, Richard painfully felt the outside world infringing upon his sacred language and family life. He thought that by losing their beloved native language, they had lost an irreplaceable bonding factor with each other.
Perhaps it was Rodriguez’s naivety that caused him to be so emotional about the loss of Spanish in his home. Whatever the reason, his realization of a painful separation and silence between his family members was all too powerful to bear at times. Whether young or old, the strong influences of Otherness can be experienced. Author of the essay Black Men and Public Space, Brent Staples, first encountered Othering as a young, African-American adult. As an avid nightwalker, he was both shocked and embarrassed when he realized that women blatantly avoided him in fear of his presence.
The danger they perceived in him as a young black male, led them to avoid eye contact, hunker down over their belongings, or even run in the opposite direction of him. It wasn’t only women who unknowingly feared Staples. It was, and arguably still is so, all too common for men, especially Caucasians, to impulsively accuse African-American men of being drug dealers, burglars and murderers. Staples recalls, “Such episodes are not uncommon. Black men trade tales like this all the time” (210).
However, Staples longed to be accepted into society, outraged at the fact that he was always assumed to be a criminal. In Adnan Khan’s case, author of Close Encounters with US Immigration, because he is a Muslim Pakistani Canadian, he experienced Otherness firsthand through racial and ethnic profiling from guards at US borders. When asked where he was born, his answer “Pakistan” was guaranteed to grant him hours worth of interrogation and searches. He remembers, “During the three-hour ordeal, I’d been made to feel like an unwanted outsider, as if I were guilty of some heinous crime…” (560).
Although as a young child, Richard Rodriguez had ambivalent feelings about being influenced by Anglo-Saxon values, he did know this, “…I finally came to accept what had been technically true since my birth: I was an American citizen” (658). Learning the English language Americanized him. Policies and procedures like a standardized English education allowed Rodriguez an equal chance at prosperity in America, which he soon realized ultimately, gave him an opportunity to achieve public individuality.
Rodriguez might have lost the intimacy amongst his family, but he traded it for the adoption of a new language, more Americanized practices and acceptance into society. He took a risk that he judged as fair, in an attempt to escape the rejection of Otherness. This is not so easily achieved with people such as authors Staples and Khan, who cannot physically change their skin color or birthplace. Khan knows that there’s a great risk that Othering of American society will always alienate him, and as a Canadian citizen he is okay with that.
However, he does empathize with Canadian Muslims who have relatives in the United States, “…America’s rejection of their kind wounds deeply” (560). Staples goes so far as to show his desire for acceptance by providing numerous examples of precautions he takes to make himself less threatening: moving about with care in the late evening, even whistling melodies from Beethoven. Discrimination can take place in many forms through Othering, like Rodriguez and his native language, or through appearance and birthplaces. Rodriguez’s Americanization and acceptance into society isn’t always so easily capable of being reached.
He had to learn another language, which most certainly benefitted him in other areas of his life as well. It’s not so easily achieved with people such as authors Staples and Khan, who cannot physically change their skin color or birthplace. These two men long for a favorable reception from society but there’s a great possibility that they will continue to be presumed dangerous or fearful. Supporters of immigration control and racial profiling fuel the concept of Otherness, causing a disadvantage for nonwhite American groups.
Since September 11th, 2001, when nineteen Arab terrorists killed more than three thousand Americans, the United States has seen an increase in Otherness through racial profiling. Linda Chavez, author of Everything Isn’t Racial Profiling, states, “Racial profiling entails picking someone out for special scrutiny simply because of his race” (564). Mark Krikorian, author of Safety Through Immigration Control, supports Othering against any foreign immigrants that could potentially be terrorists.
Krikorian calls for an immigration system designed for American homeland security, which would include screening people at borders and airports like Khan, but not limiting attention to just Middle Easterners. Both of these authors agree that the need for security outweighs the need for liberty, an opposing view to Adnan Kahn. Awareness of the ways societies practice Otherness has led to the institution of policies to give every American citizen and equal opportunity for success. Interventions such as a standardized English language helps to create an equal opportunity for those who learn it, like Richard Rodriguez.
However, many don’t become fully white Anglo-Saxon “Americanized”, either by choice or society’s reluctance to let them due to birthplace or skin color, like Khan and Staples. For the protection of those affected by Otherness, other interventions such as minority rights protection groups have originated. ] The act of Othering is a concept that involves defining an “Other” as different from and not included in the dominant social group. Each author previously mentioned has committed some part of this act, either by being a victim of Otherness or insisting upon the practice of it for the good of the country.
In America, our diverse society exposes people to this practice of separating them and us as children at a very young age. Anglo-Saxon values are favored, unfortunately causing every other nonwhite group in our “melting pot” society to fall victim to this discrimination. This injustice indeed does not serve America’s national interest. Since Otherness is a concept that virtually everyone instinctively does throughout livelihood, interventions in society have been enforced with the aim of giving every citizen a fair and equal chance at a successful life in this country.
America has been founded and built on many races, religions and sexualities; to be biased against one is to be biased against all.
Works Cited Chavez, Linda. “Everything Isn’t Racial Profiling. ” The Bedford Reader. By X. J. Kennedy, Dorothy M. Kennedy, and Jane E. Aaron. 10th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2008. 563-66. Print. Khan, Adnan. “Close Encounters with US Immigration. ” The Bedford Reader. By X. J. Kennedy, Dorothy M. Kennedy, and Jane E. Aaron. 10th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2008. 558-562. Print. Krikorian, Mark. Safety Through Immigration Control. ” The Bedford Reader. By X. J. Kennedy, Dorothy M. Kennedy, and Jane E. Aaron. 10th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2008. 567-571. Print. Rodriguez, Richard. “Aria: A Memoir of a Bilingual Childhood. ” The Bedford Reader. By X. J. Kennedy, Dorothy M. Kennedy, and Jane E. Aaron. 10th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2008. 651-664. Print. Staples, Brent. “Black Men and Public Space. ” The Bedford Reader. By X. J. Kennedy, Dorothy M. Kennedy, and Jane E. Aaron. 10th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2008. 208-214. Print.