Taking the Challenge to See the Other

Article | March 30, 2017

Odette Woods, JD, MDiv, Senior Director of Diversity Affairs

According to the World Health Organization’s 2014 Visual Impairment and Blindness Fact Sheet, approximately 285 million people are estimated to be visually impaired worldwide, with 39 million being blind and 246 million having low vision.1 The agency estimates that 80% percent of all visual impairment can be prevented or cured.2 According to the 2015 National Health Interview Survey, 23.7 million people in the United States 18 years of age or older reported experiencing vision loss.3 In the United States, every seven minutes someone loses their sight permanently.4 While these statistics speak to physical blindness, I would suggest that there is another type of blindness that is far more prevalent — an inability to see “the Other.”

The founder of Phenomenology, Edmund Hussert, coined the term “Othering” as the action of labelling someone as belonging to a subordinate social category.5 To Other someone is to identify and then exclude that person from the social group, thereby marginalizing the person.6 In the book, Key Concepts in Political Geography, Alison Mountz proposed that when used as a noun, the term Other identifies and refers to an individual or a group of individuals, and when used as a verb, the term Other identifies, categorizes and labels an individual.7 The Other is anyone of a different gender, race, ethnicity, ability, socioeconomic/educational status, occupation, sexual identity, etc. than us.

With over 92 nationalities represented, our campus community has more than 11,000 employees and 3,000 students. With people of various backgrounds, educational levels, socio-economic levels, geographies, race, ethnicity, age, occupation, familial status, sexual orientation, abilities, religion, and military status, our campus represents diversity, and all the word entails, at its best. It is not uncommon to walk down a corridor and to hear more than one language spoken, or to stroll by someone in cowboy boots, or someone wearing a hijab, niqab, sari, grand boubou, kaftan, cheongsam, wrapper or headscarf. We pass people who use wheelchairs, who use speech-generating devices, or who communicate by using the American Sign Language.

Jonathan Swift once said, “There are none so blind as those who will not see.” Although we daily encounter the many facets of diversity our campus community embodies, I wonder how often we take the time to truly see the Other? We are bombarded with the terms cultural sensitivity, cultural competency, multiculturalism, transculturalism, inclusion, micro-aggressions, unconscious bias, equity, and diversity. But with busy lives, schedules, family, work and other responsibilities, it becomes easy to have tunnel vision and to focus only on those issues and people with whom we can identify.

Recently, I was in a gathering with Dr. Cesar Compadre, who made the comment that biologically, people are only .01% different. Taking the challenge to see the Other requires an intentional effort to see beyond ourselves — our perspectives, our beliefs, and our stories — and to become curious about the difference in the perspectives, beliefs and stories of someone with whom we may think we have very little in common. If we intentionally take the challenge to see the Other, we may find that while we agree with the universally accepted truth that people are more alike than they are different, we can gain an increased understanding and appreciation of the unique differences each individual offers.

1 http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs282/en/

2 http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs282/en/

3 http://www.afb.org/info/blindness-statistics/adults/facts-and-figures/235

4 https://www.disabled-world.com/disability/types/vision/

5 “The Other”, The New Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought, Third Edition, (1999) p. 620

6 “The Other”, The New Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought, Third Edition, (1999) p. 620

7 Mountz, Alison (2009). “The Other”. Key Concepts in Political Geography: 332.