I’m a bit of a word geek, and now that I’ve subscribed to Word of the Day, the lovely folks at Merriam-Webster send me a new word to tickle my cerebral cortex every single day. Wordie heaven!
Yesterday they sent me this little gem: alterity. Derived from the word “alter” (to make or become different), it’s a noun that means “otherness,” or more specifically, “the quality or state of being radically alien to…a particular cultural orientation.” The timing was perfect, because I’ve been thinking for a while about doing a post on Otherness. This was just the push I needed.
“The Other” is a term for any group (or group member) whose deviations from the cultural norm condemn them to an eternal state of “not belonging” in the eyes of the dominant cultural group. It’s most often used in relation to the marginalized and disenfranchised members of society.
Perceiving The Other as being distinct from ourselves is a way of organizing and making sense of our world that begins when we’re very young. But it’s more than a benign process involving awareness of difference. As we develop, it takes on an element of judgment and exclusion: an “Us” versus “Them” mentality. Seen as lacking fundamental traits that are valued by the dominant culture, The Other, by definition, is an inferior being.
Blinkered vision compounds the problem, because when we rely on our own cultural values and assumptions, we don’t consider alternative viewpoints. Things become dangerous when we start to view The Other as subhuman. Stereotyping and prejudice are obvious outcomes; this is also the path to racism, sexism, and all the other “isms” that cause so much misery in the world.
Otherness is not quite the same as Outsiderness. The Outsider, although situated outside the dominant culture, may in time integrate sufficiently to be accepted into the group. Not so The Other, whose stain of inferiority guarantees a life lived perpetually on the fringes of society.
As expats, are we The Other? Are we perceived as being somehow less than human by host country nationals? I’d like to hear your experiences of Otherness or Outsiderness in your expatriate life.