alterity [n.] the state of being “other” within a collective imagination.
I didn’t realize I was other until I got to high school, and even then, the otherness I experienced was somewhat unorthodox. Blackness, as it is often constructed within the homogenizing gaze of whiteness, is synonymous with poverty. The black experience, as we see it on television, is the experience of rags-to-riches drug dealers, elite athletes from Compton and exceptional intellectuals cradled by violence. These are not fallacies – these are archetypes which exist, which are real and hold legitimacy, but they are also the authentic images. These are the images which are believed to be the truth of Blackness – Blackness as poverty, Blackness as economic dilapidation. Authenticity is a strange phenomenon, for no one really gets to say what is and is not authentic. Yet still, there seems to be this notion that one image – that of the Wire, for example – is real, while other images – those of the Cosby Show or Blackish – are not. Within this framework, I became aware of the fact that I was not as I appeared. I was exceptional because I hailed from a two-parent household in a suburban upper-middle class neighborhood in New Jersey. I carried with me throughout high school a bitterness which I could not describe or understand, for in that bitterness was a constant sense of conflict whose roots lie in my own ambivalence, in my own irreconcilability.
It wasn’t until I got to college when I realized that the metrics used to determine what Blackness is and should be are entirely hegemonic, entirely constructed and entirely dangerous. It was also in college – perhaps the furthest away I was from everyday contact with working-class Blacks, to be quite honest – that I realized that the perception of the Black experience was not a racist presumption with stereotypes, although the American imagination is often riddled with false and base interpretations of the realities of the subaltern. Millions of Black people lived in poverty, a reality I did not experience until I got to college, a reality I did not have to experience because it was so removed. But I have talked about this already, and talking about it more is only stroking a patchy beard.
The source of otherness comes from an established understanding of normality in the public imagination. The phrase “imagination” is important here, for we are all part of a collective imagination through which ideas and images are constructed, encoded, decoded and deconstructed as a community effort. This effort transcends race, gender, ethnicity and religion. We all play our part in the collective imagination of the United States, whether we consider ourselves Americans or not.
The root of the word imagination is, rather obviously, image. Images, particularly when in reference to media, are crucial to the proliferation and propagation of information with which we build our imaginations. The creation of an image is a cultural and social act. One person does not invent a stereotype, even if that person may speak into existence the stereotype. It belongs to a group of people to create and enforce a crafted image, a stereotype, an archetype, as logical fact, as a metric with which they will now interact with the world. The person who proliferates dangerous information is just as guilty as the person who creates it, and thus, we are all responsible for our actions as we are all responsible in the creation of public imaginations.
Back to alterity. Within the American imagination, certain images stand as the standards for how we live our lives within media. One of these images, the raceless, is the implicit understanding that a person without any racial markers in a book or a screenplay is automatically white. Whiteness, as in the physical sense, appears to be the absence of color. A man not described as black or as Asian or as Middle Eastern or as Latino is white, it seems, for all of these markers represent the other. The marker Latino man is different from man for the qualifier Latino represents the otherness which man alone cannot simply possess. The same thing happens with woman. A person, described as a person is assumed, erroneously and generally, to be a man. Woman in its very definition is but a qualification of man, for the word man is in the word woman, in the true Biblical sense – at least as it relates to English – that women are but derivatives of men. Thus, in relation to men, women are subaltern. Hence the revision of the word women as womyn, an effort to remove the centrality of women’s otherness from our vocabulary, and, perhaps, from our minds.
We define alterity as one’s understanding of the world as it relates to a general standard, a standard which usually has no tactical or tangible roots. Notions of alterity are founded often in a centralized understanding of the capabilities or presumptions of a particular people – women are not good scientists, Mexicans are lazy, Black people are bad at tests. Yet, the ways by which these images become reality lie in their ubiquity within public imaginations. Human beings are malleable and shaped by their surroundings. Parents who give in to the notion that women are not good scientists do not allow their daughters to participate in scientific endeavors, like going to science camp or participating in science fairs, ultimately contributing to the spurious understanding that women are bad scientists by reducing the production of female scientists. Thus the image grows in its size and density, becoming harder and harder to dispel. Working-class Mexicans who are not hired because of the understanding that they are lazy only contributes to the widespread unemployment which these communities already endure, causing them to appear more and more visibly in clusters, awaiting work, appearing, in their anticipation, to be lazy. Black children who are raised in poor educational systems and are not exposed to test-taking strategies or have access to resources for improving their scores will continue to score poorly on tests, the truth of the statement, in a way, making sense, but the correlation between “being Black” and “scoring poorly” being more complex than is visible.
Yet, damaging images do not tend to have as much of an effect on the normalized, mostly because the normal identity – the mainstream, white cisgender man – contains within its careful craftsmanship an elasticity which makes that identity, that of our collective oppressor, virtually invulnerable to the effects of typecasting, regardless of how laboriously and destructively we as the wretched may try. The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house…