Over the last several months, I’ve had the chance to talk with many different people about the concept of otherizing. For some, this was a new word. Perhaps through these posts, I’ve given you a little nudge.
If so, mission accomplished.
Remember the definition of the term otherizing?
By “othering,” we mean any action by which an individual or group becomes mentally classified in somebody’s mind as “not one of us.” Rather than always remembering that every person is a complex bundle of emotions, ideas, motivations, reflexes, priorities, and many other subtle aspects, it’s sometimes easier to dismiss them as being in some way less human, and less worthy of respect and dignity, than we are.
New York City – our evening walk. (Photo by: Tracy Smith)
Now travel back with me to the MoMA, where my friend and I felt like “the other.” Sure, it’s true that we felt different; like outsiders. But haven’t we all felt this way before?
Hasn’t there been a time where you have felt left out, like you didn’t fit in with everyone else? Even if no one pointed it out to you (it’s rare that someone would), it didn’t change the fact that you felt that way. And that’s legit.
But is feeling like “the other” the same as being “the other” and does that mean you were being otherized?
No, no and definitely no.
This is an important distinction. In maximizing our limited and often situational experiences of feeling like “the other,” we can end up minimizing the ongoing challenges that individuals face in being “the other” due to systemic reasons.
I don’t think we do this on purpose.
But as White people, when we do experience even a tiny dose of feeling outside the norm in a particular situation, it’s such an unfamiliar feeling that we tend to maximize it. Suddenly, we think we can relate to others who live with this experience all the time.
We can’t and we should not try to act like we can.
But what we can do is ask others thoughtful questions. We can try to be more compassionate human beings. And we can stand up for others who are treated unjustly.
The fact of the matter is, my friend and I walked out of the MoMA onto W. 53rd Street and instantly our situation changed. We were no longer the outsiders. And while we felt like “the other” inside the MoMA, it was completely self-induced.
So no, we were never really “the other” and we certainly were not otherized.
Since that trip to NYC, my personal feelings toward art have changed. Surprisingly, I discovered a correlation between that shift and the concept of otherizing. And it had everything to do with story.
I went from being a proud “non-art” person to being a “curious enthusiastic art-person.” What brought about this personal metamorphosis?
It began with a friend suggesting that I check out Chuck Close’s work. I was immediately fascinated by his paintings of the human face. I needed to know more about Close. So I found an article about him in The New York Times Magazine. Writer Wil S. Hylton said the following and it resonated with me.
It seems to me now, with greater reflection, that the value of experiencing another person’s art is not merely the work itself, but the opportunity it presents to connect with the interior impulse of another.
People discover their love of art in many different ways. For me, the portal was through the opportunity to connect with another person I would only meet through his/her work. The article was captivating and I knew that I needed to find a museum where I could see a Chuck Close piece.
Lyle, 1999 – the first Chuck Close piece that I saw at The Whitney Museum of American Art. Even my “non-art” friend liked it. An iPhone picture doesn’t do it justice. (Photo by: Tracy Smith)
So Chuck Close was the door that opened up a whole new world for me. And I attribute this in part to the power of Hylton’s storytelling.
Which brings me back to Yayoi Kusama. I have never met her, but in reading multiple articles about her traumatic life, by entering into her story, I was eager to see her work; to connect. There is no doubt in my mind that Kusama felt the painful sting of being otherized.
Part of Kusama’s exhibit at The Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC. (Photo by: Tracy Smith)
Though alienated throughout her life, her immersive exhibit at the Hirshhorn conveyed the exact opposite. Her Infinity Mirror Rooms, the Obliteration Room and her brightly colored paintings tore down the invisible wall of division that often separates people in art museums.
Her work is an invitation to join in, to participate, to experience joy – not just as an individual – but with friends, family and yes, even with complete strangers.
Learning about different artists has in some ways mirrored my experience of interviewing individuals that have felt otherized in society.
I’m constantly reminded that every person is a complex bundle of emotions, ideas, motivations, reflexes, priorities, and many other subtle aspects. But instead of dismissing others because of their differences, there is a yearning to welcome them in, to understand and to respect them as fellow human beings.