I used to think that there were certain people that existed just to make me feel bad about myself ( i.e. runway models, ex-boyfriends, Beyonce, etc.) while some others existed to show me my own awesomeness (i.e. anyone who has never been to NYC or doesn’t enjoy reading). Spoiler alert: It isn’t all about me.
What is it about other people? By other, of course, I mean those that we perceive as different to us. In my brain, often these other people = normal people, boring people, undeveloped characters that fit neatly into categories. The Others, as I will call them here, can seem to have it together in a way that makes us feel inferior. Or, they are clueless, missing out, and only half existing . Their air of mystery can be as appealing as it is annoying. I can’t quite pin them down. Also, I’ve learned, they don’t exist. What this boils down to, like so many things, is pride and prejudice. (If you don’t know this Jane Austen novel reference, you are clearly an Other.)
For those of us who have spent some time loitering around higher education, we’ve heard the word “other” used not just as a noun, but also as a verb. Othering is when we define a person or group of people against ourselves in what existentialists would say is an attempt to form our own sense of identity. Othering is often seen as the root cause of prejudice and racism, and perhaps even scapegoating, as it is always easier to blame the Others than it is ourselves, right?
About six months ago I moved from New York to South Carolina. I was prepared for cultural shock. I thought that I’d miss the finer things in life that southerners had no clue about. I imagined everyone would be ultra conservative and speak in southern drawl. I figured they’d lack any sense of culture that a New Yorker might have and they’d either be dressed like Scarlett O’Hara or Honey Boo Boo. In reality, the culture here in Charleston is as vibrant as the Low country sunset each night, even more so now as the weather is getting progressively warmer. The sky looks like shades of sorbet and the cool spring air even tastes like it, too. These days feel like a cleanse more than a wearing out. This place lets you rest.
The little peninsular city of Charleston is a gold mine for the history enthusiast like myself, and I find there is more worthwhile ways to spend my days and nights than there was back in the city that never sleeps, which, admittedly, I do still regard as the center of the universe. I’m glad that Charleston sleeps, though. I love how quiet it gets downtown after sunset and how the gas-light inspired lamps on the houses South of Broad make me feel like I’ve been transported not to just a new place, but a new era. Or, maybe I should say an old one. Old America–a term I used to feel was oxymoronic compared to Europe. Turns out, American culture and history is as authentic and alive here as anywhere in this country, and instead of making me feel like I’m missing out on the new what’s next in New York City, I’m comforted by the slower pace here and they way people seem to linger a while in the past but always enjoy the present. Who knew the old south could feel so new age?
I spend my Tuesday afternoons at the Charleston Museum transcribing Civil War manuscript letters in an effort to digitize and preserve these rare specimens of confederate correspondence. I’ve been mingling with Charleston’s preservationists and volunteering giving garden tours in the backyards of some of the city’s most coveted homes. I’ve said “ya’ll” when I meant “you guys,” but I’ve also stopped trying to neutralize my New York accent. When I wondered if it was odd that this twenty-something, tattooed Yankee girl was rubbing shoulders with traditional southern ladies that sound like Paula Deen, I realized that I cared more than they do. Othering works reflexively and I’d rather not add Paula Deen to the list of those who exist to make me feel bad about myself (even if she is a racist. Oh, the irony!). I am a transplant, true, but I don’t want to be an Other anymore than I want to stereotype others and make ignorant assumptions. I want to be like the Low country sunset and be all sorts of flavors at the same time. I want to be like Rainbow Row.
Others, as I’ve described them here don’t exist, but real, dynamic people and places do. The next time I find myself othering someone, I think I’ll try to see what other flavors they have to offer.