In Other Matters

The first time I was aware of being an Other—an outsider, a freak—was in my early teens. A friend and I were riding our horses in rural Pennsylvania and we passed either an Amish or an Old Order Mennonite school house. The children were outside, and as a group, they lined up to laugh and point at my friend and me. We were apparently a hilarious sight—to them.

Or at least I think that’s why they were laughing at us. I do not speak Pennsilfaanisch Dietsch, so I couldn’t ask them. I have never forgotten my sense of bewilderment, though, to be riding along on a pretty day—something I’d done many times—and abruptly become an object of group derision. I was uneasy, possibly even frightened—of laughing children.

I’ve had the same sense to a lesser degree elsewhere in life. I defy you to tell a lawyer joke that doesn’t include an undercurrent of meanness toward lawyers, for example. I get classified as an other because I’m a lawyer, because I’m female, because I’m old (oldish, compared to my late parents), because I love words. In fifth grade, the othering—we call it bullying too sometimes—became so vicious, my mother put me in a different school.

Sometimes the message is subtle—there are no clothes that fit me in the entire lady’s fashion store, despite the fact that I’m within two sizes of average in many styles. If you’ve seen internet trolls at work, you’ve seen a desperate, ugly, public attempt to label somebody as an Other, and inevitably (our brains work this way) as lesser.

I didn’t realize how pervasively this dynamic had soaked into my life until I was at a Romance Writer’s of America conference a few years ago. In that milieu, to be my age, my gender, my size, doing what I do, dressing the way I dress, expressing myself the way I do, with the degree and type of smarts I have  (and even my kind of not-so-smarts), is NORMAL.

Right down the list, I fit in with that crowd, even in the ways I don’t fit in. To be in my mid-fifties before I had an experience of being professionally normal is a miserable reflection on the narrow bandwidth society approves of in most regards, but I’m still glad I got a taste of professional life without deflector shields.

I’m going to watch Black Panther, where I might be a slightly Other member of the audience. I travel to froeign countries, where again, I’m an Other. I have slogged through decades in the courtroom, in the last county in Maryland to appoint a female judge to the bench. I figure the more I look for opportunities to be a benign, curious stranger, the less and less I’ll be an Other, and the more we’ll all just be people.

Where have you been an Other, where have you seen somebody treated as an Other? To one commenter, I’ll send a signed copy of Kelly Bowen’s latest release, A Duke In the Night.

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39 comments on “In Other Matters

  1. I’ve been thinking about what you have written this week and at first did not think I had anything to say.Then it hit me,yes I do feel sometimes people treat me as an other.Why? because despite being a divorced woman for twenty three years I have made no effort to find a man,no online dating no flirting no putting myself out there.I keep being asked why have I not met anyone or am I just a sad person or have I turned lesbian!’All sorts of comments have been suggested and I get tired of explaining that I enjoy my life I have family and fantastic friends I travel I enjoy my own company and if I choose to be a coward and take no risks with relationships that’s up to me.But I still get those looks but I can cope it’s the way I feel at the moment and I can’t see it changing any time soon.My friends(male and female)have respected this about me and don’t go on about it anymore.

    • “Choose to be a coward…”?! Speaking as somebody who hasn’t had a guy in her household (a real guy, not, you know, an imaginary duke) for nearly forty years, I can attest to the need for courage in the absence of a life partner… more as time goes on.
      It’s odd how many of my happily married friends tell me that if anything happens to their spouse, they will remain single. At least, that’s what they think they’ll do…
      But I got a LOT of side-eye from married women when I became a single mom. They all but shoved their husbands behind them, as if, having ended up with a child to raise on my own, I’d be looking for more mischief ever again? Not likely.

  2. I guess I have been the other many times in my life. Probably true for most people. I was a shy teenager (a time when emotions are on steroids), so I always felt like the other then. I am the only one in my family who did not marry. Even my family wonders about that.

    But there are many times that I have been guilty of thinking of others as the other. I joined the army when I was eighteen and was stationed in Germany. Most Germans that I had contact with spoke English, but with the confidence of youth I still tended to think of them as the other. How’s that for hubris?

    • And being German, they spoke GOOD English… but you showed more gumption at eighteen than many of us do, saw something of the big world when it would have been easy to drift into community college or day job. That adventure in the military broadened you, and made you more a citizen of the world.
      Good on ya, I say.

