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Our Problem Isn’t Simply “Racism,” It’s “Otherism”

Our Problem Isn’t Racism, It’s Otherism
Image Credit: Spencer Selover from Pexels

Several years ago at a memorial service held for the ambushed police officers in Dallas, Texas, the President said, “Faced with this violence, we wonder if the divides of race in America can ever be bridged. We wonder if an African-American community that feels unfairly targeted by police, and police departments that feel unfairly maligned for doing their jobs, can ever understand each other’s experience.” In the years that followed, the division only seems worse. Few would argue that we are increasingly divided as a nation, and many identify race as the basis of this division. But racism is simply the expeditious term we apply to a much more common and troubling experience: as humans, our problem isn’t simply racism, it’s what I call “otherism”.

I noticed it many years ago when my German in-laws expressed an interest in my profession as a police officer. One of them asked me what kind of pistol my agency issued. I told him we carried a Glock Model 21. He immediately winced and said, “Ugh, that’s an Austrian gun.” Mind you, this relative was born and raised in Southern Germany, less than one hundred miles from the Austrian border. When I visited the region, many years earlier, I couldn’t tell any difference between the southern Germans and the northern Austrians I met. From my perspective, these two groups looked the same, sounded the same, ate virtually the same food, and lived in the same region of Europe. For all intents and purposes, these two groups should find much around which they could identify and unify, but the line on the ground had become an excuse for division; a way for each group to identify (and separate from) the “other”.

Years later, while serving on our agency’s gang detail, I saw something similar occurring between “cliques” of gangsters in Los Angeles County. Young men of the same race, ethnicity, socio-economic status and region went out of their way to separate from one another, even though they had so much in common. They wore different colors to amplify their sense of “otherness”. They would even kill each other based on the colors they wore, even though without these clothing distinctions, they couldn’t tell each other apart. There is a growing body of scientific research demonstrating this “otherist” predisposition. Click To Tweet

Our innate “otherism” (our desire to separate from one another in any way possible) is so deeply rooted that even if every man on the planet was physically identical to every other man (and every woman identical to every other woman), we’d still find some way to separate from one another. Perhaps all the people who live at an even address would express a bias against those who live at an odd address. As crazy as that sounds, our “otherism” is that hardwired into our fallen human nature. In fact, there is a growing body of scientific research demonstrating this “otherist” predisposition. As humans, we are drawn to other members of our species who are similar in one way or another:

We prefer people who look like us (or like someone in our family)
A 2010 study found that we are attracted to (and gravitate toward) people who resemble us facially or who at least resemble our family members. This is true regardless of race or ethnicity.

We prefer people we see as similar to ourselves
Another study also demonstrated that we favor those who share our political views, religion, sports-team loyalty, music preferences, television-viewing habits, dress type preferences, birth order, body type, socio-economic status or gender.

We prefer people who share our personality
Yet another study examined dating and married couples to evaluate their personalities. The study revealed that 86% of these couples consisted of two people who shared a common personality type. These couples with similar personalities also had a higher rate of success in their relationships.

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We prefer people who express similar “emotional signals”
Similarly, a study found that we are attracted to people when we feel we can accurately interpret their facial expressions and emotions. When people express their emotions in a manner similar to our own emotional expression, we are more confidently in our interpretations and more likely to be attracted to them.

We prefer people who hold the same level of education
Studies also reveal that we seek out those who share our educational level. This tendency to seek out mates who are similarly educated is known as “educational assertive mating.”

We prefer people who share the same racial, religious or political background
Another study revealed that Americans are far more likely to develop “core social networks” filled with people of the same racial or ethnic background, religious view or political association. While the degree of this preference varied from one group to another, the inclination to associate with the same race, religion or political group was similar for all races, religions and political groups.

We prefer people who have similar DNA
A 2014 study revealed that married couples are far more likely to have similar DNA than two randomly selected strangers. We even appear to seek mates who share our genetic wiring (this is known as “genetic assertive mating”).

The scientific studies continue to demonstrate our attraction toward those who are like us. When we select for those who are similar, we automatically select against those who are different. We favor the similar, disfavor those who are not, and “otherism” emerges in one form or another. As Christians, this predisposition toward “otherism” shouldn’t surprise us. In fact, we should expect humans to act (and react) in this way. According to our Christian worldview, humans were created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27) as “good” beings (Genesis 1:31), but were marred by the sin of Adam and Eve. We are capable of great beauty and virtue, but are also fallen, rebellious, prideful and self-serving (Matthew 27:3-5). As a result, we are often ruled by our jealousies, selfish desires, and personal preferences (Romans 7:1-25), and find ourselves separating, fighting and arguing with one another (James 4:1). As humans, we are drawn to other members of our species who are similar in one way or another. Click To Tweet

All of us favor “our own”. There are “otherists” in every profession, organization and social group. Wherever there are people, you’ll find this kind of behavior, although our “otherism” will probably be expressed differently depending on the group, situation or historical context. Racism is perhaps the simplest form of “otherism” because it is based on the most obvious feature each of us possesses: our physical appearance. But make no mistake about it, the real problem, the root problem, is far more troubling. “Otherism” can employ nearly any distinctive feature we possess as the impetus for bias and favoritism. Knock down one reason to divide from one another and another can be easily be pressed into service. We do it all the time.

