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Othering Among Friends

Erin Wilson
On Dignity (July 2023)
Inward Light

As humans, we are taught from a very young age to categorize things based on their characteristics. In my former life as an elementary school teacher, it was part of my job to help young children develop a sense of what is the same and what is different. Children sort things by size, color, shape, texture, etc. This skill serves a purpose, but it also gets used in ways that are problematic.

When we sort other humans into “nice, neat boxes,” we create needless heartache. Such sorting creates barriers to building community and stops people from being able to participate in crucial parts of society. When we determine that some people are different from us in some way, we “other” them, a key part of “us vs. them” thinking.

Equality is a value that is commonly held by Quakers. If we believe that each of us has “that of God” within us, then every single one of us is intrinsically valuable. We all bring various skills and life experiences to the community. Our individual worth is not determined by the ways that we are same as one another. Unfortunately, despite this commitment to equality, Quakers are just as prone as anyone to slipping into “us vs. them” thinking.

You have likely experienced a time when you felt like you didn’t belong in a group, or when you felt “othered.” I’m sure you know the discomfort, anger, and fear that often goes with being an outsider. No one enjoys it. You can also probably think of a time when you made someone else feel like they didn’t belong. You might find it useful to spend time reflecting on why you made that choice, what you might have done differently, and how you might act in similar circumstances in the future.

For many people, having an “outsider” experience leads them to feel like they are less valuable than the people around them, even to feel worthless. For others, the “outsider” experience motivates them to work to make changes in their own outlook or in the group until they feel like they belong. Some people are able to stick around for a long time, hoping for change, despite feeling like they are on the outside looking in. For many of us, though, it’s more common to walk away from situations where we sense we don’t belong – or worse, to be lastingly harmed by the people who made us feel “other.” This is why it’s so important to learn to recognize our own “othering” behaviors.

If someone is repeatedly “othered” in various circles, they are likely to develop a general doubt about whether they’ll be accepted warmly in most new situations. In my own experiences, I have learned to approach certain settings with an attitude of distrust, until the people involved have proven that they are trustworthy. I doubt that any Quaker church or meeting wants newcomers to feel like they have to test the waters before joining us in community. Unfortunately, that is exactly what some of us have learned that we must do to protect ourselves.

Also unfortunately, our Quaker communities often resist making changes that could help newcomers feel more included. For example, in several Quaker circles (and other settings as well), I have seen folks refuse to use a microphone when speaking because they say they “have a loud voice.” In those situations, some people in the room likely have trouble hearing, have trouble processing when a microphone isn’t being used, have sensory issues and cannot hear the “loud voice” over the noise of the fan nearby, or have a plethora of other challenges. When we choose to forgo accessibility tools that are at our disposal, then we “other” the people who need those tools, and we communicate to them that their needs aren’t worth our attention, that they are on their own to figure out how to become part of us.

Microaggressions, discrimination, negative biases, harmful stereotypes, unnecessarily stopping certain people from participating fully in our communities – these are all examples of ways we push people into the category of “other.” It’s absolutely vital that we work individually and collectively to unlearn our biases, to recognize the dignity and value of every person we meet, and to learn from people whose differences make us uncomfortable. It is in discomfort that we do our best learning. It’s imperative that we not avoid the disequilibrium we experience when we push back against our internal biases. We must push ourselves to be uncomfortable and learn how to be more inclusive, to adapt to the needs of people unlike ourselves, and to focus on ways we can tear down barriers instead of reinforcing them. Here are some practical examples:

1) When someone visits your church or meeting, it’s easy to leave them be, hoping they’ll connect with someone else. Maybe you could try being the person who goes up to them first and asks, “What brought you here today?” I can feel the introverts cringing. You don’t have to be the person who helps them in the long term, but maybe you know who to point them to and can make an introduction.

2) In some cases, “othering” is actually somewhat preventable. Many transgender and nonbinary folks feel quite uncomfortable when they are misgendered. One way to make this less likely is by introducing ourselves to others with our name and pronouns. For example, I might say, “Hi, I’m Erin, and I use she/her pronouns.” Someone who is hoping to not be misgendered is likely to take this as an invitation to introduce themself in a way that will help them avoid that discomfort.

3) We all have been around people whose beliefs are different from ours, and lately, opposing political beliefs are challenging for many of us. To help me avoid “othering” people with beliefs different from mine, I have started trying to “listen to understand.” A small set of questions helps me with this, regardless of the topic being discussed. These include: “This issue seems really important to you. Can you help me understand why you feel so strongly?” “I think we disagree about this, but I’m wondering: Can you explain your thoughts on this, so I can try to see your perspective?” In my limited practice with this approach, I have found that when I express a desire to understand the other person, it diffuses some of the intense emotions that often come with political debates, and it allows us the possibility of building a relationship, even though we may have passionately opposing opinions.

When we remember to view others through the lens of “that of God” or to seek out the “light within” them, we are much less likely to stumble down a path of othering and exclusion. It’s not our responsibility to question anyone’s internal worthiness, but rather to seek it, even when it’s obscured.

I dream of a time when Quaker circles can avoid othering, when all people feel radically accepted, regardless of their differences. I hope I can live in a way that opens doors into a welcoming community for those who have been excluded. May we all learn to recognize the value of being in community with people who are different from us.

Some queries I hope are helpful as you ponder:

  • How can we recognize when someone’s identity is being used against them as a tool for exclusion? What can we do to help them feel a sense of belonging?
  • How can we live into the testimony of equality in our Quaker circles, in our social/family circles, and in the world?
  • How can we stand between someone being “othered” and the person doing the “othering”? How can we stand with them both?  ~~~

Erin Wilson (she/her) is a former elementary teacher turned Executive Assistant at a nonprofit working toward food and housing security. She is a direct member of Sierra-Cascades Yearly Meeting of Friends (SCYMF), and recently stepped into the role of co-clerk for SCYMF. She and her partner live in Tualatin, OR.


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