The moment Gray Fire stopped I gripped his arm. “Who are they?”

“Strangers,” he replied. I had heard that word used before but like many grown up expressions, it didn’t mean anything special to me. I thought strangers were some kind of make-believe beings, like the talking animals parents told their children about or the creature who is supposed to be half-fish and half-human.

“Strangers are real?” Even the sound was lumpy on my tongue, as if I had tasted food that was not properly cooked.

“Oh yes. They are like us, but they are not us.” Gray Fire answered in a distracted tone.

‘Sees Behind Trees’ by Michael Dorris
(A Native American story set in north-eastern United States some few hundred years ago)

How does it even come to be that we consider each other strangers? It appears that the need for belonging is one thing that drives a lot of our actions as human beings, and consequently leads to a who-is-in and who-is-out movement, a coding and labelling of someone as an outcast, a stranger. This clear boundary defines a them and an us.

We have drawn social boundaries ever since we inhabited the earth. For thousands of years, our human species has been conditioned to see the ‘other’ as different from oneself, to separate the other as alien, or to see family or tribe as an extension of that same ‘oneself ’. Maybe this was to protect oneself or one’s own group. The form that the other has taken has morphed over the millennia, beginning perhaps with another species of humans (such as the Neanderthals) to another tribe, to another caste, another class, another race, another culture, another sexual orientation, another language, another dialect within the same language…the list can be endless! As Toni Morrison, the American writer says, when discussing race, “Race is the classification of a species, and we are the human race, period. Then what is this other thing—the hostility, the social racism, the othering?”

So, what is this othering? Where is its beginning and where is its end? The movement of ‘othering’ is the act of seeing another group as having an identity different from one’s own, based on, for example, skin colour, class, caste, livelihood, culture, language, background. Such criteria on a group level exist, but, even on an individual level I look with divisiveness, often feeling separated from a friend or family member. Upon my search to unravel these threads, I see a separateness in all my fields of perception.

At school, in a session with eleven-year-olds after a field trip, we came to the question: what makes you feel different from the other person? One of the children blurted out in response, “Basically, someone who is not ME!” Perhaps she had meant, “someone who is not like me”. But her simple statement said it all, just like Gray Fire in the Native American context from a few hundred years ago! Feeling separate is the point in question. There is also the hyper-need we have to find similarities of culture, appearance, experience and background, which unfortunately overshadow the humanness of being one, being together. At school we nurture a space where children and adults can observe these movements of separation while immersed in the ups and downs of daily life.

Don’t we condition our children to see through the lens of othering? We label each other based on this lens and then that person does not rise up in our eyes and become more than what we have labelled. So we appear surprised when the label is challenged! Once I tell the story or define the other person or group according to my definition and according to a difference that I seek to see (creating an image), it limits who they are and what their multiple narratives might be. The Nigerian author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who uses the term multiple narratives, says in a talk, “There is a ‘danger of a single story’; the story of Africa being one of tragedy or poverty, the story of an African American being one of crime. We have this image, this stereotype that is fixed and doesn’t allow multiple narratives of that person.” Or how about allowing no narrative at all; just a perception of a person—without naming and labelling?

When further exploring what this movement of othering involves, we notice that this is an act of measurement. We look at the ‘other’ being either greater than myself or lesser than myself (Do I enjoy power or experience subordination?) It is an act of qualifying what that person is with regard to my status or position. Depending on that, I either look down on, look up to, respect or disrespect. Action towards the other comes from this definition I have made and qualification I have decided upon. I feel pity, I feel admiration, I might feel disgust, I might feel envy. This act of identification plays out in school, through inclusion or exclusion, and then, associated feelings ensue. Children, like us adults, create cliques or clubs, based on cultural markers such as movies seen, music enjoyed, and even choice of foods!

More acutely in classes, other factors that play out are discriminations based on different abilities. Children often navigate their social realm through measurement. They size each other up. They understand each other through a measure of abilities. However, at school we do not institutionally segregate based on ability or capacity, and we provide many opportunities for shared experience like trips, walks, residential living, dialogues and so on. Given this wide shared experience at school, why does the mind stay small in its perceptions?

Another way we segregate in society is to define the other as normal and not normal. Are these fixed because of the majority group? The boundary line in this case is being drawn by one group and allows privilege to that group, it seems. The criterion could be sexual orientation for example. With children we talk about the transgender community, whom we meet at traffic lights and tollbooths. What are our reactions and feelings and why? Imagine, we have defined ourselves through sexual orientation and then created the ‘other’! By reading groups this way, we dismiss others. If we stepped away and perceived the root of this to be a human consciousness issue (and not based on who you are) with a deep conditioning to see separateness, could one peel away many layers of identity to reveal this root, and could strongly held beliefs and feelings, wither away? What would it mean to respond with compassion to any other rather than sizing people up based on the mental lists we tuck away?

While we say we need to suspend labels and criteria, it is a fact that we as a school are an affluent space within a vast rural context here on our campus. Yes, we do need to acknowledge the urban lives we have come from, the privileges we have enjoyed, the cultural and monetary spring boards we take for granted. These impact the way we see those who have come from a different set of conditions, in the wider society here. We might ‘read’ the other groups as lower class, being deprived of something, struggling, preserving religion and tradition. We create stories here: the story of a lower caste Dalit being downtrodden, the stories of rural India, the story of an Adivasi (tribal) group. We might want to give and do something for them. In this complex picture, how do we enable students to reveal their prejudices, build a bridge or sharpen their perceptions of the other, and then and only then, formulate action?

One statement we have come across in society and in school is, “I am originally from here” (‘Here’ being the Indian subcontinent)! We did a middle school social science project with an eighth standard group titled ‘Where are you from?’ —exploring assumptions about people and place, unpacking our limited pictures of nationality, appearances, race, blood and backgrounds. We asked questions of the children to check assumptions (What does an Indian look like? Where is home for you?), and then we would interview and meet people whose lives had taken them through different spaces, countries and experiences and hence blurred the lines of nationality, belonging and homeland. Blurring the lines was uncomfortable for some of the children who wanted certainty and identity fixed! At one point we looked at a documentary about DNA evidence showing the movement of early humans through continents—Africa, Asia, Australia, etc. We as a species have been moving, settling, moving, settling and moving again. The notion that only some people in India are meant to be here as this is their homeland, was exploded. There were no privileges based on blood type or race since you were informed that you could check your DNA and trace which group of wandering human beings you had descended from!

Our social studies projects in the middle school are an attempt to provide a balanced picture for the children, by integrating lots of outside trips, talking with people, relating and building relationships, and unpacking assumptions and prejudices. The aim of this curriculum is to connect with the world around, local and global; to nurture a sensitivity towards people we are less familiar with; to develop critical thinking skills and an ability to express the basis of our opinions, thoughts and understanding. In our approach, we value the learning that grows from contact with people and places, learning based on our own encounters and processing. In a similar vein, we have valued working with primary material, and with multiple sources or voices of a particular time.

We want to question narrativizing itself, the process of creating a story of the other or oneself for that matter, the movement of the mind to see divisiveness and separation even in the smallest of groups. In questioning and exploring, we are wary of a sensitization process for children, where we help them tolerate others, one group at a time, so that they become sensitive to all. Rather we throw light on the framework in the mind where the separateness begins, where the lens is formed and where the act of othering springs from. Tolerance Education, as it is sometimes called, runs the risk of still labelling and the questions might arise: Tolerance to whom? Based on what descriptions? If we nurture care and compassion without measurement can there be an insight where othering ends?