This week will see the convergence of four historical events of note, which interestingly relate to a few present realities: the birth anniversaries of Nelson Mandela and American civil rights activist, Ida B Wells, as well as the end of the Rwandan Genocide and the anniversary of the publication of Adolf Hitler’s autobiographical manifesto, Mein Kampf.
What do all of these events have in common? In one way or another, they relate to the dangers of ‘othering’, i.e. treating a person or a group as “intrinsically different and alien”, in order to justify their oppression. To be sure, identity formation is a crucial aspect of human socialization, and large chunks of our identity are related to group association. However, the problem arises when that group association becomes toxic, such that you cease to see members of other groups as human, instead, simply as ‘other’.
Herr Hitler thus sold the idea to the German people that the Jews were so different that they were dangerous and that is why so many persons could justify assaulting their Jewish neighbours and looting their stores, because they were no longer neighbours; they were ‘other’.
Mandela spent his life fighting a system predicated entirely upon the notion that blacks and coloureds were so inherently different from and alien to whites, that the races must be completely separated and blacks legitimately oppressed.
Ida B. Wells was a crusading activist and investigative journalist, best known for bringing to the attention of the world, one of the worst aspects of Jim Crow southern USA: lynching. Most know that many black men were brutally murdered because they were falsely accused of sexual misconduct. Few however know that most lynchings of blacks were for far more trivial and heart-wrenching reasons, including “unpopularity”, “miscegenation”, “bad reputation”, “writing insulting letter”, “quarrelling with white man” and “gambling”.
Turning to Rwanda finally, it is said that most of the 1,000,000 people killed and 500,000 women raped during the genocide, were murdered or raped in their own villages by persons who were their neighbours. How does one suddenly brutalize your neighbour with whom you had coexisted all your life? Because they were indoctrinated to believe that those Tutsis were ‘other’, and not worthy thus of their humanity.
No human being, expect the most perverse or warped, is capable of inflicting or justifying the infliction of the type of inhumanity aforementioned on another human being. They can only justify such if they are able to tell themselves that these victims are not like them, they aren’t their siblings in humanity. They are ‘other’.
Therefore, when we speak about racism in the present day, what we really speak about is institutions designed to perpetuate prejudice and discrimination, but also which strive to sow divisions between racial groupings. So we have blacks and whites who view each other perpetually with suspicion because we have contrived this artificial separateness.
In Guyana and unfortunately across the region, you have persons willing to justify a massive assault on democracy and electoral fraud, simply because the fraudsters look like them.
Therefore, in this region and anywhere in the world, we have no hope of healing the wounds of the divisions of race, ethnicity, religion, class and gender, unless we comprehensively eradicate ‘othering’.
Does that require deep, structural change? Absolutely.
But is it equally important for every single person to break down within themselves these toxic notions of ‘otherness’? Undoubtedly.
We often forget that institutions are composed of people. Therefore, while ways can be found to fundamentally alter institutions through legislation and such, there is no guarantee that that can solve the problem of human behaviour. That challenge is best solved when each person resolves to represent the desired change themselves.
Is that an easy task? No. Whether we admit it or not, each and every one of us, of all races and creeds, has some prejudice, conscious or subconscious, which affects how we view and treat to others. The battle ahead therefore is internal. If we want to build the best Barbados, we must rise to the occasion. The alternative is too bleak to consider.