You Are Not Alone: Pixels of Belonging Amid the Problem of Othering

On February, 8, 2017, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers in Phoenix, Arizona, handcuffed thirty-five-year-old Guadalupe García de Rayos and locked her in a white van. The next morning, after removing a protester who’d tied himself to the van’s tire, officials deported Ms. Rayos to Mexico. She’d not been there in more than two decades, when she was just fourteen and she and her parents crossed the border and made the United States their home. In 2008, Ms. Rayos had been arrested and briefly jailed for using the fake social security number that allowed her to get a low-wage job at a waterpark in the suburbs. Ms. Rayos, whose two children were born in the United States, had been granted leniency under the Obama administration, whose official policy focused upon deporting people convicted of violent felonies. Advocates speculated that Ms. Rayos’s expulsion reflected enforcement of President Donald Trump’s new executive order that expanded the category of deportable noncitizen to anyone charged with or “believed” to have committed a chargeable criminal offense.

“No esta sola,” protesters had chanted as they circled the van that caged Ms. Rayos inside. You are not alone. In their elucidating and principled essay, “The Problem of Othering: Towards Inclusiveness and Belonging,” john powell and Steven Menendian riff on W. E. B Du Bois to declare the “problem of the twenty-first century” to be group-based “othering.” Group-based othering occurs when identifiable groups of people become classified as fundamentally not belonging, not one of us. The authors identify particular conditions under which this universal psychological tendency becomes “activated” as a powerful, often dangerous and deadly, force that “undergirds group-based marginalization and inequality.” Economic instability and rapid change may reduce the likelihood of othering, they say, but it is demagogic political leaders who “activate” it through a variety of means. Rhetoric, say. Or an executive order that exploits existing “othered” group identities. Or by pressing a vast deportation machinery, built up with public dollars over decades, into service to express othering through expulsion.

If the finer points of powell and Menendian’s essay were at all unclear, the first months of the Trump regime provide a grotesque explanatory caricature of the psychological inclinations and individual and institutional processes powell and Menendian describe. (Their article was published several months before Election Day.) Since January 24, we have witnessed a spectacle of demagoguery, cartoonish in its buffoonery and also terrifying in its authoritarianism.

To be sure, a loud and urgent resistance is called for in all corners. But this is also a confounding and intellectually disorderly period. And the best response for that may be equanimity. “The Problem of Othering” provides us a just-in-time gift—a measured, distinctly modern conceptual framework in which to organize our thinking and guide us over the long term toward action. The aspiration at the core of this article is a future defined by othering’s opposite: belonging.

“The most important good we distribute to each other in society is membership,” powell and Menendian write. “Belongingness entails an unwavering commitment to not simply tolerating and respecting difference but to ensuring that all people are welcome and feel that they belong in the society. We call this idea the ‘circle of human concern.’”

“The Problem of Othering” shifted the perspective from which I had been seeing the act of deportation, something that I’ve been trying to write about for several months. powell and Menendian nudged me to conceptualize deportation and similar expressions of group-based othering, not merely as immoral or as rights violations but as expressions of existential turbulence.

Take Ms. Rayos, for example. She’d been othered by her legal classification—“undocumented”—certainly. Likely, too, she’d been othered due to her skin tone, her place of birth, and the low income her employer paid her. She belonged to multiple “othered” groups. But, in innumerable ways, Ms. Rayos, and the millions who share her othered group classifications, are members. She’d woven herself into America, connected by multiple strands: love, social relationships, memories, labor, and obligations. We actively wove her in too. She bought things and paid taxes on those things, which “we” used to help pay teachers’ salaries in classrooms and for the upkeep of parks where kids play. By committing that deportable offense—using a fake social security number—Ms. Rayos was also holding up her end of the members’ social contract. As a person without legal authorization to work here, she paid into a system that would never benefit her directly but that would help support the rest of us, the we. She raised and loved children who loved her back. She had friends, coworkers, and neighbors. She was a friend, a coworker, a neighbor. As the protesters had chanted, Ms. Rayos was not alone. She was part of a whole. Part of the we. By expelling her, we expel part of “us.”

