Othering and Belonging in Oregon (Dahnesh Medora)
With the benefit of this knowledge, we can talk explicitly about race, put it into a broader frame and move in the direction of a truly multi-racial community.
How comfortable are Oregonians when it comes to discussing race? While the answer varies from person to person, we need to build this muscle if we expect to make headway on issues of inequality and marginalization.
Accessible and meaningful analysis and discussion of race is essential to address some of the most pressing issues of our time including disproportionately high rates of poverty and COVID-19 infections among people of color.This means proactively and intentionally finding entry points to get the conversation going. At the same time, it requires not hiding or shying away from the topic of race.
While there is no single way to talk about race or issues tied to race, there are approaches we can learn from and try to apply. The framework of Othering and Belonging and research on Race and Class Narrative provide useful insights.
Othering and Belonging
Most everyone has had the experience of being in a place where they felt like they didn’t belong. For some, this can feel minor and occasional. For others, it can be ever-present and life threatening.
Scholars john a. powell and Stephen Menendian put these types of experiences into context with the term “othering” which they define as “a set of dynamics, processes, and structures that engender marginality and persistent inequality across any of the full range of human differences based on group identities.” Othering relates to many different types of prejudice which might include religion, sex, race, ethnicity, class, disability, sexual orientation and more.
The flip side of othering is “belonging.” Belonging means more than just being seen and speaks to how groups are positioned within a community and how well they are perceived and regarded.
Othering and Belonging provides an accessible frame in which to think through, discuss and develop responses to marginalization and inequality. As a more inclusive term, othering calls attention to race as well as the other forms of prejudice and the ways in which they intersect with race.
Using the frame of othering also helps to draw out common challenges in different forms of prejudice such as lack of effective voice, lack of representation, recognition and power.Ineffective responses to othering can show up in several ways.
Pushing to secede from Oregon illustrates one example of ineffective responses to othering here in our state. In a recent post in The Oregon Way, George Murdock notes that seven of our 36 counties have voted to secede and join with Idaho. As Murdock explains, whether or not this is a political reality, disenfranchisement and marginalization are at the root of these actions.
powell and Menendian point out that when one group feels oppressed by another group, secession may seem like a reasonable response to resolving intergroup conflict. Like segregation, secessionism may reduce intergroup disagreement and even violence, but it does not resolve the problem of the “other.” Before a group considers seceding, there surely have been missed opportunities for building civic connection and a sense of belonging.
In the shift from othering to belonging, sustainable and effective resolutions must improve intergroup relations and reduce intergroup inequities and group-based marginality. Put another way, reducing conflict and promoting stability without addressing group-based marginality is not only unsustainable over time, it also does not actually address group-based othering. Telling counties that wish to join Idaho that they are a meaningful part of Oregon is important, but not nearly enough; we have to engage with each other on this through substantial and repetitive actions.
Another approach with lessons about how to talk about race comes from the think-tank organization Demos who joined with othersto understand how both economic and racial justice can be discussed together and neutralize the use of dog-whistle racism. Through this work, they found that a key for cross-racial solidarity, voter engagement and policy victories involved describing connections between racial division and economic hardships.
Using surveys and focus groups, the Race-Class Narrative Project tested different narratives among three groups including those strongly concerned about bias against people of color (labeled “the base”), those that think wealth is a product of individual effort and hold people of color responsible for their own conditions (labeled “the opposition”) and those that toggle between the base and opposition (labeled “the persuadables”).
The narratives being tested represented different messages about how to make life better for people of color and poor and working class people. Through this research, they found that the messages with the most resonance to the base and persuadable groups had the following elements:
Discussed race overtly and as including everyone
Named racial scapegoating as a weapon that harms everyone economically
Emphasized unity and collective action to solve problems
Invoked previous cross-racial solidarity wins to combat cynicism
Connected working together to create government for all
Similar to “othering” this research found that making division the central problem, whether in relation to race or class, helped create a desire for unity as a response.
Unite Oregon (UO), a statewide, multi-racial community organization dedicated to addressing economic and racial justice issues has similarly taken up this approach. With chapters in the Portland-metro area as well as the Rogue Valley, UO has dedicated programs in civic engagement, advocacy, leadership development and community organizing. An example of their work came out of the historic 2020 wildfires which hit UO’s communities hard. Out of this shared tragedy, UO laid the groundwork for conversations around climate change and launched initiatives where members in Clackamas and the Rogue Valley meet monthly to deepen their understanding of greenhouse gases, climate policies and how to impact climate justice policies. Through this work, UO highlights that urban/suburban immigrants, refugees, and people of color have much in common with low-income rural communities—namely, a growing economic inequality and lack of access to opportunity.
The challenges associated with inequality and marginalization in Oregon will defy easy answers. By trying different approaches to discussing race, however, we can build our strength to engage with each other and create solutions. Lessons drawn from Othering and Belonging as well as the Race-Class Narrative Project provide clues on how to address both deliberate and unintentional attempts to seed division, distrust and undermine belief in government. Groups in our state like Unite Oregon can also help us learn to apply lessons from their experience. With the benefit of this knowledge, we can talk explicitly about race, put it into a broader frame and move in the direction of a truly multi-racial community.
Dahnesh Medora serves as the Building Community Portfolio Director at the Meyer Memorial Trust. Long interested in the intersection of equity and infrastructure for progressive social change, Dahnesh has held different leadership positions at the Nonprofit Association of Oregon, the National Community Development Institute and the Tides Foundation. When not working, Dahnesh enjoys entertaining his daughter who is still young enough to think he's hilarious.
Photo credit: ODOT
The concept of “Othering and Belonging” can inform how we think about the type of community we want to create. Among many thoughtful resources at the Othering Belonging Institute is the article “The Problem of Othering and Belonging: Towards Inclusiveness and Belonging” by john a. powell and Stephen Menendian.
Drawn from “Leading for Belonging”, Presentation by john a. powell of the Othering and Belonging Institute, November 12, 2020.
This collaboration included Ian Haney López, Heather McGhee, Anat Shenker-Osorio, Lake Research Partners, Brilliant Corners, SEIU and Demos.
Thank you for such a useful article. This exploration of othering and belonging is a particularly clear frame for understanding the dynamics of marginalization and inequality. In an environment rich with a discussions of this nature, I appreciate this invitation to see connections and go deeper. Very grateful for this resource.
Thanks for the synthesis and insight Dahnesh. Are there short-term measures of the success of the work of Unite Oregon? Is it attendance at meetings? Voting in a different way on environmental measures? I'm curious how we gauge that.