In a recent article for the New Republic, Nell Irvin Painter, a retired Princeton historian whose work focuses largely on race, discussed “othering” – a concept that she explained with reference to Flannery O’Connor’s 1955 story “The Artificial Nigger”:
A white man, Mr. Head, and his grandson Nelson visit Atlanta for the day. Mr. Head, a poor and sad old man, undertakes to tutor Nelson in racial hierarchy. On the train to the city, a prosperous black man passes by. At first, Nelson sees “a man.” Then, under Mr. Head’s questioning, “a fat man…an old man.” These are wrong answers. Nelson must be educated. Mr. Head corrects him: “That was a nigger.” Nelson must undergo the process of unseeing a well-dressed man and reseeing a “nigger,” to understand the man as Other and himself and his uncle as people who belong to society.
This episode in O’Connor’s story does indeed capture a lamentable fact of mid twentieth-century life: back then, many Americans belonging to certain groups did view members of certain other groups primarily, or even exclusively, as members of those groups, and as their inferiors. Fortunately, this type of reflexive prejudice receded dramatically in the decades after O’Connor wrote her story. In no country in human history, in fact, have members of such a wide range of ethnic and religious groups succeeded in truly becoming a single people, viewing one another not as parts of an “Other” but as fellow and equal citizens – and as friends – as was the case in late twentieth-century America.