Othering mandates an utterly irrational dehumanization, a self-imposed blindness. It obliterates the complex, multidimensional person each of us is and the various roles we occupy as it disregards the variations between people who fit into socially constructed categories. A category for them. A category for us. And then systems and rules built upon myths about the categories. Then, voila! We open our eyes again, and we see social inequalities between groups that help reinforce the myths. Round and round we go.

“Demagogues actively inculcate and organize. . . fear into a political force,” powell and Menendian write. “Where prejudice was latent, it is being activated; where it is absent, it is being fostered.” At the end of their essay, powell and Menendian write that “in periods of turbulent upheaval and instability, the siren call of the demagogue has greater power, but whether a society falls victim to it depends upon the choices of political leaders and the stories they tell.” I’d add that it depends, now months after Election Day, upon each of us. It depends upon the choices ordinary people make and the stories we tell.

With that declaration in mind, I’m going to offer an array of pixels to what seems to me the less-developed picture in powell and Menendian’s othering and belonging frame. The Trump regime may represent our most compelling contemporary American example of demagogic othering activation. But we find equally powerful counterexamples of belonging in communities across the United States. Some represent small pieces or first steps toward the structural transformations necessary for reducing group-based inequality and marginalization that powell and Menendian call for. I learned about most of these people and places via a documentation project I codirected called One Nation Indivisible. Not coincidentally, the nature and content of this work was profoundly influenced by powell’s writing, speaking, and activism on matters of racial inequality, racial integration, and human relationships over many years. You can find far more details about some of these briefly described efforts and many more like them on the project website and in a book that grew from that project, Integration Nation: Immigrants, Refugees and America at Its Best.

Several months after Arizona’s governor had signed a law making it easier to deport people who are undocumented immigrants, Philadelphia mayor Michael Nutter hosted a festive naturalization ceremony for new citizens. He threw a public party along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Beneath more than one hundred flags of nations that have or had a presence in the city, he helped swear in about twenty new citizens and raised the flags of nineteen more nations, including Botswana, Cambodia, and El Salvador.

That was our response to the insanity out in Arizona,” Nutter said. “That was our message to the immigrants who built this city and the ones who would help revitalize it.”

In 2010, Nutter’s support for immigration—he’d publicly urged immigrants to move to Philadelphia—made him an outlier among elected officials. But now, seven years later, he is one of dozens of mayors and municipal leaders across the country—from Portland, Maine, to Boston, Boise, and San Francisco—who’ve publicly declared their support for immigration and their opposition to policies that would lead to racial profiling, make life harder for immigrants, or make it easier for federal officials to deport immigrants.

The day after then-candidate Donald Trump made a stop in Portland, Maine, and lamented the existence of refugees there, hundreds of people gathered in protest on the steps of City Hall. The mayor, Ethan Strimling, greeted the crowd in Arabic. He went on to say, “We cherish the Somali community here. You are welcomed here; you are cherished here. But more than you are welcomed and cherished here, we need you here.” In these places, public declarations from leadership are typically a first step toward substantive programs, practices, and policies. In cities and towns with particularly vocal belonging-oriented elected leaders, I also found that officials worked closely with immigrant advocacy groups to provide not only services but systems to enhance civic engagement, to support immigrant entrepreneurship, and to build relationships between new immigrants and longtime city residents. Declarations alone are obviously not going to transform the laws and policies that engender inequality between groups. But public declarations are still significant, if only because in an atmosphere of activated othering nationally, local silence sends a loud and unwelcoming message.

