Belonging without Othering
How We Save Ourselves and the World
john a. powell and Stephen Menendian



Othering and Belonging

In 1900, the pioneering sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois stood before the first assembled Pan-African Conference in London and boldly declared that “[t]he problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line,” which he defined as “the question as to how far differences of race—which show themselves chiefly in the color of the skin and the texture of the hair—will hereafter be made the basis of denying to over half the world the right of sharing to utmost ability the opportunities and privileges of modern civilization.”1

Although Du Bois’s memorable phrase tends to strike more contemporary readers, with the benefit of hindsight, as blazingly prophetic, the substance of his brief remarks on this point—and a further elaboration in a better-known published volume a few years later—was more diagnosis than prognosis. Du Bois’s commentary was ruminative of recent events and reflective of the state of the world. The imperial powers of Europe were bent on annexing and dividing up Africa in a colonization project historians have dubbed “the scramble for Africa” (1884–1914).2 After a period of fierce political and legal contestation (which Du Bois brilliantly documented in his magnum opus, Black Reconstruction),3 Jim Crow was hitting its stride in the South. Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) was still a recent decision,4 and southern states were busy calling conventions to draw up new constitutions to disenfranchise Black citizens (1890–1910).5

Although the “color line” does not quite capture or anticipate the horror of the Holocaust, the Nazi regime very much understood its genocidal project in racial terms.a Critically, Du Bois stressed the relations between different peoples as being a defining challenge for humanity in the twentieth century. Our world today seems engulfed in a variety of overlapping and incessant forms of political and social turmoil. It does not require close inspection to see that “us versus them” dynamics organize, undergird, or are bound up with them.

Although race remains a powerful and enduring cleavage within societies across the globe, not every prominent form of intergroup conflict is based on race or color. Religion, ethnicity, caste, ancestry, language, sexual orientation, gender, and others loom just as large, and in some contexts, much larger. In India, for example, caste and religion undergird a range of much older and far different social divides. In Eastern Europe, language, ethnicity, and religion are conjoined in a different, but equally potent, formula. In the Middle East, religious sects and customs organize deeper social divides. On the Korean peninsula, where race has comparatively little social salience, gender, sex, and class are more prominent social cleavages.

Nonetheless, race and racism provide a readily available framework and common vernacular for thinking about out-group prejudice, discrimination, and intergroup inequality. Social movements, advocacy, legislation, and other interventions designed to promote inclusion and advance equality tend to be modeled on those addressing racism. The functioning of race and racism, particularly in the West, as what psychologists call an “availability heuristic,” or a mental shortcut, helps explain the frequent characterization of other forms of out-group bigotry, such as anti-Muslim prejudice, as “racism,” even though Islam is a religion, not a race.6

In addition to racism and antisemitism, hatemongering, demagoguery, ethnic and religious nationalism, polarization and fragmentation, xenophobia, nativism, and anti-immigrant sentiment, confining women into traditional gender roles and restricting reproductive rights, transphobia and LGBTQ bigotry, and Islamophobia are also hallmarks of the current moment, and no populated part of the world is free of these forces.

Given the variety of expressions to this underlying dynamic, it is little wonder that commentators, pundits, scholars, and leaders have struggled to define and characterize events within a pithy, unifying frame or have succumbed to a beguiling conflation. Successful efforts to name or define the dynamics of our current era have proved elusive or misleading, although there have been many attempts.

In this book, we maintain that the problem of the twenty-first century is the problem of “othering.” Othering is a persistent and recurring problem in our world that organizes or informs nearly every major problem on the planet, from territorial disputes, sectarian violence, military conflict, the spread of disease, displacement and genocide, to hunger and food insecurity, and even climate change.

Far right politicians have become increasingly adept at engaging the anxiety of the “other,” stoking fears of demographic change or social incursion. On the left, the myriad of grievances on behalf of oppressed or marginalized people prompt solidaristic expressions and calls for liberation, but the absence of an overarching frame inhibits mobilization of larger sympathetic blocs. Jeremiads against white supremacy, Islamophobia, or xenophobia have not proved galvanizing to the larger public nor prevented further social fragmentation or political polarization. In the center and center-left, there has been a gradual shift away from denialism, with the attendant papering over of social cleavages—by, for example, deemphasizing “identity politics”—to project a unified façade, toward a recognition and deeper understanding of the fragmenting and polarizing social dynamics occurring across the globe, but without an effective organizing framework to counter these dynamics or foster broader solidarity.