  3. I am working on a committee and this week I was the OTHER. Each member of the group is an individual with strong beliefs and it is extremely hard to get anything done. This week one of the members made a decision that effected a document which had a deadline. I did not agree with the changes made to the document and neither did another committee member. The person choose to make the changes, they were not necessary.

    Two of us received a nasty email from the person and I realized that people really think bullying is the norm, demanding , not asking wears people down and shading the truth gets you what you want.

    None of the behaviors were acceptable to me. And I am deciding whether to continue on with this committee.

    Most of all….I am glad that I am an Other.

    • That is a tough call, when what makes you different isn’t appearance, or age, or status, but VALUES. I could have dismounted and walked my horse. You can’t dismount from civility, respect, or professionalism and still be the person you want to be. I hope if you walk away, the remaining members will realize why, because pulling rank, ranting, and power-struggling is not how we do our best work.

  4. Before retiring, I was an operating room nurse. I enjoyed teaching new equipment – always so much new equipment to be learned! A medical device manufacturer of surgical lasers offered me a clinical teaching position to teach surgeons and OR staff technique and safety. Even though I was a certified nurse in the OR, I was always treated like a sales rep. I never earned a commission and I only earned slightly more than working for a hospital to compensate for the travel and time away from home and family. But I believed in what I was doing and that the product was safe and beneficial to the patients.

    • “Treated like a sales rep…” I get the sense, that doesn’t mean laughing and pointing, but neither does it mean a whole lot of respect. I’m glad you persisted. The OR is a fraught place, and I’m all for anything that makes surgery safer.

  5. Oh, go see Black Panther! The women are wonderful, intelligent, diverse in their calling, their collective loyalty and skills create the space for T’Challa to be a hero, to choose compassion.
    And hopefully a tiny child will scamper by in your theater, black panther mask and costume on, gleeful to be there.

    • I’ve been surprised at what a community experience seeing a good movie can be. The first time that happened to me was The King’s Speech. The crowd went wild… such as a bunch of old people on a Tuesday afternoon can. So yeah.. Black Panther, here I come!

  6. I was in sixth grade and was reading “The Cossacks” a novella by Tolstoy (I wanted to read “Anna Karenina” but Mom said to read something short by Tolstoy first) and brought it to school one day because I was bored. I was bored, bored, bored in school and my teacher (who was a new teacher with no experience)called my Mother in to talk about me. Mom wanted to know what was going on because I loved learning and reading and she couldn’t imagine what was going on. The teacher–I forget her name–told Mom to tell me to STOP READING in class because it made her look incompetent when her supervisor walked in! Mom told her she was NOT going to tell me to stop reading and it was HER JOB to keep me engaged. Teacher was not happy and *punished me* by giving me more busy work….I did it, THEN READ again. I was bullied by others in my class, I was beat up on the playground FOR BEING SMART. And looking back, I wonder if that teacher actually encouraged the other kids to do that…..sounds nutty but she was ticked my Mom wouldn’t tell me to stop reading. 🙁

    We took some standardized tests in early spring and my scores were the highest in the class. Mom spoke with the principal (Mom was president of the PTA—you never want to tick off the PTA) and I was pulled out of that woman’s class and put in my favorite teacher’s for the rest of the semester. And that young teacher? Didn’t return to our school in the fall; I wonder if my Mom had anything to do with that?

    It wasn’t until I got to college I felt I truly belonged. I think when we find *our people* that’s when we begin to mature and feel comfortable in our own skin. Sometimes it’s sooner, sometimes it’s later but when we find them, it’s magical!

    • For me it was fifth grade. Same thing. My teacher announced who had earned the highest standardized test scores, and all of a sudden, I wasn’t invisible anymore. First the popular girls befriended me, which was bewildering then… My mom took me out of that school, for which I will always be grateful to her. Loneliness is not the worst thing that can befall a kid, especially if that kid has a good supply of books.

    • Romantic Times is one of the most warm-hearted, high-spirited, FUN gatherings for romance folk anywhere on the planet. I get a little overwhelmed there, but it’s also a romance gathering that includes men. I love that. The cover models, the readers, the guy-authors… feels more like family when we’re all there together.

