Othering - The Top Barrier to Social Progress

Last Updated 17.02.2022
19 min read

Kids in middle and high school form social groups. Each social group is based on commonalities and is usually called a clique. We are all familiar with them. We are also all familiar with the fact that certain social groups are dominant - the athletes, along with the cute cheerleaders and their friends, as examples. These dominant cliques define group boundaries for "admission," and those who do not meet their criteria will never be a part of their social groups.

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Welcome to the world of "othering" - it's nothing new. It's a socially constructed hierarchy that puts one or more groups in a dominant position and keeps all other groups in lower status, denying them equal rights and privileges. 

Twentieth Century Examples of Othering

Oh, there are plenty. And all of them have resulted in discrimination and exclusion of what are considered the out groups.


Even though we are a nation founded by immigrants, othering has been a huge factor in their status. In the early 1900s, immigrants who were not white Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASPS) began to arrive in America - people from Ireland, Italy, Eastern Europe, and Asia. They were different looking and had non-Protestant religions. White upper and middle-class Americans shunned these groups and used their social power to keep them apart from their group boundaries. 

While these "new immigrants" gradually gained status and equality, the othering of other immigrant groups has continued - primarily directed at Hispanic and Muslim populations today. Political leaders such as Donald Trump have fueled this othering by referring to these two groups as thugs, rapists, and terrorists. And his othering words have encouraged discrimination and even violence against these out groups on the part of White nationalist/supremacy groups. And once Donald Trump began calling the COVID virus the "China virus," violence against Asian-Americans has risen. All of Trump's statements have been examples of strategic othering, to fire up a base of white voters who have a need to remain the dominant in America.

African Americans

Oh, the history we have here. Once the abolition of slavery was a federal law and reinforced by Constitutional amendments, the status of free blacks changed very little. Othering was in full force during the Jim Crow period that saw segregation in all aspects of life - employment, housing, education, and access to public facilities - in order to keep this out-group in its place. New laws and Supreme Court decisions began to chip away at overt discrimination and segregation, but as a group, their physical differences caused the need to keep blacks as an out-group continued. Add to this the concept in social psychology that we are just less comfortable with any group with which we have not had much experience, and we create an environment in which we focus on differences rather than what we may have in common, at least on an individual level. In fact, Harvard social psychologist Mahzarn Banaji, in a recent podcast series published by Sage Publications, states, "The brain is an association-seeking machine," and it creates implicit biases when presented with differences, whether with a person, an idea, or a group of people. 

Our identity is based on the familiar and our sense of belonging to a group defined by commonalities - ethnic background, language, socio-economic status, and such.  This is true of all societies, but in America, the physical differences between the dominant white group and blacks play a critical role in the idea of othering and to which group each should belong. These differences have slowed the whole process of mutual understanding and have served to create barriers that keep blacks in an inferior position. "Keep them where they belong" has been the result.

As social programs began to provide financial and other help to African Americans, there was a backlash from conservatives who saw these as simple handouts that would lead to taking advantage of the "system." White resentment of these programs, along with politicians like Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, led to a new push for states' rights, meaning leaving the dominant white society the right to put into place laws that kept the black out-group "in its place." There are now released tapes of conversations between Nixon and Reagan in which Reagan refers to blacks as "monkeys." And, of course, during his campaign for president, Reagan found his "welfare queen," one single black woman who had used the welfare system to enrich herself. This, in fact, was an isolated situation, but the candidate used it to apply to all blacks who were on welfare - a huge lie. Still, it resonated with the dominant group (called the "silent majority"), in southern states, and Reagan was elected. Black identity in the eyes of many whites became "moochers."

Of course, othering isn't simply something that is the result of conservative or regressive policies. Any group that has managed to achieve dominance is capable of being exclusionary. Nor is othering always an intentional effort. First-wave feminists (suffragettes) largely refused to ally with people of color who were seeking similar rights. Why? Because they believed they were more likely to win the approval of what they saw as the current dominant social group - white men. People of color have also felt largely excluded from the women's rights movements that existed in the 1960s. 

Sadly, this othering continues today and can be witnessed in several events that have "gone viral" on social media. These often involve instances of people who may otherwise identify themselves as progressive or feminist using their membership in dominant social groups to weaponize law enforcement against people of color, control access to public spaces, use of the fear (and tears) of women to turn sentiment against people of color or otherwise act with a sense of presumed dominance. This process continues as long as an in group can see political support from the group to which they belong. 

Have things changed much? Well, the terminology has changed, but the attempt by the in-group of conservative white supremacists to keep blacks out of the mainstream has not. They continue to create barriers to inclusion. Following the election of 2020, Trump promoted his claim that the election had been stolen, despite numerous court cases and recounts that proved this false. Much of Biden's win was the fact that black voters turned out in droves to vote for him. Conservative states have since passed laws to suppress the black vote and "overturn" elections results they don't like. If Congress does not pass the two voter rights bills still sitting there, these state laws will stay on the books, and white conservatives will defeat all of their political opponents in the process.  Othering in action!