One of the avatars of hopeful unity, Barack Obama—as epitomized by his landmark 2004 speech decrying the “slicing and dicing” of Americans into blue or red states—seemed painfully aware of these trends toward the end of his presidency. In an interview with the Atlantic late in his second term, President Obama cited “tribalism” and “atavism” as a source of much conflict bubbling over the world. In his view, many of the stresses of globalization, the “collision of cultures brought on by the Internet and social media,” and “scarcities,” some of which will be exacerbated by climate change and population growth, lead to a “default position” to organize by “tribe—us/them, a hostility toward the unfamiliar or unknown,” and to “push back against those who are different.”7

In an interview shortly after the November 2015 Paris terrorist attacks, in which he refused to use the term Islamophobia, French prime minister Manuel Valls explained that “[i]t’s difficult to construct a single term that captures the variegated expressions of a broad prejudice.”8 Valls perceptively recognized the need for a nonreductive term that denotes the multidimensional nature of social marginality.

Both President Obama’s and the French prime minister’s interview commentaries are instances of leaders gesturing in the direction of “othering,” grasping for a frame to describe a global phenomenon, but lacking trenchant terminology to characterize it. We make the case for “othering” as a revealing and useful framework that encompasses and pithily describes the dynamics Obama observed, and an answer to Valls’s challenge, a single term that captures “variegated expressions” of broad prejudice.

“Othering” is a clarifying frame that reveals a set of common processes, conditions, and dynamics that propagate and maintain social group inequality and marginality. Although specific expressions of othering, such as racism or ethnocentrism, are widely recognized and richly studied, this broader phenomenon is inadequately understood.b Bridging this gap in knowledge is one of the primary purposes of this book.

We define othering as a set of dynamics, processes, and structures that, consciously or unconsciously, denies, or fails to accord, full and equal membership in society as well as human dignity on the basis of social group affiliation and identity, and therefore tends to engender marginality and persistent inequality across any of the full range of human differences based on group identities. Dimensions of othering include, but are not limited to, religion, sex, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status (class), caste, disability, sexual orientation, and skin tone.

Othering is an expansive term that denotes common mechanisms and similar dynamics undergirding many expressions of prejudice and group-based marginalization and subordination without washing out countless critical differences between cases. In the next chapter, we will make the case for “othering” as a framework and term that best characterizes and describes these dynamics by highlighting the limitations of similar terms purporting to denote these phenomena, such a “tribalism,” “caste,” “chauvinism,” and the like. We use the term othering as opposed to otherness, otherism, or otherized to show that it is a verb, an ongoing and dynamic set of processes rather than a static condition, fixed attitude, sentiment, or predisposition. With many examples, this book attempts to illuminate the nature of othering, the forces that engender it and the mechanisms that sustain and reinforce it.

In the process, we hope to bring into sharper relief the limitations of many of the commonly advanced solutions to othering. Far from reducing intergroup conflict, repressive responses like assimilation, segregation, and expulsion at best push it temporarily out of sight or bottle it up, leaving grievances to fester until they explode. And while egalitarian and other social justice movements can improve material conditions and the standing of marginalized groups in society, they tend to engender backlash, amplify polarization, and further fragmentation.

This book ultimately argues on behalf of a belonging paradigm and framework as the only one that has the potential to ultimately overcome these dynamics and reweave the social fabric. The problem of nonbelonging may be most acutely felt by marginalized and othered groups, but it is experienced by superordinate and high-status groups as well. Across societies, seemingly record numbers of people of all backgrounds report loneliness, despair, and isolation and sense disconnection and dislocation or simply bewilderment. A belonging paradigm is attentive to both the problem of othering and the various crises of identity, resentment, and backlash that exacerbate it.

We regard belonging as both a state of being and a set of processes and interventions that help bring about a more hopeful future. The stakes could not be higher. Building a world of greater belonging is not merely about reducing intergroup inequality and improving conditions for marginalized peoples. It may be necessary to humanity’s very survival.

Can human beings coexist? This is a deceptively simple question, but in many quarters of society, contemporarily or historically, coexistence among different racial, ethnic, or religious groups seems utterly intolerable, as this book painfully documents. For example, white southerners during Jim Crow found the presence of Black Americans in their schools and neighborhoods just as unacceptable as many Protestants in Northern Ireland found their Catholic neighbors at the height of the “Troubles,” or Palestinians and Jewish Israelis may fearfully regard each other in the Middle East today. But separation behind national borders or within ethnic enclaves cannot guarantee security in diverse societies.

