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The OTHER: do we have an us-versus-them mindset?

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The OTHER: do we have an us-versus-them mindset?

otherThe concept of self requires the existence of “the other.” Sociologists use the concept of “othering” to describe how differences are understood and identities are constructed. People often assume that because someone has a different skin tone or dresses differently or has a different accent, they may not have much in common with them. They are seen as being entirely different and become “the other.”

Canada’s multicultural ideology embraces diverse racial and ethnic communities being able to retain their cultural identities while being a part of the larger Canadian mosaic. Despite this general acceptance of multiculturalism, Canadians — immigrants or otherwise — often allow markers such as skin colour, country of origin, cultural background or language to define our boundaries, limit our relationships and our interactions instead of getting to really know the people in our neighbourhoods or workplaces.

“People focus on superficial physical or cultural differences and assume that people must be different from them and sometimes avoid interaction. They worry about offending others, and it’s often a subtle kind of avoidance of awkward situations,” says Vic Satzewich, a professor of sociology at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, who has authored books on race and ethnicity in Canada. “Often a lack of meaningful face-to-face interaction facilitates the ‘othering’ process. It’s not necessarily a sign of bad faith or an inherent kind of racism; it can be a sense of uncertainty about what the norms of interactions are between people.”

Polls show that while Canadians regard multiculturalism as a key feature of national identity, they expect immigrants to blend into Canadian society and adopt Canadian values. And, for immigrants, studies have found that having meaningful social interactions with native-born Canadians in workplaces, neighbourhoods and schools is important to their successful integration. When immigrants feel that differences are too great to be bridge, they find integrating a challenge and start pulling back from social engagement, in turn, creating a distance and reinforcing the concept of the “other.”

Comfort among the similar

Limiting associations to people of similar ethnic backgrounds or those speaking the same language further facilitates the process of othering.

From the newcomer perspective, they miss home and often seek those who speak a common language, have the same upbringing and cultural understanding. Radhika (name has been changed), a new Canadian from India who works in the banking sector, finds that the people she works with seem to be more comfortable in their own ethnic groups, even at the workplace. “In a big bank like ours, we seem to seek out people of our kind and open up to them. Who else can we talk to about our daily routines, problems, our complaints and sorrows?”

Newcomers often also prefer the security of ethnic neighbourhoods. But ethnic concentration in neighbourhoods can also have an othering effect, reinforcing ethnic and racial divides. The positives and negatives of such ethnic enclaves are widely debated. The positives include offering a safety net and equipping immigrants with contacts and the information needed to establish themselves quickly. On the negative side, residents of such enclaves don’t have much of an opportunity to integrate, learn English or build a true sense of Canadian identity.

Is this ethnic-focused approach to settlement exacerbating an us-versus-them mindset?

Jennifer, a native Canadian who works in health care in Toronto, says, “I feel like the ‘other’ when I go to the kitchen in my workplace and there are nurses talking in their own language. I wonder if I am intruding and feel left out.”

Narrow views

When there is too much of a divide among different groups and ethnicities, it leads to stereotyping. While often intended as harmless or a joke, such commentary can further reinforces an immigrant’s sense of being treated as the other.

Juan (name has been changed), a Mexican-born immigrant and highly qualified professional, doesn’t like it very much when he jokingly gets asked, “How is your fruit stand?” on a regular basis by an acquaintance. While ethnicity is often a punchline, such humour is not always funny.

“People automatically assume that it’s acceptable to make those kinds of jokes,” says Satzewich.  “They don’t understand the genius of someone like comedian Russell Peters, who uses stereotypes to subvert the stereotypes; people end up using stereotypes to reaffirm them.”

“If someone asks you to stop making references to ethnic or racial differences, listen to them,” says Juan. He also asks people to speak up if they find something offensive.

There is a difference between harmless stereotyping, and ethnic othering that could lead to racism. When we divide ourselves as a superior “us” over “them,” we are using the power of definition to believe that we are better and have an upper hand intellectually, economically or socially, potentially leading to discrimination.

“When racial othering leads to exclusion or denial of job opportunities or denial of places in school, then the solution needed to that racist othering is different from neutral innocuous racial othering that happens all the time,” says Satzewich.

Finding common ground

Today, with one in five Canadians being foreign-born, creating dialogue becomes even more important. Nikolas Patentalakis, a new Canadian from Greece who leads a social group for expats in Calgary, believes that increased interaction is critical for effective dialogue. “I think that if you mix people and they get to know each other, we can definitely create a more open society. As you get to know people, you realize that there’s not much difference between you and them. And it’s less likely to make assumptions about an ethnic group if your best friend’s girlfriend is from that country and you get to know her.”

Some people find connections in their professional or workplaces. Others find a common interest like a sport, activity groups, social groups or community gathering spaces.

“When I first moved here, I felt people were patronizing to me,” says David (name has been changed), a Ugandan-born immigrant who moved to Canada a decade ago. “They treated me as the immigrant who had ‘escaped’ from an impoverished life and country.”

But he finally found that connection. “My local church encourages intercultural experiences; my interaction with a number of folks through my church has helped me a great deal in understanding different cultures,” he adds.

Damodar, an 82-year-old immigrant from India who moved to Canada 47 years ago, is convinced that when we begin talking to people from different religions, cultures and communities, we realize that all human beings are ultimately the same. “But if you don’t talk to people from different communities, your view can be narrow. Immigrants sometimes tend to keep their own company, but as their children grow up and start making friends outside their communities, parents realize that their own views are narrow. Our children who grow up here have more liberal views.”

Regardless of our background, most Canadians’ dreams and aspirations are not that different. We all seek the same things: a reasonably good life, safe neighbourhoods, good schooling for children, access to good health care and career opportunities. Focusing too much on the differences can put up walls between people, create barriers to integration and come in the way of fully benefiting from our multicultural society and all it has to offer.

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