Othering the Deep South

Pritpal S Tamber

August 4, 2017

Serbs are all ethnic cleansers.

That is, of course, a ridiculous thing to say but it was the impression I was left with from the news in the UK during the wars in Yugoslavia. Years later, I met a Serb and a Montenegrin who completely changed my view of Serbia, and I became deeply interested in how it was that the news had left me with such a one-sided view of the bloodiest war in Europe since World War II.

Im having the same experience with the “Deep South” of the USA.

I’ve been lucky enough to have been asked to speak about our work in Alabama and South Carolina (the talk in South Carolina was actually for a North Carolina organisation but they based it across the state line). I’ve never been to this part of the world so all I had to go on was my impression from the news media. In essence, that comes down to two themes, slavery and Trump (with racism banding across them).

But that is, of course, a ridiculous way to characterise four states in the US, no matter what my New York Times reading friends tell me. Sure, slavery was a big part of the economy before the US’ civil war. Sure, these states tend to vote Republican, which meant Donald Trump in the last election. And sure, both things involve racism, the former more clearly than the latter. But to only  think of this area along those lines is to dehumanise the people here in the same way that the self-proclaimed progressives on the coasts say folks in the Deep South dehumanise people of colour or immigrants. Two wrongs have never made a right, even in these extraordinary times.

What fascinates me in all this is my own reaction to people. I actually look at my wonderful hosts, who have all been white so far, and ask myself if they’re racist underneath their smiles. I’m literally doing that. I did the same with the Serb and the Montenegrin many years ago; I wondered if they supported the ethnic cleansing that their people unilaterally committed (apparently). It’s plain insane that I have these thoughts. It’s part of what’s so wrong right now; everyone has been caricatured to into veneer-thin stereotypes. The process is so thorough that I find myself harbouring these thoughts, despite the good grace with which I’ve been treated.

It seems to take a while for experience to push the stereotypes away. I’ve only been here for about eight days in total (across three trips, so far) but it’s only now that I feel clear enough about this “inner conflict” – and its absurdity – to write about it. If I’m experiencing this, as someone curious about communities and their health, what are others experiencing, people less curious and perhaps more judgemental? And how does that inner experience affect their outward behaviour?

My other reflection is how writing this post makes me feel vulnerable. I’m worried that my hosts might read it and – quite rightly – consider me a moron. And yet at the same time, I think it’s important to share, to lay bare the idiocy of my thinking, and to reflect on how this comes about. It’s only if we understand these processes will we ever be able to cross the huge divides that are crippling many high-income countries right now. We’ve got to find ways to talk to each other.

I think smarter people than me call this “othering”, the process by which we see people as different, and not in a good way. So, perhaps I’ve been othering. How awful to be doing something so pernicious without even knowing it.

All Serbs were not ethnic cleansers. And all of the people of the Deep South are not supporters of slavery and racism. If we can just remove these labels, we might find that we have more in common than we think.

Pritpal S Tamber

Independent Writer, Researcher & Consultant | pritpal@pstamber.com

I'm an independent writer, researcher and consultant focussing on community health and medical information. I'm a former physician, medical editor and medical publisher, and also the former Physician Editor of TEDMED. I began my career at The BMJ. For more information, see the About page.

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