Sympathy and the Other

Disclaimer:  This post is (intentionally) written from the perspective of a white (CIS/Christian) middle-class American.

Akata Witch is an interesting book.  It’s been touted as “Harry Potter set in Nigeria” but it has connected itself directly to an American audience in the way that many older fantasy novels do– by putting a member or two of its audience in the “other” land.  We Americans connect to Akata through the eyes of Sunny, an (albino…) American/Nigerian who has moved back to Nigeria.  If Sunny isn’t enough, there’s also Sasha, a black boy from Chicago who, other than the being-able-to-do-magic part, is almost a stereotype.  These two connections to the United States bring us to the foreign land.  Sunny is the reader.  She’s American.  She reacts in ways that the reader understands.  We have sympathy for her because we can imagine being in her shoes and that connection brings us along to her situation in the magical (Leopard) communities of Nigeria.

Similarly, we are put into the doctor’s shoes on the recent United Flight– we’ve paid for our seats on overbooked flights and had somewhere we needed to be the next day.  The doctor in this case was Asian, but even Fox News chose not to “other” him.  “His nightmare could be yours,” say the headlines.  And it can.  Even if you’re an upper middle-class professional who travels in coach.

Sean Spicer’s recent comments about the Holocaust were a direct effort at trying to “other” Jewish people.  When he said that Hitler did not use chemical weapons on his own people, it is far more likely that those comments were deliberate than made from ignorance.  Either he’s signaling to Holocaust deniers that Trump’s one of them, or, and more likely, he’s opening up the question:  Were German Jews German?  As good Americans born after WWII, many of whom fought or had parents or grandparents who fought (or tended to soldiers) for the rights of Jews and others that Hitler oppressed, we’ve been brought up to believe that Jewish people are part of us– they’re Judeo-Christian.  They’re white.  That could have been us.  First they came… for us.  (Sadly, we have not been taught as well to enlarge that grouping to hold other faiths, ethnicities, skin colors.)

But Spicer separates out that melding.  He suggests that no, German Jews aren’t German.  They’re Jews.  Hitler didn’t gas his own people.  He gassed Jews (and homosexuals and Roma and other minority groups).  Implicitly what Spicer is telling us is that it is ok for the government to gas a minority group.  He’s othering Jews, and saying that because they are the other it is ok for government to mistreat them.  Much like what we will be doing to our immigrants who the government is already ripping from their families, herding together, and taking to detention centers.  Will he argue that whatever abuse they endure in those centers is ok because they’re not us?  They’re also the “other”.  I think he will.  Charles Clymer has more on the dangers of Spicer’s comments in this 66 part tweet that he really should have storified.  It is well worth reading even if you have to click for more a bunch.

I admit, it is hard for me to care as much when an attack happens in a Middle Eastern war zone or in France to people chosen at random as it is when it happens in a college in the United States.  Or someplace I’ve lived.  Or to children nearly the same age as my own.  We feel more worry and more pain the more similar the victims are to people we know personally and personally care about.  With “the other” we can feel sadness and empathy, but perhaps not sympathy.  It’s less scary when we think it can’t happen to us.  It’s easier to go about our day after reading the news headlines when their violence doesn’t remind us of our own lives.

In Akata Witch, the Americans provide connections to us.  They’re not the other to us because in a world that is strange to us, they provide us with grounding that we understand.  They are us and we are them.  The doctor on the United flight stands in for our experiences traveling– we, too, could be treated poorly without recourse.  Even with a fancy degree or important job.

Let’s not allow the government or society to “other” more people.  Let’s stand with our fellow humans.  American Jews are Americans.  We are a nation of Immigrants.  We should not allow cruel and unusual punishment to people who are not “us”, but we should also not allow anybody to break “us” into pieces of “them.”  #resist.

Of interest:  a history of the sanctuary movement

Actions from 5-calls that you can take to protect people:
Sanctuary cities
Syrian Refugees
Afghan allies

11 Responses to “Sympathy and the Other”

  1. Becca Says:

    Lake Forest IL was a sundown town for Jews (and African Americans) until 1990.
    Spicer wasn’t just setting the stage for dehumanization of immigrants. He was also reminding Jews their whiteness is conditional and, yes, pandering to Holocaust deniers (undermining truth is strategic for this administration, but they are also buddies with Nazis so Holocaust denial makes sense).

    If your description of “good Americans born after WWII” is an “ought” description, of an aspirational value, I applaud it. If you honestly think it’s true as an “is” statement, I’ve got some liberty and justice for all to sell you…

  2. Debbie M Says:

    Thank you. I am appalled at that interpretation of Spicer’s remarks.

    People I have to try not to “other” include rich people, crazy people (obvious after watching “Lars and the Real Girl” the other day), and all kinds of extremists (except for my kinds of extremism, of course).

    We also think of non-human life forms as “other.” This lets us put our pets to sleep without the ridiculousness that humans have to deal with, but is mostly not great for the other life forms, especially foods, weeds, and other plants.

  3. chacha1 Says:

    If people want to be thought of as rational, they need to get over this whole “other” thing. I mean … thinking of those who are *not of our tribe* as Other and therefore Dangerous (or worthless) is an atavism. It’s built in. It’s an evolutionary advantage. (Even plants do it: I recently saw some interesting science on plants helping out neighbors of their own species but attacking neighbors of others.)

    But we should be over that shit by now. The best use for the big brain parts we have is to reason our way around the reflexive stupidities that bubble up from the lizard brain. All humans are human.

    We can choose not to associate with humans we don’t like, we can argue with them, we can call them out on social media as being irrational assholes … but we don’t actually have any justification for treating them (or speaking of them, or portraying them) as less than human.

  4. Debbie M Says:

    This is off topic, but I just read Akata Witch, which I had never heard of before you wrote about it. It was fun, thanks!

    It was hard to tell what was real and what was fictional–hints are outside the story. “The Nsibidi symbols throughout were drawn by the author. For more about Nsibidi, see” It turns out Nsibidi is an ancient ideographic script used by many African peoples. Some signs were secret.

    “And to my mother, who was terrified of masquerades as a kid and still is.” There’s a video of an Igbo masquerade dance here:

    Also, I learned that Igbo is the preferred spelling of Ibo–they are the same culture. This book was sure a lot more fun than “Things Fall Apart” (an awesome book that teaches you about culture clash) and “The Joys of Motherhood” (a sarcastic title), the other books I’ve read with Igbo characters.

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