The Politics of Otherness

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The Politics of Otherness

Exploring the Consequences of Being Other in American Politics and Life

I first encountered the ideas of "Otherness" in the work of a Marxist Psychoanalyst, Julia Kristeva, who explicates the notion of the "Other" being a repressed part of the self.  I may demonize certain behaviors, races, genders, but I do so first by cutting off those parts of myself I project onto those I would call Other.  As a white man of great privilege, I am called by my sense of justice and ethical commitment to inclusiveness to try and understand what is happening to those who have been marginalized in society.  What I am discovering through reading the following works and reaching out to extend my community is that bringing in this broader worldview is also crucial to growth, self-actualization and becoming a whole person.

Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin
This profound work of investigative journalism brought white racism to the fore when published in 1961.  This book documents the experience of John Howard Griffin, a white man who underwent medical treatments in order to appear black.  Griffin then travels through the Deep South, immersing in the African American experience.  The account is shocking and still has profound relevance for us today.  The litany of intimate offenses, the threat of violence, the lack of opportunity, the sex crimes carried about by whites are all deeply disturbing and suggests the work is for mature audiences.  Since there are so many other great accounts presented here, I would only recommend this for those looking to extend their understanding.  After all, if you want to know about the African-American experience, why go to a white journalist?

Where Do We Go From Here by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
The last work from this profound leader, the voice of America's conscience, describes the inevitability of white backlash against every advance in racial equality.  Dr. King also lays out an unparalleled plan for economic equity, calling for a guaranteed income for all Americans.  A powerful homespun intellectual, the writing is eloquent, the spiritual roots of hope are intact, and the message has never been more important.  While we can look back and see the prescient description of backlash we are once again living through, there is in the closing chapters of this book and this life, a clear plan for how to move forward.  Recommended for all, urgently.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Coates is a master of language and evokes powerful sentiment through effective literary choices.  The book takes the form of a letter to his son, recounting his life and experience, sharing intimately his fears and hopes, inviting us into an incredibly vulnerable space.  Taking the subject of black bodies, Coates is able to show how constant social transgressions have objectified and dehumanized African Americans.  I would make a strong recommendation for its readability and Coates' enactment of vulnerable masculinity as a tool for social change.  Recommended for literature fans. 

Nobody by Marc Lamont Hill
Over the last ten years, police violence against black Americans has burned again into our national consciousness.  With Nobody, Lamont Hill gives us a look into the neighborhoods, social programs, and criminal justice reforms that have given rise to this institutional violence and racism.  This is academic writing at its best, providing deep historical context for what is happening in the headlines.  Incorporating the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, Trayvon Martin, Kathryn Johnson and more as launching points for analyzing systemic oppression and disenfranchisement, this work effective reveals the invisible forces at work in our society today.  Recommended for anyone who wants to look beyond the headlines.

An Indigenous People's History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
The eminent scholar Dunbar-Ortiz shines a bright light on the fiction of Manifest Destiny and reveals the cost of the lie and its ongoing consequences in America's ongoing global warfare.  Using deep and ranging historical events and primary source documents, Dunbar-Ortiz reveals the violence and racism carried out in America’s establishment and expansion.  Using the term "settler-colonialism," this work breaks down the tactics of total warfare, a form of genocide, and shows how fundamental this has been to America's development and still underpins our militarized international presence.  Recommended for history buffs, those interested in politics or American studies.

American Girls by Nancy Jo Sales
Diving into the realities of contemporary teenage life, award winning author Sales undertook years of research with teens and preteens to document and describe their experience.  This deeply disturbing look at how American culture is raising its daughters gives a clear picture fraught with despair.  Even with intense pressure to sexualize at younger and younger ages, there is an equally strong judgment and condemnation of those who engage in sexual acts.  Overlaid on this is the modern social media revolution where petty fights get blown into national headlines, and any perceived slight or social misstep can draw rancor and vitriol from an army of anonymous "trolls".  Without trying to solve the issue, Soles shows how vulnerable young women and girls are in America and doesn't offer respite from the discomfort. Recommended for parents and their teenagers or anyone trying to get a deeper sense of the outrage recently displayed at the Women’s March on Washington.

Teaching Community by bell hooks 
Decades before Brene Brown made vulnerability a buzzword, bell hooks was baring her heart and soul and personal history for our liberation.  The library has a lot of her works and each one has a unique set of stories and teachings connected by a common center, a radical personhood which is self-examined and socially conscious, unraveling the tangled arguments of the politics of personhood and identity with an unflinching focus on the truth.  hooks is a voice of reason and emotion, offering an example of human being, a path to embracing fragile humanity.  Highly recommended for all.