Some belonging efforts aim for structural transformation to reduce inequality and equalize access and status. In the diverse school district of Rockville Centre, educators ended the system of academic tracking that had resulted in African American students and students with low socioeconomic status languishing in lower tracks. At the high school, educators instituted a rigorous International Baccalaureate program open to all students. In Mississippi, African American legislators have built a strong political coalition with labor leaders and Latino immigrants over more than a decade. The coalition has been successful in getting antiracial profiling legislation passed in the capital city, Jackson, and in preventing passage of the kind of anti-immigration legislation that passed in Georgia and Alabama.

Another common belonging practice may seem less revolutionary. But it does carry transformative potential. It involves the intentional creation of space and time dedicated to bringing people with different identities together. The goals vary from place to place. But in most places, like Fort Wayne, Indiana, and in dozens of self-declared “welcoming communities” across the nation, people often get to know each other and, in time, go on to identify and solve problems together.

In Fort Wayne, a faith-based nonprofit, The Reclamation Project, bought and then its volunteers began to renovate a dilapidated historic theater in a dying downtown area. In fits and starts, staff and volunteers from the neighborhood transformed part of the old theater into a center for culture, arts, socializing, and services for residents of the neighborhood, which include African Americans, American-born Latinos, a spattering of white folks, and immigrants and refugees from Burma, Sudan, and Somalia.

“The goal is relationships,” the project director, Angie Harrison, said. “The point is reciprocity . . . Everyone has something
to contribute.”

Some of these efforts begin simply with people sharing food or stories or making cultural exchanges through art, crafts, singing, or dance. This may seem like a small measure in the face of vast inequalities in wealth and power in our society. I suppose it is. But many organizers, who traditionally are interested in making big changes to law, policy, and practice, told me that purposeful socializing and relationship building was necessary in order to overcome the social distance between groups. In addition to negative cultural messages, isolated upbringings and prejudice in many of these places has likely been exacerbated by residential and school segregation, which powell and Menendian describe as a “central feature or revealing marker of societies” where othering is occurring.

In Omaha, Nebraska, the Tri-Faith Initiative brings together three religious communities—Jewish, Christian, and Muslim—to share a campus for worship. Each faith community worships in its own building—a synagogue, a church, and a mosque—but the initiative reserves a fourth structure for social and educational events that bring the different faith communities together to better understand each other’s traditions, to share in celebrations, and to build authentic relationships.

“We’ve always been on the defensive,” said Karim Khayati, who emigrated from Tunisia to Nebraska in 1998 and is on the Tri-Faith Initiative’s board. “Here we’re not on the defensive. We’re taking part in something big, something that’s sending a positive message.”

Since 2001, teenagers from across Maine have gathered for two weeks at the Seeds of Peace International Camp in Otisfield to learn about bias, stereotypes, and privilege; to develop leadership skills; and to get to know one another by doing typical things one tends to do at camp. They take out canoes. They roast marshmallows. They put on plays and sing and dance. And they fall in love. Since 1993, the camp has been known worldwide for bringing together young people from conflict regions around the globe to build relationships and break down stereotypes.

In 2000, an educator named Tim Wilson, who was Maine’s first-ever African American public schoolteacher back in the 1970s, took note of the growing diversity of his state, a change brought about mainly by the migration of people from Somalia and other African nations, in addition to concentrated Latino populations in a few communities. He worked with local philanthropists to create the Maine Seeds version of the camp, which is based upon the international model. Emblazoned on the wall of a small wooden building, the words “The Way Life Could Be” greet visitors to the camp, which is set among tall pine trees on a calm, clear lake. Ebullient young people, dressed in forest-green camp shirts, sit in circles and talk intently. They cheer each other during camper-led announcements about interfaith prayer services, the upcoming play, and a cookout. The purpose of the program is to equip young people from a range of backgrounds—African American, Latino, white, Muslim, Somalian, Jewish, Christian—to build skills for leadership in the context of diversity, prejudice, power differences, and wealth inequality.