Fact: The John Lewis Voting Rights Bill and the For the People Act have both passed the House of Representatives. They are stalled in the Senate because they require 60 votes, and no Republican will vote for them. 

Ethnic Minority Citizens

Native Americans - the Original Citizens

White American settlers considered Native Americans to be colonized peoples. After all, they landed on America's shores, set up villages and towns, and moved westward to conquer more. As they expanded their footprint, they brought new diseases to this population, forced them off of their lands, destroyed their ways of life, and continued to claim that they were "civilizing" these savages, trying to make them more human.  In the end, Native Americans became one of the most marginalized groups in America. There was no attempt of the colonizers toward understanding the values, the cultural mores, the language, or anything else about this "not quite human" group. Native American Markwayne Mullin put it this way: "As a Cherokee, I can attest to the fact that Native Americans have been on the losing side of history. Our rights have been infringed upon, our treaties have been broken, our culture has been stolen, and our tribes have been decimated at the hands of our United States government."

And it continues today. Recently, the Dakota Sioux objected to the running of an underground oil pipeline through one of their sacred sites and two small rivers which provide drinking water to their tribe. They filed suit in federal court, based upon a 1978 law that is supposed to protect them against such infringements. They lost. They protested and were jailed. And in 2016, the sacred burial land of the Tohono O'odham Nation was blasted in order to build a section of Trump's border wall. The government just fails to provide the human dignity that every native American person or group deserves. 

Native American life on their reservations is not pleasant. They remain the poorest of all minority groups in America; they have poor health care; their housing is inadequate, and they have the highest school dropout record of all ethnic groups. Their plight has received little national attention, and government help from both political parties when in office has been inadequate. They now rely on charitable organizations for help. Native Americans have never felt a sense of belonging to the wider American societal framework.

Fact: In 1847, after the terrible Trail of Tears forced evacuation of the Choctaw Nation from its tribal lands, this tribe raised $170 to help Ireland during its great famine. The Irish have never forgotten this, and there is now a strong bond between the Choctaw Nation and Ireland. Recently, large numbers of Irish citizens have donated money to tribes that are suffering most from the COVID pandemic. They don't seem to let the differences between the cultures impact their actions. 

Japanese Americans

One of the biggest blots in our national story shows how othering plays into the mistreatment of an entire group, based upon their national identities. During World War II, Japan attacked the American naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. This brought the U.S. into the war. At home, however, there was a large population of Japanese American citizens, many of whom had been here for generations. They had always been somewhat excluded from the mainstream because of their physical and cultural differences and never had a feeling of belonging. But with this attack, the excuse to magnify the difference between the two cultures. And the white in-group provided its full public support as these American citizens were rounded up and placed in internment camps for the duration of the War. They lost their homes and their businesses. George Takei, best known as Sulu on the television series, Star Trek, spent four years of his childhood in an internment camp and speaks of it publicly. 

In his own words, "It was an egregious violation of the American Constitution. We were innocent American citizens, and we were imprisoned simply because we happened to look like the people who bombed Pearl Harbor. It shows us just how fragile our Constitution is." Interestingly, Takei is a member of more than one out-group - He is also a gay man heavily involved in LGBTQ+ activism. More from him later.

Fact: When war was declared by the U.S., thousands of young Japanese Americans tried to enlist in the armed forces. they were rejected as being "enemy aliens." And any Japanese Americans already in basic training were dismissed, to a person.

Religious Minorities

We have a long reputation of othering related to group identities related to religion.  When America was colonized, many of the colonies were formed around Protestant religious beliefs and were close to being theocracies. In fact, many groups came to America because of religious persecution in England. These protestant groups practiced their own othering, though, once they had their own religion well-established in their colonies. They shunned and persecuted anyone who did not conform to the religious beliefs of their own group. Native Americans were "heathens," who must be converted to Protestant Christianity. And other non-conformists were accused of being witches.

Fact: In 1953, playwright Arthur Miller published his piece titled "The Crucible." It was a fictional piece on the Salem, Massachusetts witch trials but also an allegory directed at the persecution of suspected Communists during the 1950's.

Religious minorities have included any non-Protestants throughout our past and current stories as a society. Here is a brief rundown of the non-Protestant groups who have and/or still experience othering because of religious affiliations.


Catholics first arrived in America in the late 1800's. They had the double stigma of being from non-Western and non-Protestant countries - Ireland, Italy, and Eastern Europe, for example. They settled in major industrial cities, into "ghettos" of sorts, and took jobs in factories. The Pope was often referred to as the "anti-Christ." Anti-Catholic sentiment was fueled further by the re-emergence of the KKK curing the 50's with its anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic stands. 

