Did you ever feel different from everyone in the room? Different from everyone in the place you lived in? Different from people in your class? How did it make you feel?
I’ve been an Other in some form my whole life. I’m bi-racial, bi-cultural and was even raised in a bi-religious home. I’ve felt like an Other when I don’t speak a language spoken by the majority in the room. I’ve felt like an Other because of my large size having been surrounded by beautiful, svelte glamazons. I’ve felt like an Other when a snippy sales associate at a clothing store told me (with good intention) that the size I was wearing wasn’t going to fit me.
I felt like an Other when I was an international student in a predominantly white college. There was no active discrimination (though looking back a professor or two probably were), but people who looked like me and had a different outlook were flat-out ignored. We talk a lot about active discrimination but neglecting to see people is also a form of discrimination. Invisibility hurts.
I started straightening my hair because curly wasn’t seen as desirable. I will go as far as to say more men look at me when my hair is straight as opposed to curly. That’s media messaging at its’ worst. Some people have flat out told me they prefer my hair straight. Why?
Go to any hair product section at a store and until about ten years ago, most products promised to smooth, straighten, and relax hair. Until then, products for curly hair were in the Other section, specifically for ‘ethnic’ or African hair. It’s one thing if that section was equally as big as the rest, but it was minuscule. And also, because curly hair can be extremely unruly, we need more products to take care of it. So not only are there fewer brands that serve our needs but there were (and still are) huge gaps in the variety of products offered.
Sometimes I’m an Other in a permanent state until I choose to leave. For example, I always felt like an Other in Vancouver, because I didn’t subscribe to the laid-back mentality. I felt like an Other when a mean girl at school talked about how I looked like an illiterate maid (a racist comment alluding to Filipinos who are domestic helpers in Kuwait).
Anyone Can Be Other
It’s easy to lump many of us into an Other because of physical appearance. Yet Otherness can be invisible at times. We don’t know if someone is living out of their car, or if they haven’t eaten in a few days. We can’t initially tell if someone has a learning disability, or is colour blind. We can’t even tell if someone knows the same nursery rhymes we know, especially if they grew up in a different part of the world. Have you ever been in a room full of people who sang a song you’d never heard of? As a child, it’s easy to feel left out.
Even the most privileged in our world experience it. A white male friend who lived in the Middle East during his teen years once told me about being surrounded by a group of Arab teenagers who were zeroing in on him, ready to pounce simply because he was white. He was certain he would have been beaten if a police car hadn’t shown up after sensing an impending fight. The fear he felt he said, was unforgettable.
The nerds at school who are seen as Other, as those on the fringes of the high school social chain are ostracized for being intelligent. For the record, most nerds are the ones who go on to make the world better: they become innovators, visionaries, and advocates for creating a better world. Next time you pick up your phone, think of the thousands of hours, blood, sweat and tears that passionate nerds put in front of their computers so you can post hot Instagram photos, grab a quick rideshare, or have your prescription filled. Nerds.
We need to honour Others, because although Others live among us, they not only see but experience life differently. Even if you are the most privileged person in society, at one point or other (pun intended), I can guarantee you’ve felt like an outcast in a situation. Being an Other, even just for a temporary period of time, teaches empathy. You are easily thrust into someone else’s shoes and hopefully become mindful the next time you see someone who appears to be left out.
The Education System
In my years working in higher education, I often saw Others unattended to, not just in how they were treated in classrooms, but in the stereotypes projected onto them. Snide comments about how one student wasn’t a ‘cultural fit’ were rampant. “He’s resistance to change and can’t thrive in our dynamic environment.” Well, isn’t that the reason why he should help him? Won’t our students encounter people resistant to change in the real world? And to serve the student, shouldn’t we provide him with an opportunity to see what it’s like to be flexible? It was baffling. Even more disturbing is that it’s in the education field.
I’m a kinesthetic learner (learn by doing) and have a difficult time processing new information in the auditory mode so I can’t follow lectures properly. In universities, giving lectures is one of the cheapest, cost-efficient ways to teach more students. However, just because something is efficient doesn’t mean it’s effective. So many students slip through the cracks because of our broken education system and fail to live up to their scholarly potential. It’s disheartening.
Being Other Can be Exhausting
I often meet people who talk about how exhausting it is to be an Other. To have to explain things all.the.time. For instance, I instantly got defensive when a bunch of people at my old work talked about the unhealthiness of fasting during Ramadan. While it was said with good intention (“that can’t be good for your health”), I internally cringed at their dismissive air and expression of ridicule when they heard that eating or drinking from sunrise to sunset was not allowed. Instead of asking questions, they saw it as barbaric, oppressive and stupid. And they didn’t have to say it; it was written in their micro facial expressions. While I had the emotional intelligence to brush it off and not take it personally, I felt marginalized.
No one wants to feel like an Other. Unique, perhaps, standing out maybe. But Other? That’s a tough gig. We want to be seen. We want to feel accepted. We want to feel loved. Yet more often than not–or in many cases for most of our lives– we feel powerless to change our situation. While I believe all of us can develop an inner resolve to speak up and be heard, sometimes the relentlessness of being outnumbered, not considered and unseen takes a toll on us, and we start to believe we are unworthy. Media doesn’t help (probably a separate blog post on its’ own).
Look around you and you’ll see Other everywhere.
How have you been an Other? Let me know in the comments below.