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The Tyranny of 'The Other'

December 1, 1998
Related Topics: Diversity, Featured Article
Racism. Sexism. Ageism. Religious bias. Homophobia. We talk about these attitudes as if they are different forms of mold and rot in the minds of our citizens. Although it's true that each reveals a particular stench when exposed, none thrives alone. All of these thoughts breed in the same dark place: our fear of "The Other."

This fear has been with us always. It was there when Native Americans were butchered. It drove us when enslaved African Americans were tortured, and when Japanese Americans were robbed and interned. We hope these fears will subside, but instead they mutate into ideas that are ever uglier, and they lead to savagery that changes how we see the world.

We are not quite the same since James Byrd Jr., an African American, was dismembered when he was tied to a pickup and dragged through the streets of a small Texas town. And we are diminished because Matthew Shepard, a young gay man, was beaten and strung up on a fence like a scarecrow, left to die in rural Wyoming. From what we know, each died only because he was The Other.

Yes, the mold lives on, and it lives everywhere -- in our homes, our streets, our government, our churches and in our workplaces. You know this, which is why you have nurtured diversity programs in your organizations. Sadly, such programs haven't worked. Intended to foster understanding and to help the disenfranchised, most programs have fallen short of their goals. Some have made matters worse.

There are instances in which the programs are to blame, but our attention is better focused on sweeping forces outside organizations and within that serve to strengthen the notion of The Other.

Time and again we are asked to affiliate with a particular (and ever-smaller) demographic. We are asked to stand up and be counted as a Christian mother, a smoker, a rap music fan, a golfer, a liberal, an intellectual, a suburbanite, a "Friends" viewer, a retiree and on and on.

We are asked to choose by some churches, many journalists, most marketers and nearly all politicians. In sermons and headlines and commercials and platforms, our differences are emphasized while our similarities are overlooked. The siren calls to find people just like ourselves are powerful.

The result is a frightening paradox. As we choose a group, we often find a sense of community and belonging thought lost by many people. But the safer and more comfortable we feel, the more we fear it will be taken from us by The Other.

The issues within organizations are more subtle, but just as powerful. Employees are offered training or they aren't. They are rewarded for their work or they aren't. They get an assigned parking place or they don't. And so on. Some of these distinctions are necessary, and others benign. But collectively, they reinforce The Other. How else to explain the enduring, systemic pall of lower salaries, limited opportunities and blatant discrimination against all who are The Other?

You can't change economics or politics. But you can move beyond diversity programs to focus on pay parity, advancement and other issues that make a difference. No, your efforts will not cure the rot that eats away at our society, but they will help. Someone must stop focusing on The Other and instead focus on The One. Otherwise, there will be more James Byrd Jrs. and Matthew Shepards.

Workforce, December 1998, Vol. 77, No. 12, p. 4.

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