It is a concept and conceit as old as time -- The Other. The one who is different from us, different enough to be feared or mocked or even killed. One whose life, lifestyle, life circumstances are so foreign to our own that we avoid them, mock them, demonize them, until we have reduced them to something less than human. Someone we make invisible at the very least.
A little over a year ago I was sent to the Middle East as part of the TEDx Summit in Qatar along with 800 people from around the globe. Less than 100 of the guests were actually from that region. And though we were treated very well by those on the ground and the entire TED team, one of the gifts of the trip for me was being put into situations where I was viewed as The Other. I was the one who didn't/couldn't speak the language, even the simplest things. I was the one who dressed modestly so as not to draw attention to myself or insult our hosts but still I did not dress in an abaya. I was the one who found the food strange and weather dusty and hot. I was the one who had to rely on the kindness of strangers to find a sandwich, a toilet, the way back to the hotel.
It was humbling. And powerful. And something that forced me, when I returned home, to consider in what ways I created The Other around me and how I could erase those lines and recreate deconstruction beliefs and make my world smaller and more inclusive.
On Sunday night I had dinner with an Italian-Catholic man and German-Muslim man and his Lebanese parents and his Canadian wife.
At a lunch with some local veterans later in the week, The Other was a topic in how war works. And a man I have known, but clearly not known, for more than 30 years eloquently described how basic training in the army was set out to demonize The Other so you could justify killing him/them. And for a few moments I watched as each vet stepped back to the war zone in his mind and fought with his current belief system, which wrestled with his past one, which had allowed him to survive in the jungle. It was a humbling gift to be at the table for the intimate discussion.
So it was with the heaviest of hearts I listened to a radio report of yet another local school board meeting, burdened with the conversation about a book and its author who spoke to the very notion of being The Other. For more than a year, this district has been spending time and money and great public enthusiasm addressing the issue of bullying. The One Book Read for the summer had received the National Book Award for Young Adult Literature in 2007 and is already on the list of approved books taught in this district. It is the fictionalized story of author Sherman Alexie's own childhood and his high school years as the only Native American in an all-white high school. It touched briefly on all those subjects high school students are always talking about as they form their own identities during those formative years. When the author, a known provocateur, came to speak to the students, parents -- who were not in the room and not in the questioning mindset of a teenager -- took offense to Sherman's street language he used to communicate with his audience. He spoke to them about white privilege, something that, if you are white, is a very difficult and sometimes uncomfortable concept and conceit to understand.
Sherman, by all accounts, connected well with the students. Made them laugh and made them question their belief systems just a little, just for a moment. And he shared with them his own painful experience of often being The Other. The very one who was bullied relentlessly for being different.
If we read or gather to dine and discuss, only with people who look just like us and sound just like us and believe everything we believe, we have created such a narrow world we are bound to cause ourselves constant pain by bumping into those confines day after day. The secret is to look for the ways we are all connected. To share our stories until there is no Other only Us. Humans, imperfect to a person, compassionate and fragile and filled with grace. This Sunday in the Park, I will walk among the fallen leaves with gratitude for a week when I experienced the divine power of our similarities...
Teri Orr is a former editor of The Park Record. She is the director of the organization that provides programming for the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Center for the Performing Arts.