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How Not to be the Other

November 21, 2012

Marsha Lynn Bragg

Recently I made time to attend a lecture by Mark Potok, a senior fellow with the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), who is considered one of the nation's leading experts on extremism.

The Law and Society Program, the Office of the President, and the politics, history, and African American studies departments sponsored his visit.

The session was to provide an overview of the current state of religious and political extremism and how it came to be.

I've followed the work of the Atlanta-based SPLC for many years so I went in with some background. What made me stop and think were some of the questions following Potok's near hour-long talk. One student asked the daunting question, which I am badly paraphrasing: How can we prevent the idea of us against other?

What an intriguing question, I thought, and what a great place to ask it: a liberal arts college.

Potok didn't answer his question directly. Rather, he gave a general response of the need to be aware of the activities and trends of extremist groups and to expose these groups to the authorities when possible. I was hoping, like the student, to get some practical tips for guarding against bias or inadvertent stereotyping of people unlike me.

We just completed a presidential election cycle rife with all kinds of negative racial- and gender-coded messaging through words, images, outright fabrication ... with the goal of creating that sense of "other" in order to produce fear and mistrust.

You can determine for yourself how well that worked.

So I started to ponder that student's question.

It helps to be in--or even seek out--a diverse environment, or at least one that is not adverse to diversity. Some communities may not openly champion diversity but they also don't thwart or undermine efforts to bring it about. And by diverse, I mean much more than the obvious--skin tone or ethnicity--because diversity exists even among persons of a common racial or ethnic identity.

An obvious starting point is living in a residence hall or co-op among students from cities and towns near and far. Campus living expressly lends itself to new experiences, perspectives, and ways of doing things. It's like the adage: you never really know a person until you live with that person.

Since being at Oberlin, I've seen concerted efforts by the college, organized groups, and individual impassioned persons to present a range of diverse experiences, whether in the form of a lecture or speaker series, a musical performance, dance, or art show. These examples serve to dispel the idea of "other" by presenting experiences that may be unique but fall within the range of viewpoints and emotions that, in some form, all people share.

Just last week, the new Center for Languages and Cultures and other departments sponsored a colloquium, Documenting Violence: Photography, History, Memory, to show the role of photography in documenting conflict. And conflict often arises when one fails or refuses to recognize or respect another.

The center also launched ObieMAPS,

an interactive, data-driven website that allows visitors to get a better sense of the richness and diversity of intellectual life on campus, and the global nature of Oberlin as an institution. You can see the variety of courses taught, who teaches them, what languages are spoken here, among other information.

Our well-regarded Multicultural Resource Center continues to sponsor programs and events that honor the uniqueness and differences of the broad community here, in celebratory ways that are not forced but available to anyone who desires to learn and hear and experience different perspectives and activities.

It helps to arm yourself with information that both supports what you already know and also challenges what you believe. If what you have come to know passes muster, so to speak, use that information as a foundation and build on your understanding.

If your background includes an affiliation with organized religion, Oberlin has several local churches and meetinghouses open for worship and fellowship. If you wish to explore religion or spiritual issues without having to commit to a specific doctrine, you'll find several ways to do that here, too. Attend a Taize and Chanting Prayer meeting or a gathering of the Buddhist Fellowship Group. If you need a bit more direction, check out the Office of Religious and Spiritual Life, a multifaith resource center on campus that often mixes community service with interfaith activities.

Don't let one bad or awkward encounter shape your beliefs that "all xxxx are such and such." That mindset marks the beginning of a trajectory into the concept of "other."

To the student who posed the question and to others who might also be pondering it: simply avail yourself of the opportunities to get to know and understand people, cultures, languages, traditions, religious even political beliefs that are not like what you may be accustomed to. Isn't that what you're supposed to do at a liberal arts college?

I think you'll find that once you remove society's manufactured labels--which, by design, produce division and an arbitrary hierarchy--you'll discover people with similar goals, beliefs, aspirations, and anxieties .... In other words, you'll find less of the other and more of the humanness that unites us all.

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