Anti-Catholic sentiment continued into the mid-2oth century. When Catholic John Kennedy ran for President, many opposed him, claiming that the Pope would be controlling his actions. The fact that Kennedy performed his duties as President in a non-religious manner helped to dispel anti-Catholic sentiment. And in the current presidency of Catholic President Joe Biden, that old sentiment has been further dispelled. 

Today, Catholics are fully integrated into the mainstream of society, even though the KKK still has them on their list of undesirables. Tensions exist between certain other group identities and Catholics, though, based upon its doctrines of anti-birth control, anti-abortion, and anti-LGTBQ+ lifestyles. Belonging for Catholics has largely been achieved.


The history of Muslims, as a religious and social group in America, is complicated. Muslims are primarily from the Middle East and have a long practice of coming to the United States for a variety of purposes. Many came on student visas to study here and ended up staying and becoming citizens. Many came in search of a less restrictive lifestyle that is common in many Middle Eastern countries. In all, Muslim Americans have tended to do well professionally and financially in the U.S, much better than in European countries. The difference in religious beliefs and practices kept them out of full mainstream acceptance, but they were tolerated by mild othering.

Enter 9/11. All of a sudden, Americans began to categorize people of Muslim descent, along with their religion of Islam, as major "others" and, in fact, dangerous. Since that fateful day, Muslims, as a group, have been victims of othering. It's known as Islamophobia. 

Fact: The Muslim "bible" is known as the Koran. It teaches much the same principles and values as the Christian Bible, though many mistakenly believe it promotes violence against "non-believers."


"Nones" are people who do not have an affiliation with any organized religious group, and this number is growing, especially among younger generations who see such organizations as hypocritical and exclusionary. One category of "nones" is atheism, those who do not believe in a God. They have faced othering since America was born. Here are a few stats

  • Even though freedom of religious belief and practice is a constitutional right, seven states still have laws on the books (even though unenforceable) that do not allow atheists to hold public office. 
  • 13 countries in the world have discriminatory laws that deny them marriage, citizenship, and other common rights. 
  • And in the U.S., almost 50% state that they would be unhappy if a family member married an atheist. 
  • Not believing in God is often co-related to being evil, in league with the devil, and such, when, in fact, they are most like mainstream society in terms of values and lifestyles.

Commenter Jackie Martinez wrote, "I don't identify as Atheist (but definitely Agnostic), but I'm saddened by the state of our world when we trust a cheater or rapist more than an Atheist. It's discouraging and disheartening."

Fact: 53% of Americans would vote for candidates who have used drugs, had extramarital affairs, or engaged in other bad behavior before an atheist.

Othering of LGBTQ+ Communities

Of all the different groups that have experienced othering, perhaps the LGBTQ+ community has faced it more than any other perceived "different" groups.

Marriage Rights

In nearly every society, human beings have thrived largely because of the existence of the family. In many cultures, that is largely built around the ability to marry. It's an institution that members of the LGBTQ+ community have been excluded from for most of history. In many places, they still are.

This form of othering largely kept members of this social group from obtaining things that members of the social group in power take for granted. For example, without the benefit of marriage people are at risk for:

  • Housing discrimination that often prevents unmarried adults from living together
  • The inability to inherit property
  • Refusal of hospitals and insurance companies to recognize partners as next of kin
  • The inability to foster or adopt children

Even attempts to establish civil unions as a substitute for marriage are examples of othering. They still communicated to LGBTQ+ individuals that they weren't quite deserving of one of the most important trappings of any social group.

Though it was a long time coming, equality became a reality via a Supreme Court decision in 2015, granting full legal status for marriages among same-sex couples. 

Othering in Military Service

Sexual orientation and gender identity have both been used as issues to engage in othering. This is something that has occurred both in official policy as well as being ingrained in military ideas of group belonging. Examples of this include:

  • Exclusion of all gay and trans people from the US military until the 1990s
  • Policies that called for military members to be jailed and/or discharged for engaging in homosexual activities
  • Policies that exclude transgender individuals from military service
  • Use of derogatory terms by instructors and people in command positions

This combination of formal and informal policies has led many members of the military service to avoid being open about their identity.

Fortunately, over time, legislation and court decisions have removed many of the policies and regulations that prevented SGM individuals from serving in the military. The one remaining is an executive order of President Trump banning transgenders who are diagnosed with gender dysphoria from serving. Today, this order is largely not enforced.

Othering in The Medical Community

Medical professionals take an oath to treat all individuals, promote their health, and do no harm. And yet because of their religious or other values, they do engage in othering by turning away treatment to   non-heterosexual gender people., even though they may not openly admit this.

