07 September 2015

On othering. Dismissing people as being less human than we are.

This past week, the world was talking after seeing the image of a little Syrian boy washed up on the shore. Heartbreaking. Three year old Aylan Kurdi, his five year old brother Galip and his mother Rehanna drowned in the sea between Syria and Greece. The family was desperate to make a safe life, so they fled from war-torn Syria. "You have to understand, nobody puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land."

Sydney Morning Herald reports Abdullah Kurdi told the Turkish news he hopes that his family's story, his little boy's picture that is so hard to look at yet went viral, will make the world see the humanitarian crisis.

"The things that happened to us here, in the country where we took refuge to escape war in our homeland, we want the whole world to see this," he said.

"We want the world's attention on us, so they can prevent the same from happening to others. Let this be the last."

BBC World News says the Kurdi family made three prior attempts to escape Syria - paying money to people smugglers to get them to Canada to stay with relatives. The fourth attempt was fatal. (Kurdi has been a surname given to the family by the media - and Aylan is the Syrian interpretation of Alan.)

"Alan set out before dawn that morning in Turkey for the Greek island of Kos with his father Abdullah, mother Rehanna, and five-year-old brother Ghalib. The Kurdis wanted to reach Canada to reunite with Abdullah's sister Tima, a hairdresser in Vancouver.

The family joined with a small group of refugees in Bodrum to attempt the 4km (2.5 mile) crossing to Kos. Abdullah texted his sister Tima from the beach to say they were leaving. "I passed the message to my dad in Syria," she said, "Abdullah is leaving now, pray for his safety."

But her prayers went unanswered. The two small boats were hit by high waves minutes after they set off and the captain fled. Abdullah Kurdi found himself fighting to save his two young boys. Of the 23 people in the group, 14 are believed to have died, including Abdullah's wife and sons."

Mainstream and social media has reacted strongly to this story, particularly the photo of Aylan. Many believe his photo should not have been shown, but there are also arguments that this photo will change the way we think about and work to make refugees safe. Tara Moss has written a great piece on the ethics of sharing photos of the deceased.

I watched the story being covered on The Project - they chose not to show the photo (although that link does show it - graphic image warning). Host Carrie Bickmore broke down, and Chrissie Swan said something very profound - perhaps as game-changing as Aylan's photo.

When Chrissie said "It's very easy when you're using words like refugee and asylum seeker and 'othering' words,", I applauded. Not because of the actions she's describing but for raising the issue of othering on national TV.

So many times privileged people sit back, apathetic, prejudiced and judgmental, saying 'those people aren't like me". But refugees, the disabled, indigenous, Muslims, black people, the LGBTI community - they're all people. They're just like us. They are us. Little Aylan is someone's son - someone who loved him enough to put him on a paper boat to give him a better life.

The most vulnerable in the world need our help and compassion, not othering.

I posted the above passage on Daily Life's Facebook page and then on my own. People empathised and wept. Later I read the most racist, narrow minded, violent comment from someone I know. I deleted it immediately. I am revolted to know someone who has these feelings. It was othering at its worst, denying that refugees are human, that they love and they're looking for a safer life. This 'friend' is no longer.

I've othered in the past - perhaps due to media and friendship influences, and a lack of knowledge. For that I am so sorry.

James Norriss, from There Are No Others blog explains the concept of Othering:

"By "othering", we mean any action by which an individual or group becomes mentally classified in somebody’s mind as "not one of us". Rather than always remembering that every person is a complex bundle of emotions, ideas, motivations, reflexes, priorities, and many other subtle aspects, it’s sometimes easier to dismiss them as being in some way less human, and less worthy of respect and dignity, than we are."

Othering is not talked about much in the mainstream media. It is more so talked about by those who experience and are impacted by othering language. So, it's very important presenters on prime-time current news shows address the issue.

Othering is when I've been told I'm not disabled because disability has negative connotations.

It's when they've said my mum's not black like other black people (and so it's ok to make racial slurs).

It's when someone wishes I'd have told them about my friend's disability before they met her.

Othering is a former friend writing "I've got many gay friends but I wish they didn't live this sinful lifestyle".

It's watching the news with apathy, dismissing people killed at sea as "just migrants".

Othering is when someone tells me "I love taboo and politicallly uncorrect words. At work I used to get in big trouble for referring to people with a disability as retards. But I can get away with calling my colleagues retards. Why is retard such a taboo word?"

It's newspaper headlines and politicians calling certain religions "death cults".

It's when a parent begs for acceptance for their visibly different child but blatantly states they will not accept gay people in the community.

Othering is when a stranger tells me I'm really attractive, despite my face looking like it's burnt.

Othering is when a waitress tells me my friend in a wheelchair "will have to sit at a different table so they don't get in the way", and then being incredibly nice to them when she sees how good looking my friend is.

The impact of being othered is a refugee lying about being a student in Australia, and visiting his parents in Sydney, because "the words asylum seeker and refugees are very bad words in Australia". He tells little white lies to make others feel more comfortable.

Othering is divisive. It's biting. It's dehumanising. It needs to stop.

Further reading

How we can help refugees

Talking Frankly's amazing piece on how she feels about the refugee crisis

To the mother of Aylan - a letter by Rebecca Bowyer

How artists have responsed to the tragedy of Aylan and others killed at sea (graphic - yet beautiful - image warning)

A Chrome plugin that changes "illegal immigrant" and other dehumanising terms to "human"

Spread the word to end the word has great resources about why the R word is unacceptable.

Tamzen Temple wrote about othering too.

A beautiful welcome for refugees


  1. Wonderful post, Carly. It's been heartening reading what my fellow bloggers have been writing about the migrant crisis. We all have different perspectives on what's been happening but together we agree on the core issue that we are all humans who should not be denied basic human rights.

    SSG xxx

  2. Thank you for this Carly. I can't believe that even though othering is apparent every single day as we all go about our lives, it's not talked about much at all. Thank you for working to change that! Xx

  3. Such a great read & so wonderful to know that there are people such as you in our younger generation leading & inspiring our country to a new way of thinking & behaving xx

  4. This is a brilliant explanation of why othering is so hurtful and not on. Thanks again Carly.

  5. I never actually have the words when I read your posts Carly.. Always brilliant.


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