  7. I have been “Othered” by my family for years, simply because I am the only member of my family who left the church we were raised in. My mother is extremely bitter about my decision and my siblings will periodically lecture me about how much happier I would be if I came back. But, I’m 100% confident and happy with my choice and have never had second thoughts about it. It just adds another level of tension to our family dynamics.

    • My former husband fell into the same category. He didn’t leave the Mennonite Church, he just put off the plain coat, which many, many Mennonites do. Still, when we would go to funerals for the elders on the plain-coat side of the family, whoever was giving the eulogy had to get in a dig about “Louella’s wayward children…” while sending a pointed look in my husband’s direction.
      And that’s loving one another? Ostracizing somebody because they stopped wearing a black coat? Oh, right. Sure it is.
      I hope you have found a faith tradition that fits with who you are and what you value. One that still judges you decades later for an adult choice strikes me as a bit myopic.

  8. When in school I was always chubby, and my mom made all my clothes. She was not very good at sewing, so they looked homemade, and never fit. I always felt so self conscious, shy, and very alone.

    I can’t believe how you do so many things and excell in them. Each of your many accomplishments, take so much knowledge, time, and talent. You are not normal, but so above it. And you give so many hours of enjoyment to your readers.

    • Colleen, thanks for those kinds words. I don’t think I do all that much–I write books and lawyer. It’s what I don’t do that makes it possible for me to do both. I don’t maintain a primary relationship, I don’t have kids or grandkids underfoot, I don’t watch TV, I’m not house proud, I don’t socialize much unless I really enjoy the company of the people I’m with (like my blog buddies), and I don’t see nearly enough of my family.

      Which might also explain part of where the books come from.

  9. I imagine we have all felt like “others” at least once in our life. When I became a single parent of seven children I became the other. Other single Moms had their free time when their kids went to the Dad’s on weekends. My ex was never around so I never had the free time to join them in their free time. Nor did I have any extra money to do things. But I realized I couldn’t change what was and from then on I wouldn’t allow anyone to judge me or make me feel other. I had more important things to tend to..

    • I was a single mom of ONE kid, though it was also 24-7-365. I was broke, exhausted, and overwhelmed just with that single child. I cannot imagine how you coped with seven (I’m one of seven).
      And you’re right. When the motivator is survival, the silly stuff falls away. I do like that part.

  10. I have always been an other. I am a geek. I always did well in school. I finally fit in when I became a member of the first class to go to the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics (Class of 1982) – a public (paid for by the state of NC), residential (yes, boys and girls lived there during the school year) high school for juniors and seniors. Hooray for the chance to finally belong in a group of people where different, a bit weird, a bit eccentric was normal. Still some of my best friends, including my husband who I found there. And, hey, because we were in the first class, we got to pick our mascot – the unicorn, because we were unique. I may be an Other most of the time, but I know there are other Unicorns out there like me.

    • You do know the national animal for Scotland is the UNICORN, don’t you? You knew that, right?
      I can see that school being the setting for some YA novels… sleep-away school isn’t a concept most Americans re familiar with, though they are still common in the UK. It does make for stronger peer bonds, and for an experience of community outside the family. Not simply an experience of ‘campus life,’ but of community.

  11. Sometime in grade school (about 8 years old) I was playing with the girl across the street. As I remember she was 3 or 4 years younger. Their were no girls in my neighborhood my age, only 5 boys. She told me she liked me better that day as I wasn’t using big words. I was aghast at the whole idea of her comment. Actually I felt sorry for her.

    I went to school to learn how to read. I read avidly. I loved using the new words I saw in books. Sometime I had sense enough to look up their meaning before I used them.

    Although Our family was not wealthy we appeared to be, in an area of truck farmers just getting by and laborers, thus the other. My love of books and learning about the world always placed me in a position of being different.

    • Oh, the fights I fight with my editors…. over words. I tell my current editor that my readers LIKE seeing uncommon and even new words, that my readers are SMART… and still, she has to twiddle and tweak the occasional word. Changed patronymic to parentage and I about shot around the room backward. I was making a point about a character’s LAST NAME, not his ancestry.
      In this case, I have found the place where I am not an other, where readers like my choices regarding words on the page, and for the editor to imply, “Well, no. That word has to go…” Puts me back into the status of being the other, the one without authority, the one making a mistake.
      I do not care for that.