Societies that fragment into ever-smaller units multiply the reasons and possibilities for conflict. Smaller and more homogeneous cultural units are more susceptible to insularity and chauvinism. Not only are there more borders and boundaries, but there are more grounds for grievance and potential for provocation.

The question of coexistence is not simply one front in a grand ideological battle between the forces of equity and justice on one side, and intolerance, bigotry, and prejudice on the other. More fundamentally, there is a divide in our world between people who pine to build and inhabit communities organized around a single, primary salient identity and those who desire to live in diverse, pluralistic communities.9 Unfortunately, the preference for cultural closure that results in balkanization spans all political, ideological, racial, ethnic, religious, and class divisions.

Unless we find ways to challenge these forces, reverse these trends, and build a bigger and more inclusive “we,” the future could look more like the bloody past—deepening division, rising hostility, continued fragmentation, nationalistic aggression, and a tragic ledger of ever more deadly and destructive wars and violence. The ultimate outcome would be the end not only of civilization, but potentially of life as we know it on this planet.10 We must develop and advance a belongingness agenda that embraces all people in order to build a fairer and more just society so that humanity not only survives but flourishes.

This is a book about the high price and nature of social group inequality, and how we should address it. Specifically, this book attempts to reveal the contours of the othering process, impress upon readers of the dangers of continued othering, and make the case for belonging as a paradigm that can heal the social fabric and address persistent intergroup inequality. Accordingly, it is organized into two parts. Part I, on othering, encompasses the next three chapters.

We begin our story of othering in Chapter 2 with a tragic and powerful account of othering that illuminates many common elements and key features. From there, we attempt to demonstrate the near universality of the dynamics of othering across quite different societies and over the long course of human history. There appears to be no known human society free from dynamics that marginalize or stigmatize particular social groups. Yet, despite the ubiquity of othering, there is no “natural” or inevitable other. There is no social group that appears marginalized or “othered” in every known society.

The “other” can be a numerical, racial, ethnic, or religious majority or minority. An othered group may hold great wealth or be economically precarious. Although numerical advantage, power, and wealth may make it more difficult to “other” a particular group, those advantages cannot completely inoculate against it. One of our key contentions is that any given social “other” is determined by the particularities of the unfolding and evolving othering process, not by any specific or particular trait, characteristic, chromosome, or condition. In this way, we distinguish between the concept of “the other” and the actual process of “othering.” The social “other” is constituted through—and as a by-product of—the othering process.

Different processes of othering yield differently othered social groups, with correspondingly different forms of treatment, some harsher or more confining or inhibiting than others. Some groups may be the subject of opprobrium or disapproval while others are merely pitied or looked down upon. Others may be viewed as subhuman or with contemptuous disgust while others are respected but feared and despised.

By examining different accounts and experiences of othering, we can begin to appreciate that human societies can harbor more than one social “other.” Each of these groups may be differently regarded or positioned in society relative to dominant or advantaged groups (and each other) because of the different processes of othering. Misogyny or racism functions differently than Islamophobia or homophobia, constituting differently “othered” social groups and different relative standing and regard in society. Critically, even members of “othered” groups can participate in the process of othering various social groups, even their own.

The othering process originates in the process of identity formation itself, as social distinctions are established and meanings disseminated and socialized. Chapter 3 reviews theories of identity formation and attempts to demonstrate that, although social identities are generally experienced as fixed and stable, they continually evolve. This evolution is occasionally signaled by shifting terminology or labels, as when terms like “People of Color” evolve into BIPOC, or Latino and Chicano are propounded as alternatives to Hispanic. But these terms reflect changing meanings as well. This is how Latinx becomes a contested identity label, how Black evolved from a term of opprobrium to a widely employed racial category, or queer was “reclaimed” and transformed from a slur to a term of empowerment and positive identity. These changes are not just differences in nomenclature but also signify a shift in how a group is likely to be seen or regarded, even if the individual does not similarly experience a shift or decoherence in identity.

Contrary to the presumption that identities are merely neutral or superficial labels rooted in culture, beliefs, traits, or characteristics of the group, social identities, and the range of meanings that attach to them, are by-products of the othering process. For marginalized or subordinate groups, identities are instrumental as a way of fostering solidarity and resistance to the othering process. The coherence of marginalized identities, and the attachment individuals place on those identities, tend to correspond to the regard or treatment experienced by that group. The more oppressed or threatened a group feels, the greater the salience and centrality of that identity to members of the group. For superordinate or dominant groups, prevailing identities may be a product of deliberate efforts to resolve conflicts rooted in prior identities, to create a new and larger “we.” The problem arises when this “we” is constructed on an exclusionary basis, defining a clear (although new) “other.”

