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2.10.06

Wanting to be Othered

A white acquaintance recently told me about something that happened when her daughter was very young. The daughter went off to summer camp, and found herself the only white girl in a cabin of mostly black girls. The black girls, who had grown up in a fairly segregated community, were fascinated by my acquaintance's daughter's hair, and spent a fair bit of time touching it and commenting on it. My acquaintance told the story with an air of amusement.

This story contrasts, of course, with the subgenre of "hair politics" written about white people's reactions to black people's hair. These reactions range from unwanted touching, to grooming rules that ban black hairstyles like dreadlocks, to questions and comments that frame the black person as an oddity on display for whites' edification. The black people in question are pretty consistently not amused.

The first point of this story, then, is an illustration of why the "power" element in "racism = prejudice + power" is important. Superficially similar acts can be an agent of oppression in one case, but not another, because they link into larger structures and histories of power. Forgetting that is what allows whites to reason "if such-and-such a narrowly defined act was done to me, I wouldn't mind, so therefore it's not racist to do it to a black person."

The second point of this story comes when we look into the nature of the narrowly-defined act. This sort of fascinated hair-touching is a form of Othering. It treats the hair-owner as a deviant object. Deviant, in that she differs from a norm of how hair is supposed to be. An object, in that the deviance is explored without full consideration for the fact that it belongs to a person, and often by reducing the Othered person to a physical body.

We're used to seeing Othering as a purely negative thing. And indeed, the vast majority of Othering functions to create and maintain oppression. But that's not always the case. There are two things that can happen when a member of a dominant group faces the possibility of being treated as the Other. The most commonly recognized is fear. The fear of having the tables turned always haunts dominant groups (hence the hand-wringing about "reverse racism" and the "emasculation" of society).

But members of dominant groups also have a latent desire to be Othered. It's well-recognized that whiteness is set up as the norm -- both in the sense of "you ought to be like white people" and "white is unremarkably normal" -- while other races are defined by their deviance from the white model. On the one hand, this is a source of great power and privilege for white people, since social structures and cultural expectations are set up with us in mind, and we're freed from having to think about race issues.

But the normality of whiteness is also a source of a bit of existential angst. It thwarts the natural human tendency to want to be seen as different and special. So when Othering happens in a safe environment -- such as a short stay at camp, where the counselors are presumably unwilling to seriously challenge the basic racial hierarchy of society -- white people enjoy being a little Othered. We enjoy having our characteristics not taken for granted, while not having to worry about being defined and limited by them. (Obviously this is more true for those of us who are also members of the dominant group with respect to gender, class, abledness, etc.).

The point is not, however, (just) that "racism hurts white people too." I think the desire to be a little Othered reinforces whites' tendency to conclude that racist acts aren't racist through a simplistic and narrow attempt to put oneself in the other person's shoes. We wouldn't necessarily mind being Othered a bit not only because Othering us wouldn't be backed by power, but also because it would be a desirable counterbalance to our normality.

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