The Pain of Being Othered: What Marginalization Feels Like

Empty sidewalk cafe illustrating marginalization

Marginalization: The Pain of Being Othered

Recently I was walking down a street in downtown Detroit with my friend. We were leaving this dope-ass concert, carrying lawn chairs, stopping for pictures every so often. To get to her car, we walked down a street that happened to have been recently gentrified. It was the summer and there were tables covered in white cloths outside of this restaurant. At one of them there were three people, a young and attractive white couple and an old black man.

This couple looked like something out of a magazine: he was wearing cargo shorts and a button-down shirt, and she was wearing a sundress that showed off her well-tanned legs. They looked to be very much in love as they laughed and fed each other french fries, without a care in the world. 

And then there was an old brother with a really thin build, just sitting there with his close-cropped salt and pepper hair and thick goatee. He was wearing a jacket, a thin t-shirt, grey Dickies, no socks, and some kicks that must have been icy white once. But that was a long time ago. Now, they were crusted with a thick layer of dirt that I imagine had been gained walking aimlessly around the many streets of “tha D.”

He was sitting with the white couple at the very same table, but he might as well have been separated by a wall that was 50 feet high. He just wasn’t there. He didn’t look like he was valued by anyone around him. He was just a relic of what that neighborhood had been.. And it was a model illustration of what is happening now in many cities — including in New Orleans, where I live.

Living on the Margins 

As an African-American, there have been many instances where I and others like me have felt marginalized in white spaces. Mostly it has happened in professional settings — although   social situations are not immune. In those instances, I immediately look for another POC or marginalized person in an effort to claim some kind of safe space.

In large part, my white brothers and sisters are good people, and many of them  try to be inclusive and make things as comfortable as possible. But when that doesn’t happen, “the fight or flight” response kicks in. I just feel like I’ve got to get out. It almost feels as if I’m drowning. That feeling of being “othered” or left out can feel overpoweringly painful, and when it happens all I  want is for it to stop.

I love to observe people in social settings, and when I do I overhear things and I see things. I always wonder what’s like to be free to do whatever you want and face few (if any) consequences. What’s it like to have people take your word as gospel by default, even if you don’t know shit about something? What’s it like to feel safe and secure and confident in who you are from jump? What’s it like to know that you can screw up for most of your life — and still, doors that I have to kick down are just gonna open for you?

Thoughts or actions that certain others take for granted could lead to ridicule, ruin, or even death for black folks and other marginalized groups. We grow up learning how to be afraid of certain things. How many of us have gotten “the talk?” How many of us have been the only person of color in a group  and felt the weight of our ethnicity, the poverty that we grew up in, or the feeling that we just don’t belong? That sinking feeling when the conversation goes to a place where you don’t have the cultural capital to get in is so real. It’s a feeling that is very hard to explain.

You know that your black is beautiful, but that feeling of pride can get crushed into dust with the reminder that that your “otherness” is a problem. You try to relax, but the higher you go on the social strata, it feels like there’s a lurking and hungry shadow monster waiting for you, showing its sharpened teeth, and ready to devour your body and soul.

Many of us come to know that feeling, and baby, we know it all too well. That’s what makes a Clarence Thomas or Ben Carson. Some black academics have reasoned that they wanted to get far away from the trauma of racism, segregation, and poverty; that they erased that part of themselves from their lives in order to navigate white spaces.

How many of us go to a bar that was once a safe space, only to see it become something else. And not only are you ignored by the people that replaced you, but you have to suffer the indignity of paying more for the privilege?

How many of us have had to endure the constant microaggressions that cause our anxiety, and raise our blood pressure, or make us feel unsafe or unwanted or marginalized in a certain space?

My Marginality Does Not Define Me

When I saw the unlikely trio at that Detroit restaurant, I stopped in my tracks. I couldn’t move for a few seconds. It was hot, but my skin turned as cold as the inside of a well-iced cooler. I reached into my pocket and pulled out my phone to snap a picture of it, but I immediately thought better. I didn’t want to exploit my brother anymore than he’s probably already been.

My friend and I kept walking, but that shit stuck with me. I don’t know if she remembers, but it was burned into my mind forever. I wonder what he was feeling? Maybe he was dealing with a mental illness? Maybe he was sharing in the pain what many black, poor, and marginalized groups suffer from: the feeling that comes with being “othered” or marginalized. Or maybe, by continuing to sit at that table, it was a revolutionary act. He was silently saying, “I’m gonna sit here…until you see me.”

Editor’s Note:

This piece is the first installment of a Dismantle series entitled “Keywords in the Song of Life,” an homage not just to Stevie Wonder, but also our beloved cultural studies hero Raymond Williams. In 1976, Williams published Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. This foundational text offers in-depth explanations of the theoretical vocabulary that has guided many of us to understanding the politics of culture. 

In our Keywords series, contributors offer personal narratives that reveal how these theoretical concepts can be applied to our experiences. Through this work, we hope that you’ll see not just how empowering it can be to utilize the tools of social and cultural theory, but also how they can help us envision a more just world. 

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