The cornerstone of othering is when a society binds itself to a particular narrow social identity, privileging members of that group or extending special status and dignity to it above others. The most dangerous expression of this in the modern world is the problem of ethno-nationalism and ethno-states, which tie national identity to ethnic, racial, cultural, or religious identity. Since no human society is entirely homogeneous, such dynamics result in categorical othering.

The problem is not just that some groups have greater material advantages or political power; the problem lies with dominance, supremacy, and hegemony. For members of dominant groups, equality feels like oppression. Chapter 4 explores how demagogic identity entrepreneurs organize grievance, spinning insidious conspiracy theories, stoking fear and anxiety of “the other” or fanning animosities that are weaponized into backlash and hatemongering. Although certain conditions, such as rapid environmental, economic, or political change, provide fertile soil for demagogues, whether they succeed or not depends upon the norms and institutions in society.

Part II encompassing Chapters 5 through 7, shifts the focus away from the processes that engender othering, and toward the antidote. Although not the only conceivable remedy, we argue that a belonging paradigm is the most promising vehicle for ultimately solving the problem of othering and countering the forces that engender it. Belonging is a powerful aspiration, but we call for a particular kind of belonging required for this purpose. Belonging is a fundamental human need, and that need plays a central role in shaping human societies. When manipulated, the need to belong is actually the source of much othering. One of the powers of othering is that it can forge a sense of social solidarity and belonging. This is community building through exclusion, or belonging based on othering. We reject this type of belonging, and identify the fundamental challenge of how to forge “belonging without othering” instead: how to reject the idea of a categorical other, or “them,” and build a bigger and more expansive “we.”

Chapter 5 outlines what belonging without othering looks like in theory, policy and practice, law, and then at a deeper spiritual or ontological level. It also calls for moving beyond more limited paradigms, such as “equity,” with its emphasis on material resources and tangible outcomes, or “inclusion,” in which outsiders are invited, but often treated more as a guest than as a full participant. We present a four-part definition of belonging rooted in inclusion, recognition or visibility, a sense of connection, and empowerment, and share examples how these elements have been realized in practice. We call for a culture that embraces the practice of “bridging,” and offer guidance on how to do this effectively.

More than merely a policy-based or practical concept, belongingness introduces difficult philosophical questions about how we develop more inclusive, mutual, interrelated identities, and narratives and stories to support and reinforce belonging practice.Chapter 6 examines how an expansive belonging paradigm requires a better understanding of the self, including its inherent multiplicity and its situated relatedness. It turns out that othering and “selfing” are two sides of the same coin. Identity categories that become deeply rooted are those that provide meaningful social distinctions among people, often through an implicit negation. Thus “white” acquires meaning in relation to “Black,” or “Roman” in relation to “Barbarian,” or “Christian” in relation to “pagan,” “Jew,” or “Muslim.” In this account, the problem of othering cannot be solved by simply fixing the condition or situation of the marginalized or subordinated group. The othering process creates both the subordinate “other” and the dominant or more favored non-other.

One of the practical implications is that we cannot create true belonging in a world in which everyone is clinging to their selves as currently constructed. Nor can we ask people to abandon their existing identities, submitting themselves to an ontological death. We need to lean into our multiplicity and co-create new and varied identities that can knit people together in novel ways, and offer social spaces and experiences that affirm these connections.

How do we build a society and develop a set of narratives and scripts to support and reinforce identities, policies, and practices of belonging? We need new stories and better storytellers. We need stories that leave no one out or behind, and that help re-weave the social fabric while rejecting mythologies of the past.

The call to build belonging without othering should not be viewed as primarily a psychological or interpersonal project. This effort necessarily touches every aspect of our society, including not just what we do but also who we are, and who we are becoming. We need a belonging movement involving all sectors of society. Chapter 7 examines particular moments in history or places where a more broadly inclusive vision of society has been developed and pursued, however imperfectly, and how we might borrow or adapt lessons to advance our own vision of a world of greater belonging.

