Our Problem Isn’t Simply “Racism,” It’s “Otherism”

Written by J. Warner Wallace |
Friday, November 25, 2022

All of us favor “our own”. There are “otherists” in every profession, organization and social group. Wherever there are people, you’ll find this kind of behavior, although our “otherism” will probably be expressed differently depending on the group, situation or historical context. Racism is perhaps the simplest form of “otherism” because it is based on the most obvious feature each of us possesses: our physical appearance. But make no mistake about it, the real problem, the root problem, is far more troubling. “Otherism” can employ nearly any distinctive feature we possess as the impetus for bias and favoritism. Knock down one reason to divide from one another and another can be easily be pressed into service. We do it all the time.

Several years ago at a memorial service held for the ambushed police officers in Dallas, Texas, the President said, “Faced with this violence, we wonder if the divides of race in America can ever be bridged. We wonder if an African-American community that feels unfairly targeted by police, and police departments that feel unfairly maligned for doing their jobs, can ever understand each other’s experience.” In the years that followed, the division only seems worse. Few would argue that we are increasingly divided as a nation, and many identify race as the basis of this division. But racism is simply the expeditious term we apply to a much more common and troubling experience: as humans, our problem isn’t simply racism, it’s what I call “otherism”.

I noticed it many years ago when my German in-laws expressed an interest in my profession as a police officer. One of them asked me what kind of pistol my agency issued. I told him we carried a Glock Model 21. He immediately winced and said, “Ugh, that’s an Austrian gun.” Mind you, this relative was born and raised in Southern Germany, less than one hundred miles from the Austrian border. When I visited the region, many years earlier, I couldn’t tell any difference between the southern Germans and the northern Austrians I met. From my perspective, these two groups looked the same, sounded the same, ate virtually the same food, and lived in the same region of Europe. For all intents and purposes, these two groups should find much around which they could identify and unify, but the line on the ground had become an excuse for division; a way for each group to identify (and separate from) the “other”.

Years later, while serving on our agency’s gang detail, I saw something similar occurring between “cliques” of gangsters in Los Angeles County. Young men of the same race, ethnicity, socio-economic status and region went out of their way to separate from one another, even though they had so much in common. They wore different colors to amplify their sense of “otherness”. They would even kill each other based on the colors they wore, even though without these clothing distinctions, they couldn’t tell each other apart.

Our innate “otherism” (our desire to separate from one another in any way possible) is so deeply rooted that even if every man on the planet was physically identical to every other man (and every woman identical to every other woman), we’d still find some way to separate from one another. Perhaps all the people who live at an even address would express a bias against those who live at an odd address. As crazy as that sounds, our “otherism” is that hardwired into our fallen human nature. In fact, there is a growing body of scientific research demonstrating this “otherist” predisposition.

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