  12. I’m glad you found your tribe at RWA. I was fat and shy in elementary school, and then skinny and shy most of the way through high school and in college. I’ve always had a few good friends, whom I cherish. We don’t all believe the same things, which would be boring, but we accept each other as we are. Acceptance is important and can be rare.

    I live in a very conservative part of the country where folks like folks who think just like themselves and most are very critical of those who don’t. It’s a shame.

    • I live in a conservative part of the country too–where that, “What church do you attend? Who did you vote for?” mentality has the effect of making us all more isolated, when rural geography and long work days do that already. I’m not sure what the solution is. I don’t consider myself particularly liberal, but I do think public issues should be subjected to rigorous and informed debate. Even that opinion on my part means I don’t fit in well with a lot of my neighbors.
      We talk about the weather a LOT.

  13. We’re going to see Black Panther tonight!

    The frst time I remember being ‘Other’ was in elementary school when my mother decided that getting our hands stamped as proof we paid for lunch was a mark of the beast and saying the pledge of allegience was worshipping an idol. It happened again when we moved from California to Georgia when I was 10. I had learned to work around mom’s ideas but a kid from CA had a very different upbringing than a kid from small town GA. Then there was the time I was set on taking canoeing as a summer camp class “but girls don’t take canoeing”. I’ve been Other many times in my life but at some point I decided that there were worse things than being different.

    • Girls didn’t take shop either. I took it anyway and enjoyed it. The theory of the four-cycle engine is pretty simple, a metal lathe pretty cool. I’m not sure how many years passed before it occurred to a boy that home ec might be useful….
      I think our moms would have gotten along famously.

  14. I remember not feeling other, but being told over and over in many ways that I was other, until I accepted that exclusion defines you as much or more than your own identity in the eyes of others. Being mixed race, bisexual, disabled, smart when girls weren’t supposed to be, “big-boned” enough that only men’s clothes and shoes fit me (growing up before the internet), introverted, etc. etc. I am rarely not othered. It is fascinating because I can tell how someone is defining me by how they talk to me, tells me nothing about myself but plenty about them.

    • Big-boned. Husky… I pilfered my older brother’s jeans, because girl jeans didn’t fit me. Was sold men’s running shoes because they hold up longer for, “for you chunky gals.”
      And yet, it’s as you say: The labels people select for us say most about the person doing the labeling. I’m just Grace, unless it’s an Inigo Montoya day. Then my name is Inigo Montoya…

  15. Korea and the laughing children, “Here come the long-noses,” because one of our group did understand Korean. However, I also remember shy hands touching my floating (frizzy?) hair on a bus in Mexico and telling me it was beautiful.

    Our son loved university for feeling normal. Our daughter (age 26) wants her hearing aid to be purple so that people know she has it. She isn’t stuck up. She didn’t hear you.

    I used to hear her in her bed at night talking through her day. She is a talented mimic and so I knew from the different voices who had said what. She re-imagined the day then, to her liking, with voices, and promptly fell asleep. It’s what I really enjoy about a Happy Ever After story. The “other” learns to deal, discovers his tribe, significant other… maybe all of the above, and we lucky readers can feel all is well in our world (or theirs) for awhile.

    • My mom lost most of her hearing. That is a trial, and the only disability so pervasive it becomes a primary identity. People will label themselves (that word again) “deaf” before they will name gender, age, ethnicity, any other status. My mom’s take on it was, “If you’re blind, people want to help you. If you’re deaf, they think you’re stupid.” (She also lost most of her sight.)
      I hope your daughter’s hearing aid works, whatever color it is.
      As for the HEA… so many people miss that about romance. Yes, there’s attraction and a relationship, but at its heart, the story is about love giving us the courage to change, to be the best people we can be. It’s not about falling off prom dresses and man-chest…. or not mostly about that.

  16. As an introvert I view the world quite differently than an extrovert. I love my birthday. I used to celebrate my birthday each year until an extrovert became offended. Extroverts love being around people and celebrations. They are always viewing events as a host or a hostess and how they would do things differently. While at one event they are already looking ahead to the next event. As an introvert I like some time with people but not a lot. If I am at an event I appreciate whoever has come out, but my event is not ruined if someone can’t attend. I guess I just don’t feel that I am in charge.