Although the concepts and ideas developed in this book are introduced and progress linearly, this book can be approached or engaged in different ways. For readers primarily concerned with the notion and problem of othering, Part I can function as a book unto itself. We have also provided a supplemental chapter, for readers who want to dive deeper and better understand the specific mechanisms that cause and sustain intergroup inequality, and that therefore tend to be found in various expressions of othering. These mechanisms explain how the social and psychological processes manifest in political and institutional arrangements, and inequitably distribute power and resources across social cleavages. Not every mechanism is evident in each instance of othering, but these mechanisms are common to many expressions of othering. The framework of “othering” helps us see, more clearly, these common features and recognize recurring dynamics across expressions.

For readers primarily interested in belonging, what it means and how to achieve it, it is possible to jump ahead and read Part II for that purpose. For readers who want to understand the principal ideas of “othering” and “belonging” without delving into various details, nuances, or implementation specifics, Chapters 2 and 5 alone can suffice.

We encourage you to follow your interests as you engage this work. But we also invite you to participate in practices that help usher in a world of greater belonging. Our future may depend upon it.


a Although color and race are often used interchangeably, they are not the same. This error was the basis of a gaffe by the actor Whoopi Goldberg in which she asserted, incorrectly, that the Holocaust was not about race. Jenny Gross and Neil Vigdor, “ABC Suspends Whoopi Goldberg Over Holocaust Comments,” New York Times, February 1, 2022, In Du Bois’s usage, it is clear that he is using the term color to refer to race.

b We may learn a great deal about the dynamics of othering and the othering process by investigating its more prominent expressions, like racism, but it is a mistake to reduce othering as such to one of its many expressions. A related error is presuming that fully addressing one of its more prominent expressions (like racism) will solve all forms of othering.

1. W. E. B Du Bois, “To the Nations of the World,” July 25, 1900, First Pan African Congress, London, transcript and audio, The line was famously repeated in one of his most admired published works. See W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, Lit2Go ed. (Chicago: A. C. McClurg, 1903), accessed February 28, 2023,, in which he wrote “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line—the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of sea.”

2. This “scramble” or “conquest” is generally described as occurring between 1884 and World War I, with the Conference of Berlin, in which these powers attempted to regulate colonization, marking the official onset of this period. Thomas Pakenham, The Scramble for Africa: White Man’s Conquest of the Dark Continent from 1876 to 1912 (New York: Avon Books, 1992); Scott J. Keltie, The Partition of Africa (London: Edward Stanford, 1893).

3. W. E. B Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America: Toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860–1880 (San Diego: Harcourt, Brace, 1935).

4. 163 U.S. 537 (1896). See also john a. powell, “The Law and Significance of Plessy,” Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences 7, no. 1 (2021): 20–31,

5. Comer Vann Woodward and William S. McFeely, The Strange Career of Jim Crow (1955; repr., Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).

6. For example, in a New York Times op-ed discussing the election of Sadiq Khan as the mayor of London, one commentator wrote that unemployment rates, health outcomes, and educational attainment may have more to do with “racism” than lack of integration. See Mehdi Hasan, “Sadiq Khan and the Future of Europe,” New York Times, May 13, 2016, See also Sahar F. Aziz, The Racial Muslim: When Racism Quashes Religious Freedom (Oakland: University of California Press, 2021); Key Sun, “Examining Racial Profiling from a Cognitive Perspective,” International Journal of Humanities and Social Science, no. 13 (2011): 65–69,

7. Jeffrey Goldberg, “The Obama Doctrine,” Atlantic, March 17, 2016, accessed April 1, 2016,

8. Jeffrey Goldberg, “French Prime Minister: ‘I Refuse to Use This Term ‘Islamophobia,’Atlantic, January 16, 2015, accessed February 15, 2015,

9. There has always been ambivalence, for example, among African Americans for integration. Stephen Menendian, Samir Gambhir, and Arthur Gailes, “The Roots of Structural Racism Project,” Othering & Belonging Institute, University of California, Berkeley, June 21, 2021, last modified June 30, 2021,

10. john a. powell, “Will Humanity Survive? The Philosophy of john a. powell,” video, Othering & Belonging Institute, University of California, Berkeley, August 5, 2021, (“[T]he reason Europe moved to the EU [European Union] is they said, with a bunch of little countries fighting over resources, within less than fifty years we’ve had two world wars. Two. And so part of the integration of the EU was say can we do something to create a larger we? Can we create a European identity so we can stop killing each other? Because each war becomes more deadly. And the capacity that existed in World War Two is nothing compared to the capacity that we have now.”)