When the ACA (Obamacare) became law, refusal to provide medical care to LGBTQ+ communities was illegal for any medical provider receiving federal funds. This meant that hospitals  which had previously engaged in othering and refused medical care to these communities now had to. This created quite a stir, especially among Catholic hospitals, across the country.  Ultimately, in 2021 a federal judge threw out the Obamacare provision that required health providers to treat everyone no matter what their sexual identity or preference. His reasoning is that it is contrary to the Freedom of Religion Act, because providers might have to perform transgender care and surgeries against their religious beliefs.

This ruling is a type of rather extreme othering without purpose, because it is hardly likely that someone seeking transition surgery would seek a doctor who does not specialize in such procedures. But it does give physicians and hospitals the right to refuse care to anyone in the LGBTQ+ community.

This fight is not over. 

Othering in the School System

Bullying of LGBTQ youth is common by the in group in schools. And even if they try to stay within their own group, SGM kids still are victims.

A 2019 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, conducted by the CDC, revealed these statistics:

  • 32% of high school kids who identify as LGBTQ+ state they have been bullied at school
  • 26.6% reported cyberbullying
  • 13.5% stated that they avoided going to school for fear of their safety

The conclusion of this report was that bullying contributed to greater incidences of depression, thoughts of suicide, substance abuse, and risky sex. 

The other most current issue relates to students who have gender dysphoria and who have not had sex change surgeries and/or hormone treatments. They identify as the opposite sex but othering on the part of parents, administrators, and school boards prevent them from behaving as their identity would. This includes such things as use of restrooms and team sports participation. Even participation in such things as summer camp is an issue. While federal law (Title IX) prohibits discrimination of all LGBTQ students, more severe othering and bullying occurs related to transgender students. And many state laws have been enacted that force transgender students to use restrooms, locker rooms, and names based upon their birth sex. 

Othering in the Workplace

The group dynamics of the workplace mean that people have to collaborate and work productively. The dominant culture of most workplaces is heterosexual, but certainly LGBTQ+ individuals work within that environment. If they are open or even perceived to be non-hetero, they can become the targets of othering by conservatives who don't "approve" of their lifestyles. This may include such things as social exclusion, office gossip, and other subtle discriminatory practice, from both co-workers and superiors. It's things like not inviting the other to happy hour or to go to lunch, not socializing about family and other aspects of personal lives. In short, the othered feels left out and ostracized. And though it is against the law to discriminate against non-heteros, it does happen and is hard to prove.

The negative impact of othering in the workplace goes beyond just social construction of the dominant/minority status. It results in lowered productivity overall, as co-workers have greater difficulty working openly and easily with one another.

Othering Within the LGBTQ+ Community

What, you say? You mean there is othering with this community itself? Here are some examples of such:

It's called bi-erasure. People in the LGBTQ community often other bi's, assuming they are inherently non-monogamous or that they are really straight and just seeking a gay experience for the hell of it. Many gays will not consider bi-sexual hookups or partnerships. 

Gay culture also very much centers around white gay men as the dominant social group. There's a lot of racism and other bias in gay dating. Many gay dating apps, for example allow searchers to filter their matches, according to race or ethnicity, weight, and other factors.

According to a recent report from the Victory Institute, of elected and/or appointed officials, 80% are white, and almost 60% are men. Only 2.7% are bi, and 2.3% are trans.

Transphobia among the LGBTQ community is real and a prime example of othering. In a recent interview with Jessica Stern, Miss Major Griffin-Gracy stated the following: "I feel like we've been pushed to the outside and then prevented from looking in. It's the stares, the non-inclusion over decision-making, exclusion from events that would build this movement. I think if they could eradicate us, they would." Major Griffin-Gracy, by the way, is the subject of the film, "Major" which recounts her life story as a trans activist.

So How Do We Combat Othering?

Unfortunately, we probably do not eradicate all othering, certainly not in our lifetimes.  And there are other forms not even covered here. From a very young age, we seem to be taught, in subtle ways, to be more comfortable with those who are like us, and our experiences from childhood seem to be within certain groups. As such, we don't even recognize othering that we engage in. The first step, then, is that recognition, and then a full-fledged commitment to combat it as an individual and to help our elders combat it too. Easier said than done, because biases of dominant human groups are so psychologically ingrained.

We can take encouragement, though, from your generation, who will one day be the social, business, and political leaders of our societies. You embrace the richness of diversity and are far more open to including those who are perceived to be different by more traditional generations who are still in charge.

Go forth! And embrace all of the others who may be physically, socially, emotionally, and psychologically different from you. Minimize any perceived differences and spread the word. As much as your elders think they have to teach you about how this world should work, you have much to teach them.

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