When I’ve Been Othered

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Welcome to October, Lovelys! This month, we are making room for voices that need to be heard. My friend Nicole is starting us off and going in “my” slot, because I believe we all need to hear what she has to say. If you want to know more about our month ahead (we’re doing something different and I’m holding my breath) my introduction is up here. May we be women who Listen together. With Love, idelette xoxo

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By Nicole Joshua | Twitter: @NixAJ76

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We sat on her couch, reaching out to one another tentatively. We quietly shared some stories about our lives as we journeyed with this new friendship.

I can’t remember what I shared that night, but whatever it was, it gave her the courage to share part of her story with me as well. Her words at first seemed harmless, but her ending left me feeling winded, as if I had landed on my stomach across a bar on a jungle gym.

“My husband and I grew up surrounded by good friends. Before we left to move here, we had a really great group of friends from our church. We had so much fun, and we could really trust them.

Yet, as we sit here, I’m starting to realize something. You are my first friend of colour. All my friends back home looked like me. We grew up being told that you people were different, that you didn’t experience emotions like we do. But as I listen to you, I’m realizing that you experience emotions just like I do.

I never thought to question what I was told, because life was great. But now I’m starting to wonder.”

I was stunned. People of colour don’t experience emotions like white people do? As the words echoed in my mind, they slowly started reverberating through my body, and left me feeling vulnerable, hurt, confused, nauseous.

For the first time in my life, I was confronted with the idea that I was less than human because of the colour of my skin, and, in her eyes, incapable of experiencing emotions in the way that she, and “her people” do.

Living in the context of South Africa, understanding myself to be Coloured (not necessarily an accepted label or identity by many because it was constructed by the apartheid government), her attitudes and beliefs should not have surprised me. In fact, being an “other” should not have been a new idea to me given that I was one of 80 kids of colour that were accepted to attend a high school that was previously exclusive to whites only. You would think that that first year of attending school with 800 white kids would have awakened an awareness of how people of colour had been “othered” in dehumanizing ways.

But it did not. And so, six years after high school, I found myself speechless with horror and grief at the realization that some people judged me as subhuman.

Fast forward another another 14 years …

I stood in the genocide museum in Kigali, weeping at the horror around me. Seeing the weapons used in an attempt to erase the existence of a people. Reading how one group was taught to see the other group as cockroaches. Realizing the devastation that results when we see people as the “other.”

As I walked through the church building where 10,000 people were murdered and stood at the mass gravesite where 45,000 murdered people laid to rest, I deeply grieved for our world and for our capacity to do such things when we cannot see God’s image engraved every human being’s DNA.

Being an “other” is not a bad thing. When we embrace and celebrate “otherness” as God’s tapestry of beauty and diversity, then recognizing someone as “other” is acknowledging the creativity of our God.

But when we “other” someone because we think they are less intelligent, capable, beautiful, normal, human than us, we dehumanize them. We deny that they too bear the image of God within them and we, too, then have machetes in our hands, murdering fellow human beings.

You would think that my experience of being “othered” would sensitize me enough not to “other” others in dehumanizing ways. But alas, I still find myself doing so, and more often than not, it is done unconsciously.

I recently read a guest post on Brett Fish Anderson’s blog about living with disability, and I had this thought: We “other” people because of our woundedness.

In his post, Lachlan, a quadriplegic, speaks out about being called “courageous” or “inspirational.” He believes these observations almost always have nothing to do with the disabled person and usually something to do with the speaker. It’s the mirror effect: I look at you and see something reflecting back to me. More often than not, I see in you what I believe is lacking in me or I see something in you that reflects a shadow side in me that I want to avoid. And so I romanticize or vilify you because I cannot but respond to you through my unexamined roundedness.

I see this because I recognize it within myself. When I am feeling stressed, or tired, or insecure or unsafe, or irritated, then I too often react unconsciously in ways that dehumanize people.

Taxi drivers who stop in the middle of the road to drop or pick up passengers, causing traffic jams …

Drivers who cut me off or who squeeze into the lane in front of me because they did not want to be in the long queue of cars in peak hour traffic …

The woman who walks into a clothing store and buy anything she wants to because she can fit into anything …

The lecturer or teacher whose teaching is so different to yours because it is so much more creative and profound …

The people with higher academic qualifications than yours that allow them to speak with an authority that you feel you lack …

When confronted or surrounded by people in these above scenarios, I sometimes find myself needing to find a flaw or weakness or fault in them so I can feel better about myself. I find myself needing to make them smaller or less than, so I can feel “more” or “better.”

And without me realizing it, I commit murder.

In Matthew 5:21-26, Jesus equates being angry with someone or insulting someone, or calling someone by a derogatory label, with committing murder. In chapters 5-7 of Matthew, Jesus calls his followers to a higher standard of righteousness/justice (The Greek word translated as “righteousness” can also be translated, and would have been understood by the original hearers, to also encompass “justice.”) They were trying to live according to the letter of the law (Jesus was referring to Torah, and this is not to be limited to law; it’s actual meaning is more like God’s guidance for living), but missed the spirit of the law.

When we think about murder, we think about killing someone physically. But Jesus’ understanding of “murder” is subversive. He stretches the meaning so that it includes ways in which we “other” people in dehumanizing ways.

It seems to me that if we wake up to this truth, then we would be able to be agents of transformation and healing, rather than weapons that wound, intentionally or unintentionally.

O, that we would hear Jesus’ warning about the dangers of “othering” people in dehumanizing ways. That we would instead learn to see ourselves truthfully; to examine ourselves, and in so doing embrace our shadows and our wounds and vulnerability. And that we would honour who we are, and “see” others through these eyes. That we would celebrate difference in others as a reflection of God’s image engraved in our DNA.

For this image celebrates the creativity of an awesome God who desires shalom for both you and me.

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Nicole_head shot for BioAbout Nicole:

Nicole Joshua is a teacher, academic, reflective practitioner and encourager. She loves passionately and deeply and feeding people’s tummies and hearts makes her whole being smile. She is also a reluctant writer and sometimes blogs at Finding And Owning My Voice. Nicole and her husband cannot contain their excitement at having just embarked on their journey to adopt their first baby. And when you’re in the same building as her, and you need to find her, all you need to do is follow the sound of her laughter.

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