Finding Alterity

Image courtesy of
Image courtesy of

I’ve been thinking about the word “alterity.”

Trust me, it’s not a word I use on a regular basis. I couldn’t have told you the definition before 8:30 am yesterday morning, when I wandered into my small town coffee shop. I had to do some errands before heading to work, and so I rewarded myself with a London Fog: Earl Grey tea latte, brewed to perfection and oh-so-sweet.

As I waited in line—it was a rush, meaning there were two people in front of me and one behind—I saw out of the corner of my eye one of those “Word a Day” calendars. Today’s word was alterity.

All day it rolled around in my head, following me everywhere I went. It was like a whisper in my ear.

What does it mean, you ask? Alterity means otherness, especially in regards to a particular culture. It means feeling out of place, odd, unfamiliar, and unknown. It means not feeling like you belong, or will ever belong.

It seems that some people feel so marked by their alterity that it becomes their defining characteristic. I had a student in one of my classes who was a third culture kid, spending most of his life overseas with missionary parents. I don’t know what he was like outside of my class, but every single one of his paper had to do with culture, acceptance, and not feeling like he fit into American or campus culture. His alterity was so much part of him that he couldn’t not write about it.

But as we mature, we become more acclimated to our environments. We often become part of a community that looks and sounds and acts just like we do. We hang out with people who think the same way, or people we have a lot in common with.

We’re afraid of alterity.

It’s uncomfortable, alterity. Most people don’t choose it. It can be alienating, disenfranchising. And it can be extremely frustrating, terrifying, and confusing.

And I think that’s partly why I’m moving to Texas.

When I started thinking about grad schools, I didn’t really consider any in the Pacific Northwest. I love it here: the coffee culture, the pine trees, and the hipster glasses. I love the bikes, the bridges, and the waterfalls. But I feel at home here. That’s not a bad thing, in and of itself. I think everyone needs to have a place to call home, to be comfortable and known.

But I’m not even from here. My roots are in the Midwest. I grew up a South Dakota girl, moved to Washington, went to school in Oregon. All of these things have impacted me, made me who I am. And I’ve been on the outside many times. But I love being on the inside.

It seems to me that when we are too stuck on the inside, too comfortable to move, we miss out on other ways of life. We become engrained in our own way of doing things, be it barbequing or vegan cupcakes. We stop realizing that others might have different perspectives, that we could be mistaken or at least not alone in our rightness.

For some things, the issues aren’t yes and no; for some they are yes, yes yes, also yes, no, and a few maybes.

The other thing we miss out on is the feeling of new: of fear, anxiety, and uncertainty. Walking into a place and not knowing how to react or interact. Feeling like the odd person out, the only one who doesn’t know what to do or how to do it. We don’t remember what it’s like to be the only person who doesn’t understand why something is done a certain way, when the answer “because it’s always been done that way” doesn’t make sense, because that’s not our experience.

We can forget the times we experienced alterity. And so it’s hard to help someone who is in that place.

We expect those who enter our schools, our churches, our groups and communities to already know the code of conduct, to know what is acceptable and what isn’t, and to conform to our already established modes of conduct and communication. And we can’t remember what it feels like to not understand.

So how are we supposed to recognize this and set people at ease? To teach and to learn?  To explain why, or realize there’s no reason why? To change our own opinions because of the impact of the Other?

By putting ourselves in places where we are the Other.

I’m going to a place where I will be the Other. I will experience alterity. I will wear the wrong thing to church. I won’t say “y’all” with a slight southern lilt. I won’t know who is rivals with who, or where cities are located, or even how to address people.

But I’m hoping that eventually I’ll look back on this experience and say, a) I learned something about a different culture, one rich in history and experience, one different than my primary culture, and b) I remember what it’s like to be different. I remember what it’s like and it’s hard, and so I will strive to encourage those who are experiencing the tension between self and community. Not to change them to fit into my culture, or change my culture to accommodate them, but rather to find a middle ground.

We’re all the Other sometimes. And alterity can be okay, if you find people who are willing to inhabit that space with you.


7 thoughts on “Finding Alterity

  1. As your Oklahoma Sooner football fanatic friend (points for alliteration!), here is a phrase that you need to learn for your move to Texas: “Saw ’em off!” Any time you see someone in Texas Longhorns gear, shout that at them, and think of me 🙂

    I envy you your move into uncharted territory. I guess you could say that I crave alterity. Revel in it. You will grow so much.

    1. Dear Tara, are you perhaps leading me astray? I don’t want to be murdered by a Texan; I hear they take their football seriously down there. 🙂 Thanks for your kind words–friends like you make me brave.

      1. I think Roger E. Olson is at the Waco campus. He spoke with Rachel Held Evans in March. What an adventure!!!

  2. When we moved from Portland to Newberg, I thought nothing of the adjustment. After all, I had adjusted to other countries, and the alterity there was to be expected. But here, I learned it was cooler to be introverted, cooler to be liberal, cooler to be a thinker than a speaker… and it all added to general anxiousness about not being something enough, which made me none of the things that I needed to be to fit in in my new, super close to what I was used to culture. I wasn’t expecting that. And so I was found to be anxious, maybe opinionated and many qualities I didn’t consider my strongest. Alterity. A word I have lived.

    1. I agree; short-distance moves can be more difficult because you aren”t expecting the alterity to show up. It makes me think of even life-transitions when your physical place remains the same but something else changes and it feels so…uncomfortable. I hope you are finding ways to be your best parts among people who appreciate those qualities. Thanks for sharing your experience!

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