Othering, Belonging, and the Construction of Self

On February 28, at the 6th annual Wisdom 2.0 conference in San Francisco, California, Berkeley Law Professor and Director of the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society, john a. powell, participated in a panel discussion entitled “Expanding the Conversation: Diversity & Inclusion in Tech and Society.” During this panel, john, among other things, called upon the audience to think deliberately about the concepts of othering and belonging, the subject of our upcoming conference in April. Here are some of my musings on the topic.

There is a deep irony within the construction of the self: Construction of our own identity necessitates contemplation of what we are not. Thus, construction of the self necessarily involves the process of othering. By “othering” I mean part of the process by which we take in environmental stimuli and classify, categorize, and sort that stimuli based on our knowledge, memory, past experiences, external and internal stereotypes—specifically, the part where the end result is a classification or determination of stimulus as “other” or “not like me.” This does not have to become problematic, per se, but it does conjure up some interesting questions.

Again, for me, part of constructing my own identity has come from figuring out what I am not, and what I do not want to experience or be. I would imagine the same is true for everyone reading this blog. So, how do we figure out what we don’t want to be? Answer: In part, by observing the hardship, despair, pain, sadness, sickness and oppression of others—simply because, we don’t want to be or experience any of that. Part of the human experience includes having to endure some pain, sickness, and hardship, but some groups experience this disproportionately and don’t have much choice as the oppressed. These particularly vulnerable and powerless groups are what we do not want to belong to.

There’s a subtle and often ignored side effect of observing the hardships of others: feelings of personal guilt for not having to experience the same hardship as another sentient being. Or, for simply being “better off” than any number of other people.  Guilt, if embraced with gratitude and mindfulness, can inspire and cultivate true empathy. Empathy is like a seed that can breed solidarity with the correct balance of environmental factors.  To simplify: guilt --> empathy --> solidarity.

However, guilt is an unpleasant emotion, and it’s natural to want to avoid feeling guilty. One of the ways we avoid having to sit with our feelings of guilt is by committing the fundamental attribution error[1]—our tendency to attribute the poor outcomes of others to that individual’s personal responsibility and choice, and underestimate the power of outside factors and forces in the shaping of outcomes. This message of personal responsibility is also deeply embedded in our culture as meritocracy-obsessed Americans fight for their slice of the American Dream. By blaming others for their hardship, it’s easier for us not to feel guilty. This process reinforces the distinction between the self and the not-self or ‘other,’ largely through the lens of value-laden judgments and inaccurate assumptions. This process also minimizes the amount of empathy we cultivate, which could have come from the guilt we so quickly shirked away.

Ok, what’s the take away? The take away is this: As you go about your life, growing, changing, maturing, and developing your own sense of self and identity—notice when you engage in othering. Why? Because “deep inclusion is the driver of success.”[2]  Pay attention to your thoughts, sit with your guilt, and heed john’s advice to the Wisdom 2.0 audience: “Be mindful of your thoughts and be deliberate in how you think about yourself and your relationships with others. Develop relationships with diverse individuals. It can literally change who you are, in a good way!”

[1] Term coined by Lee Ross after classic 1967 experiment by Edward E. Jones & Victor Harris.

[2] Konda Mason, Co-Director & CEO Impact Hub Oakland, in her speech “What’s love got to do with it?” at Wisdom 2.0, 2015.

The ideas expressed on the Haas Institute blog are not necessarily those of UC Berkeley or the Division of Equity & Inclusion, where the Haas Institute website is hosted. They are not official and not of one mind. Thoughts here are those of individual authors. We are committed to academic freedom, free speech and civil liberties.