    • Oh, for cryin’ inna bucket. It’s YOUR birthday. Tell that extrovert to take a powder.
      I’m a warp nine introvert. I need successive days of solitude to find balance after I’ve frequented the halls of justice. I suspect this will get worse as I age, and as I have more time to myself. I will get happier, and going out in the big world will be more of a chore.
      Thank heavens for blogs.

  17. Can I say, first off, that I’m so glad that you are just precisely the individual you are? I am sure you do not need me or anyone else to validate you, but still, I don’t want to miss the opportunity to acknowledge that the gifts you share with the world make it a better place.

    One of the things that has made me feel like an Other for most of my life is that I’m painfully shy at the best of times. When I can connect with people one-on-one, it’s not such an ordeal. But there are so many social situations I avoid because I am terrified of looking like a fool or walking into a room full of stares. When I get out of my own head long enough to analyze this, I can clearly see how ridiculous it is to care that much about what anyone thinks of me (if anyone is even paying any attention to me at all). Yet, in the heat of the moment, I’m overwhelmed by worry that I’m not good enough or will do something hugely embarrassing in front of others. I think it stems a good deal from feeling like I didn’t fit in as child of a certain size and being young for my grade in school which I’ve carried with me ever since.

    These days I don’t beat myself up so much about my inclination to avoid the stress of large-group social situations. Instead, I challenge myself to doing something outside of my comfort zone once every few months. It’s a compromise. Last fall, I signed up and attended an batik art class where I knew no one and had no previous experience. It was uncomfortable because I knew no one and I was trying out something that I’d never done before and could totally fail at, but I got through it and learned something new. Just this spring, I made myself attend a service award ceremony for my 20 years at my workplace. It required me to take a photo that was then plastered on a jumbotron (okay, maybe just a large projection screen), walk up to receive my award in front of a room of 200+ colleagues, and endure a few (very lovely) words of gratitude from my supervisor. But . . . I did it and didn’t die of mortification. I wanted to prove to myself that I have nothing to be embarrassed about by virtue of just being myself.

    Still, feeling Other-ness is a difficult mantle to shed. I like what you said about shifting the perspective from Other to curious stranger. I think travelling is a great way to practice internalizing that shift. It’s a safe space to be an Other when you’re a tourist because no one expects you to be anything but an Other, you know?

    • Thanks for those kind words. I need to hear them from time to time.
      Sounds like you have a smart approach to impersonating an extrovert. We apparently grow best in small increments on the edge of our comfort zone, not outside of it. The UK qualifies in that regard for me, because I do speak the language.
      I also look for the occasional ‘safe’ challenge, and try to bound my risk with one of two things: It either has to be a baby step, or I have to have the company of a trusted companion if it’s a big step.
      The little by little in the company of good companions approach seems to keep me from either panicking or stagnating.

  18. Ahhh, yes the other. I’m a Glaswegian, moved to the states as a child. So aside from the funny accent, I was also of mixed race/ethnic makeup. Caucasian, auburn-haired mum. My father with whom she had split from was African American. We moved to Vermont. The only other thing that is black & white there are the cows. After a couple of years due to tragic events, I became a ward of the state and remained a foster kid until I aged out. An other without family. Always an other. Married, divorced, the single mother, again an other. I spent most of my life working with kids in the psychiatric industry yet my heart was always worn on my sleeve, artistic pursuits on the side again an other. Now in my late 50’s having taken early retirement due to the years of stress, work and constantly “doing it all” I am still an other. As many look at retirement as sitting on the couch with the remote or finding themselves lost in the empty nest or struggling with later divorces, I am still an other. I have more traveling, writing and exploring to do. I am the one who has put my dog in the car and driven cross country several times by myself. I have lived in VT,MA,CT,NH,FL,NC,NM,NV,AZ and WI all because I so desired and being an other allowed that. I have not made it to a RWA conference yet but certainly hope to soon. I totally agree with how open and warm this group is from the chapter gatherings I have attended in past years. A loving bunch of others we are. Looking back on all the difficulties, sadness, confusion or even loneliness it may have caused me in the past I wouldn’t trade it now for anything.