At YWCA Madison, one of the core values that guide us is the truth of our shared Humanity— the truth that each and every one of us is sacred, has dignity, and has the right to well being in this human experience. The shared aspect of our Humanity means that we are closest to wholeness in our own humanity when we see, and honor the humanity of others–when we honor the fact that our fates as humans are linked.
Othering is what happens when we fail to see others as fully human–when we put our fellow humans in a box separate from ourselves labeled “other.” Othering is what opens the door, and gives rise to oppressive actions and structures.
In the United States, we have inherited a reality in which othering has been baked into the experience at the structural level. Othering was what was required in order to justify the genocide and land theft perpetrated against Native people. It was required to justify an economic order founded on a system of chattel slavery of people torn from their homes in Africa. It was required to construct the false story of race and racial hierarchy. It was required to construct whiteness, and the false supremacy associated with it. It was required to justify the ongoing plunder and domination by those racialized as white. Othering is deeply embedded in the fabric of our existence as a society. There is a long history of white supremacist public policies supported by private actions that have determined who gets to be seen as fully human in our social context.
As a society, we have never truly reckoned with the legacy of this oppressive othering. As a result, the repercussions of this ongoing lack of understanding of our shared humanity continue to reverberate today. COVID-19 has brought the impact of this legacy into sharp focus. It has continued to reveal who gets to be seen as fully human within our current context.
The Impact of Dehumanization
One of the first ways that we saw othering playing out in the time of the Coronavirus was the rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans. Reports that the virus originated in China, along with President Donald Trump calling it “the Chinese Virus,” has reinforced stigma against Chinese Americans and other Americans of Asian descent. The dramatic upswing in verbal and physical assaults on Asian Americans, both (locally and nationally) is a reflection of the ways in which Asian Americans have been othered into a box labeled “perpetual foreigner.” The notion that Chinese Americans would have a closer relationship with the country of their ancestral heritage than with their own, is an indication that full humanity and citizenship are still not offered to many, despite the fact that many Chinese families have been in the U.S. since the 1815s. The fact that many Asian Americans that aren’t of Chinese descent have also been the victims of hate crimes is a manifestation of the racist and xenophobic lumping together of many diverse Asian people into one box labeled “other.”
Another significant impact of the legacy of othering we have seen is that Native Americans are being hit harder by the coronavirus than the overall population. In fact, after New York and New Jersey, the place with the highest coronavirus infection rate in the U.S. is the Navajo Nation.
“Communities of color are not more susceptible to coronavirus, but because of years of unequal access to healthcare, clean water and nutritious food, they are at greater risk of developing complications. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Native Americans experience diabetes three times more than any other racial or ethnic group in the United States, and have the highest rates of asthma. Before the pandemic, the federal health system serving Native Americans was already chronically underfunded.”
In addition to the disparate health impact and deaths Native Americans have experienced, they have also frequently been left out of the coronavirus data, and in so doing, continuing the long-existing practice of the erasure and invisibilization of Native people.
Important Note: The dehumanization and disparate impact of COVID-19 on Black, Latinx, and people without documents will be explored with more depth in the coming days.
The continued impact of white supremacist othering is heartbreaking and deadly. In order to transform this impact in favor of justice, we must look at the truth of how we got to this moment, but we must also engage in an exploration of what we will need to do to build a better future that is built on belonging.
An Invitation to Reconnect with our Shared Humanity
One of the antidotes to the poison of othering is to reconnect with the truth of our Shared Humanity. We would like to invite you to engage in an exploration of what that means for you as a person.
In this video from the global oneness project (about 4 min), youth worker and community leader Orland Bishop explains the meaning of the Zulu greeting Sawubona (“We see you”) as an invitation to a deep witnessing and presence which is based in Shared Humanity.
After watching this video, we ask you to take some time to reflect on your answer to the question he poses as well as a few others:
- From the video: “How do I have to be in order for you to be free?”
- What would it look like if I were to exist in a way that was guided by Shared Humanity?
- What would it mean…
- for me as a person?
- In what ways have I internalized racialized othering narratives?
- How will I notice and interrupt these ideas when they show up in me?
- for my relationships?
- for how I engage in my community?
- for me as a person?
- What would it mean…
As an offering for exploration of othering at the structural level, we invite you to watch this TED Talk (about 14 minutes), in which Heather McGhee, a public policy expert, unpacks the ways that racism and our lack of ability to honor our shared humanity at the structural level hurts everyone. She also addresses the opportunity that we have to build a society that is built on the truth of our linked fates.
For a deeper dive with Heather McGhee, you can also watch this video of her in conversation with Ta-Nehisi Coates as they discuss racism in the time of COVID-19 and how we might start to think about what is on the other side of this.
Thank you for reading, and keep an eye out for the further exploration of our values in the coming days.