The human condition we experience every day is described perfectly by the authors of Scripture. The Christian worldview describes us the way we are, and it’s not a complimentary description. The Scriptures do more than describe the problem, however. They also offer the only solution. If you’re part of the Christian family, you already know the remedy. If you’re not familiar with the teaching of Christianity, please watch out Bridging the Thin Blue Line video series.

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Written By

J. Warner Wallace is a Dateline featured cold-case homicide detective, popular national speaker and best-selling author. He continues to consult on cold-case investigations while serving as a Senior Fellow at the Colson Center for Christian Worldview. He is also an Adj. Professor of Christian Apologetics at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University, and a faculty member at Summit Ministries. He holds a BA in Design (from CSULB), an MA in Architecture (from UCLA), and an MA in Theological Studies (from Gateway Seminary).

6 Comments

6 Comments

  1. Jane

    November 18, 2022 at 10:18 am

    I’ve been thinking this for a while, and it’s really nice to see it laid out so clearly in a well-researched piece. It underscores the importance of us Christians standing strong against the desire to demonize the other side of political battles. Even if our anger over certain issues is just, it’s incumbent on us to resist the impulse toward hatred.

  2. red

    November 18, 2022 at 3:19 pm

    Be blessed, but one thing the family never saw was skin color as race. We never saw anyone as different. Different people, different religion, different customs and beliefs, but still one of us. This is one of many reasons Columbus called us un gente en Dios. Not India, but en Dios. God’s peace be on you, a good and faithful servant.

  3. Todd Graves

    November 20, 2022 at 9:16 am

    I loved the article I agree with many points of it. I am mixed . i have black relatives and white. yet I am brown skinned, so for me I have always disliked predjudice. i love my darker skinned relatives and my light skinned relatives. i feel at home with spanish people aa I am often mistaken for spanish. I was born again 10 years ago but prior to that I spent time In a buddhist temple and a yoga ashram and I studied with a taoist priest and me mystical rabbis who teach kabbalah. and wiccans and people from the O.T.O and I studied the major books of most religions and spent time with those who practice those faiths . I spent time with highly educated people and non educated people . ive known and been a drug user and known criminals and I cleaned uo and quit drugs and had friends and family who are cops or FBI like my cousin Geroge jr. Ive been in the military and ive been a dirty hippie. Ive been a member of the church of satan and attended rituals of occult gnostic mass and after experiences with the supernatural, I called out for Jesus to save me, and was born again. then I studied theology and apologetics. here in christianity thrre are divisions, black church with black gospel and white church with rock n roll gospel. but also white church with traditional hymns and black modern gospel vs black traditiinal gospel. spanish only church. koren church( i have a koren christian friend) jewish belivers in Jesus church. and legalistic jewish belivers in Jesus church. arminianists and calvanists. and baptist who are neither calvanist nor arminist. and sounthern baptist who are calvanistic light. we are divided by music, color. lanuguage theology yet some division is good for we are not to be unequally yoked. and there are false teachers and false gospels and lukewarm and legalistic churches that we are commanded to come out from by Jesus himself, so although most division is bad some is Good, we must pray for wisdom and discernment in this and to sum up dr suess said it well with the story of the sneeches.some have stars upon thars and think that makes them better but if you get stars put on you they will remove there stars and have that make them better. I pray for a church with jew and gentile with worship on the sabbath and sunday . with various styles of music, the only division being, is it doctrinally sound. to worship in spirit and in truth with every nation tongue and tribe and only disallowing false doctrine, false worship, or false teachers ..but having every color and type represented and various beutiful music from many cultures, true african music that honers God or irish or russian or traditiinal jewish praise music old hymns new hymns and music that brings us all together. the 7 feasts of the lord celbrated jewish style, yet as the feasts point to Jesus, christmas and ressurection sunday but also passover and channukah God bless you all and jim/ Mr wallace thankyou as always
    for all you do

  4. Shoveltusker

    November 21, 2022 at 11:27 am

    This rings so true. I have always thought that overcoming the very human inclination towards “othering” was essential work for anyone who aspires to a higher moral state. But the “woke triangle”—separating all people into three groups (oppressors, victims, saviors) is really nothing more than codifying “othering” to serve a sense of moral vanity. It’s such a potent self-deception: e.g. a white man imagines that declaring his “allyship” with black people signifies his moral virtue, because he advocates for “others” outside his group; it’s all so selfless. But really, what he’s done is to create a new form of “othering” that establishes himself as the morally superior person.

  5. Steve lockhart

    November 21, 2022 at 1:25 pm

    In Christ there is no otherness. Galatians 3:28

  6. Jeffrey Dickerson

    November 25, 2022 at 6:31 am

    The Aquila Report linked to this article…so I’m thankful to them for that. I have been holding this same perspective for a while. I’ve called it ‘Differentism’ because of all the ‘isms’ But you’re right, it’s in our nature as a result of the fall. Skinny vs fat, higher vs lower income, northerners vs southerners…anything we see as ‘different’, it stirs up the sin in our hearts. There was once a video of a mall watcher filming mall watchers. Quite humorous, or sad, becaude of the expressions people would make as people passed by them. We become our own standard by which to judge others. Paul addressed this in Galatians well…and so did you. Thanks.

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