The hope is that the personal transformation and leadership training will enable students to make changes that facilitate equity and belonging when they return to their home schools. To this end, the program continues after camp is over, offering workshops and support for “seeds,” as the campers are called, to develop activities to bridge divides in their home schools. It’s worked. Seeds students have been instrumental in raising awareness about inequalities and inadequacies in English-language instruction programs in public schools across the state, for example. In recent years, several students initiated diversity awareness programs, organized public forums on race and bias training at their home schools, and pushed school districts to provide greater access to rigorous coursework for students of color and for students who come from families that earn low incomes. Seeds students testify regularly at the Maine State House in Augusta, where they have advocated for increasing education funding, providing more services for students and adults learning English, and increasing the minimum wage.

In some belonging efforts, practitioners transform thought and practice by centering the marginalized. After nurses, doctors, and administrators in Dalton, Georgia, realized they weren’t reaching members of the Mexican American community, they instituted a promotora model common in Latin America in which Latinas from the community become vital health care providers and liaisons between the Americanized system of care and the people who deserve that care. In Utah, educators responded to a growing population of Spanish-speaking students by bringing Spanish- and English-speaking students together to share classrooms and learn in both languages. The twenty-four two-way immersion programs are supported, in part, by the state of Utah, which passed legislation in 2007 that greatly expanded opportunities for language education.

“Look, our state has changed,” said Howard Stephenson, the conservative Republican state legislator who spearheaded efforts to expand language programs and learning opportunities for Spanish-speaking students. “The little rural communities, little towns are all changing. If you celebrate that, if you give our young people a place to blossom and grow and to really integrate, if you create the opportunities for all of us to integrate and to each come over to the other’s perspective a little bit, how can that not be good for everyone?”

The stories we tell these days need to do far more than evoke sympathy for a singular othered person. It’s not enough to smash stereotypes about othered groups or demonstrate how badly the Trump regime is hurting us. We have to remember that the story of Guadalupe García de Rayos is not merely about a singular injured individual but about a valued member within a human ecology of interdependence. It is a story about a community that is less than it was now that she’s gone. The story is about all the ways that we are now less for expelling her.

To help us tell these stories, the Rev. William Barber, leader of the Moral Mondays movement in North Carolina, urges us to “build a new language to pull people together” that reduces our reliance on easy bifurcations like “left and right.” In talking about the fight for a higher minimum wage in North Carolina, Barber says, “when we came together—black, white and Latino, Jew and Christian, Muslim and Hindu, people of faith, people not of faith, gay and straight, Republicans and Democrats—around this moral agenda, and we stopped talking left and right and liberal versus conservative, but what’s morally defensible, we won.” Years before, in his Open Letter to Our Friends on the Question of Language, the organizer, educator, and scholar Eddie Ellis demonstrated the transformative power of just one word.

. . . we are referred to as inmates, convicts, prisoners and felons—all terms devoid of humanness which identify us as “things” rather than as people. These terms are accepted as the “official” language of the media, law enforcement, prison industrial complex and public policy agencies. However, they are no longer acceptable for us and we are asking people to stop using them. In an effort to assist our transition from prison to our communities as responsible citizens and to create a more positive human image of ourselves, we are asking everyone to stop using these negative terms and to simply refer to us as PEOPLE. People currently or formerly incarcerated, PEOPLE on parole, PEOPLE recently released from prison, PEOPLE in prison, PEOPLE with criminal convictions, but PEOPLE.

As Barber and Ellis imply, the new language of belonging challenges not just stereotypes but the very act of categorization and the hierarchies of value attached to those classifications. We need to listen to leaders like Barber and Ellis and to the inclusive mayors in our cities. We also need to tell stories about ordinary people who reject othering and intentionally choose belonging. As the Sikh minister, civil rights lawyer, and activist Valarie Kaur says, “Love is not a passing feeling; it is an act of will.”

Perhaps one way to rise above othering, then, is by determinedly and repeatedly elevating and celebrating the human impulse toward belonging, which, as powell and Menendian remind us, is a choice rooted firmly in love. Yes, the great problem of the twenty-first century is othering. The question now is if belonging can become its greater victory.