Revisiting “Otherness” in light of current events
Editorial Note: NeuWrite San Diego stands in solidarity with those using their voices to protest racial inequality and systemic violence by individuals and institutions against the Black community in response to the murder of George Floyd. We believe that Black Lives Matter. In lieu of bringing our readers new neuroscience content at this time, we would like to revisit an article written shortly after the 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in which the concepts of “us versus other” and categorization that leads to stereotyping are explored. The psychology underlying these topics implores us to educate ourselves and train from a young age to fight against systemic injustice and our own biases.
The NeuWrite San Diego Team
Original Article posted by Steph Nelli on September 19, 2014:
This, That, and the Other
The recent shooting in Ferguson, Missouri has thrown our society’s tendency to binarize people into mainstream awareness. News outlets have been criticized for incriminating Michael Brown by selecting pictures where he fulfills black stereotypes instead of pictures in which he looks like one of Us. Police rely on the same superficial binaries in racial profiling, and if said “criminals” are of sufficient Otherness no questions are asked and quotas are filled. Whole portions of society are trapped on the wrong side of this dichotomy, experiencing very real effects like increased probabilities of incarceration. The first step in recovery is admitting the problem, so let’s deconstruct the idea of Otherness, how it functions in our society, and what we can do to de-dichotomize our minds.
We constantly perform abstract categorizations that serve many purposes. Our brains are limited in processing capacities, so remembering the details of every object in the world around us is both inefficient and impossible. Luckily, we learn to detect and abstract general environmental regularities at a young age, leading to the formation of mental categories (1). These categories provide shortcuts for discerning the function of an object; we are able to categorize highly heterogeneous structures as chairs, which function as a place to sit. Unfortunately this generally useful strategy may also be the basis for the “Us” and “the Other” categories that lead to stereotyping.
Otherness is a concept concerning the construction of social identities through reflection on which attributes constitute membership in superior vs inferior social groups (2). Simone de Beauvoir argued that Otherness is a fundamental category of human thought. Thus it is that no group ever sets itself up as the One without at once setting up the Other over against itself (3). This antagonization marks the Other as Us’ black sheep, the eternal criminal. Aggregating over these groups reveals a person’s social rank, basically a position along the Us- Other scale.
Otherness quickly becomes systemic, with societies adopting rigid stigmata against entire subsections of themselves. To use race as an example, a shoot/don’t shoot study (f6) found that police officers and community members were quicker to respond when shown targets congruent with stereotypes, i.e. unarmed white targets and armed black targets. However, police officers responded shoot based on weapon detection while community members were much more likely to shoot black targets, regardless of weapon presence (4). If the stigma of Otherness is based on group membership, why would the diverse sample of community members be more likely to display this bias than the mostly white officers? Instead, Otherness operates on a societal level, making bias against the Other widely accepted and dangerous. It’s important to remember that everything isn’t so black and white, as a similar paradigm showed participants were more likely to shoot targets wearing a hijabs (5) and less likely to hire high-achieving women wearing hijabs (6), regardless of participant race. Thus, Otherness is deeply rooted in collective stereotypes, and regardless of our own race, socioeconomic status or sexual orientation, we all have to work against letting Otherness color our actions. But how do we stop something if it happens before we can even think about it?
Extensive training and education may be the answer. Importantly, the sample of community members in (4) was much more racially diverse than the officers, but the extensive training officers undergo was what curbed the black-shoot bias (4). Training must be specifically tailored to individual biases, as it decreases negative stereotyping of only the group(s) explicitly included in the training (7). Importantly, however, this effect relies on training in the affirmation of counter-stereotypes, simply negating stereotypes seems to increase stereotyping (e.g. “old people drive well” vs “it isn’t true that old people drive poorly”, 8). This training is probably so effective since the representations of groups and formation of stereotypes are supported by relatively flexible neural circuits in the prefrontal cortex and anterior temporal lobe, respectively (9). So, having been inundated with stereotypes of Otherness our entire lives, training may be the only option. But maybe immature, more flexible minds can form new processes altogether.
The Development of Categories
Category development based on perceptual similarities starts at birth. Through experience and environmental statistics, infants can identify abstract features with particular perceptual categories by three months; four wheels is important for car-ness, but color is not (10, 11). Three month infants raised in homogeneous own-race environments seem to prefer own-race faces while infants raised in heterogeneous environments do not (12), supporting the idea that Us-Other category formation depends on environmental statistics. By a year of age we begin a crucial transition to thinking of categories in respect to their function or role, preferring this mode of categorization over simple perceptual identifications (13). These conceptual categories start as very broad, animals eat food, but progressively narrow to enable us to expect specific actions, humans eat pizza but tigers do not. Children readily use randomly assigned categories as arbitrary as blue vs yellow shirts as the basis for intergroup stereotyping at 6 years old, but more noticeably at 7 and 8 (14). Importantly, this effect depended on teachers mentioning color membership when addressing students, operationalizing the shirt color categories (14). This propensity means adults must emphasize that members of perceptual categories based on skin color, quality of clothes, or gender cannot be expected to act a certain way. Analytically thinking about stereotypes reduces reliance on them (15), and perhaps doing this from a young age will reduce reliance on categorizations for deducing the role of a human being.
While some evidence for certain stereotypes may come from firsthand experience, much of it is inherited from friends, family and the media, sources negligent to the impact their words have on developing minds. In fact, even simple things like reading Harry Potter may improve kids’ attitudes toward the Other (16). So when a child says poor people are lazy, or women shouldn’t have jobs, it’s on us to challenge them to engage in a more analytic process. It’s as simple as asking them to explain themselves, as asking why. Although we may not be able to prevent categorization of Us and Other based on basic features, we can discourage the association of virtuous and criminal roles to Us and the Other. We can shape the future of the long narrative of Otherness by consciously encouraging young minds to subject humans to a different judgment process than other stimuli in the world, the process of careful analysis. As science progresses and we more fully understand developmental aspects of categorizations, our methods will evolve. But as of now, our own awareness is the only tool we have.
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(10) Dr Zuleyka Zevallos. http://othersociologist.com/otherness-resources/
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(f6) Correll, J. (2009) Racial bias in the decision to Shoot? Police Chief magazine, www.policechiefmagazine.org/