Othering refers to the way in which some individuals and groups are defined as not fitting within a certain group or community. They are often also attributed to negative stereotypes or characteristics.
Othering language and socialization
Othering (or otherness) is a marginalization process in which an individual or group of individuals is excluded from another group, culture or society by people who consider them to be incompatible with their own values and principles. Factors such as race, ethnicity, class, gender identity and sexual orientation typically play a role, which is why othering is closely connected to issues of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia and antisemitism.
Othering can be expressed through language that denigrates, stereotypes or undervalues anyone who is different because of their demographic characteristics. Instead of celebrating a person’s diversity and individuality, it leads to premature judgments and biases.
The othering effect on society
Othering is a concept that is essentially based on the idea of “us” and “them.” It allows the mistreatment or dehumanization of a marginalized group by a larger dominant culture. In daily life, it becomes a common tactic that people use consciously and subconsciously through language, attitudes and social interaction.
In its most basic form, othering is looking at another person and thinking “they are not like me” or “they do not belong with us.” This often occurs subconsciously and as such becomes a powerful vehicle for reinforcing stereotypes and prejudices. On a larger scale, it can lead to the discrimination, persecution and exploitation of entire groups of people.
Examples of othering
Othering can appear across a wide spectrum of human interactions, ranging from everyday workplace conversations to institutional policies and societal structures. It manifests in various forms, such as exclusionary language, discriminatory practices and unequal power dynamics.
Some of the most common examples are connected to race and ethnicity, but othering can often occur in more covert ways when it involves unconscious assumptions about others.
Here are some examples:
- Reluctance to interact with people outside of one’s own social group
- Feeling threatened by people from outside one’s own social group
- Attributing negative qualities to individuals from a different social group
- Undervaluing, underestimating or ridiculing people who do not belong to one’s own social group
- Attributing individuals from a certain group the same stereotypical qualities on the basis of belonging to that particular group or culture.
- Preventing individuals who are seen as outsiders from accessing the same rights, benefits or opportunities as everyone else.
Types of othering
Othering can be triggered by a wide range of attributes that become markers used to create divisions and hierarchies. Some of these attributes are:
- Race and ethnicity
- Class and socioeconomic status
- Gender identity
- Sexual orientation
How othering contributes to discrimination
Othering is a social phenomenon that arises from our human tendency to categorize and differentiate. It is deeply rooted in social and cultural dynamics, shaping how we perceive and treat each other.
Sometimes, it can have more disturbing consequences, leading to discrimination and dehumanization. This occurs when a social group (or a society) feels entitled to act cruelly or unethically on the basis of who is part of the “in-group” and who belongs to the “out-group.”
Biases and stereotypes are common reinforcement tools used in the process of othering. They attribute negative characteristics to individuals or groups that do not conform to certain societal norms or expectations.
Some of the biases linked to othering are:
- Ethnocentrism: The belief that one’s own cultural or ethnic group is superior to other groups.
- Confirmation bias: The tendency to selectively interpret information in a way that supports one’s preexisting beliefs or stereotypes.
- In-group bias: The tendency to favor individuals who belong to one’s own social group while having a negative attitude towards ‘outsiders.
- Prejudice and implicit biases: Conscious and unconscious biases based on people’s differences that affect our attitudes and actions towards others.
Challenging othering in the workplace
Challenging social constructs that are false and harmful is critical to creating a more inclusive workplace.
Here are some steps:
- Being aware of stereotypes and implicit bias: Our own social identities make us participate in the process of othering without realizing it. Identifying and addressing existing biases is an important step toward combating othering tendencies against colleagues and employees. This also includes learning to recognize othering.
- Othering awareness: Learning to recognize othering and challenging the idea of homogeneity in the workplace helps minimize engagement in harmful and discriminatory practices.
- Offering inclusivity training programs for all employees: Inclusivity training creates awareness and collaboration, helping employees unlearn implicit biases and identify stereotypes that contribute to a toxic working environment. Over time, the right type of training can help mitigate the harmful effects of othering.
- Creating spaces that foster intergroup mingling and an open dialogue: Bridging the gap between your own perceived in-group and other out-groups often leads to the discovery of commonalities and shared interests. It also opens up the opportunity for creativity and innovation.
- Recruiting for a diverse workforce: Actively seeking out candidates from diverse backgrounds. Avoiding the tendency to hire individuals who fit traditional molds or share similar characteristics. Implementing strategies to mitigate bias in selection processes is key to reducing the impact of othering in the workplace.
- Creating diverse employee resource groups (ERG): Supporting and facilitating the creation of employee resource groups that provide a sense of community. This requires an active commitment to diversity and inclusion on behalf of the company’s leadership. ERG’s are typically voluntary and employee-led with an aim to foster an inclusive workplace. They can be a powerful tool for networking, mentorship, and engagement among employees that come from diverse backgrounds.