9/11 and the Psychology and Politics of ‘Othering’

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This is a series of posts designed to help people approach diversity and inclusion. These are questions and scenarios we’ve actually heard or seen in the wild. This is part of our corporate programming for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. For more information, click here.


“After 9/11, I felt nervous when I saw people, men specifically, who appeared middle eastern on my flight. I have been told these feelings were offensive and racist, but they were based on a visceral event that had just happened. How can I separate these feelings about a real-life occurrence from my feelings about a group in general?”


You’ve got to be taught
To hate and fear,
You’ve got to be taught
From year to year,
It’s got to be drummed
In your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught.

You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade,
You’ve got to be carefully taught.

You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You’ve got to be carefully taught!

This song, “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught” by Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein (1949) from the Broadway musical South Pacific is preceded by the line that prejudice is “not born in you! It happens after you’re born.” Though the lyrics in this song referred to racism and ethnic biases, it can and does refer to other forms of social prejudice and discrimination as well.

I begin my discussion of a question asked by a reader of The Good Men Project with the Rogers and Hammerstein’s lyrics because it begins to address some of the initial causes of how we develop prejudice, and how we discriminate towards other who are different in some ways from ourselves as individuals and as groups – why we “other” people.

First, this is a great question, and I thank the person for raising it because I am certain many people feel similarly. I have some critical questions to pose before I set out to address this directly:

What if following the 9/11 attacks more government leaders, trusted community leaders, clergy, celebrities, family members, and peers had asserted affirmatively that we can never generalize the actions of a few to all or most members of an identity group? 

In other words, what if more people had argued that we must not stereotype the actions of a few to the many, that though some stereotypes might hold a small nugget of truth in a limited number of cases, they must not be generalized?

What if someone asked this question:

Since the media depicts males of African descent committing crimes, I feel nervous when I am walking on the sidewalk and I see black men heading toward me. I have been told these feelings were offensive and racist, but they were based on visceral events I see on the evening news. How can I separate these feelings about a real-life occurrence from my feelings about a group in general?

Trauma: Personal & Collective

In my case, the last question is more than simply an intellectual exercise, but, rather, it came from a traumatic experience. I lived in Washington, DC, and one evening I walked to a friend’s home for dinner. In route, two black men surrounded me, pointed a gun in my direction, and robbed me of my wallet and coat.

When I finally reached my friend’s residence, I broke down in terror. The police soon afterwards arrested the perpetrators on a tip from a father and son who witnessed the crime from directly across the street. Two months later, I testified at the trial in which a jury convicted the men of armed robbery. Though I have recovered somewhat from that traumatic incident in 1972, I still often stiffen what I walk alone after dark.

This was a personal trauma, and though the incidents on 9/11 could be considered as personal to those directly involved, it was a collective trauma to the remainder of us. I can imagine that for many of us, we can remember clearly where we were when we first heard of the airplanes hitting the World Trade Center Twin Towers, the Pentagon, and the Pennsylvania field.

I was sitting in my office at Colgate University in Hamilton, New York preparing for a discussion for my Educational Psychology class on the work of Jean Piaget. This collective trauma has forever seared into my mind the horrors of that day. I can still see the anguished face of one of our students whose sister was a flight attendant on the plane that went down in Pennsylvania, and our reading of names weeks later of the several Colgate alumni we had lost in the Towers.

Since the personal and collective traumas I have experienced throughout my life, I have attempted to heal and not to generalize my terrors and resentments to others who happened to be of similar identity groups as the perpetrators. In other words, I have attempted not to stereotype the actions of the few to the many.

The Psychology and Politics of “Othering”

Within a patriarchal Christian white supremacist system of male domination in the United States, for example, white cisgender heterosexual Christian upper socioeconomic-class able bodied male U.S. born English as first language bodies of a certain age range matter more, while “othered” and “minoritized” bodies matter less

The term “othering” was coined by Nathaniel Mackey (1992) as an action verb that is something people do to turn “the other” from a noun to a verb. This “othering” thus minoritizes the “other,” which does not necessarily refer to numerical status, but, rather, indicates a social ranking within a socially constructed hierarchy.

Culturally, these “othered” bodies include female and intersex bodies, bodies of BIPOC people, non-Christian bodies, bodies that violate the “rules” for the reproduction and maintenance of the dominant patriarchal Christian white supremacist system such as trans, gender non-conforming, gay, lesbian, and bisexual bodies, bodies with disabilities, non-U.S.-born bodies, non-English as first language bodies, and many other “othered” bodies.

In addition, within many Western societies like the United States, non-European-heritage bodies and non-Christian bodies are regarded also as abject bodies – bodies that, to use Judith Butler’s (1990) phraseology, do not matter, or, at least, do not matter as much as “white” bodies.

Butler reminds us that the term “abjection” is taken from the Latin, ab-jicere, meaning to cast off, away, or out. On a social level, abjection designates a degraded, stigmatized, or cast out status. In psychoanalytic parlance, this is the notion of Verwerfung (foreclosure). Butler also states that “we regularly punish those who fail to do their gender right,” and similarly punish those who fail to do their “race” right. Doing one’s “race” right often depends on doing one’s socioeconomic class right. The regulatory regimes of “sex,” “sexuality,” “gender,” “ability,” “race,” “class,” and “ability” are inimically connected, and these connections are discursively or socially maintained.

Webster’s dictionary defines “oppression” as a noun meaning “the unjust or cruel exercise of authority or power” on the individual / interpersonal, institutional, and larger societal levels.

As opposed to “oppression,” I define “social justice” as “the concept that local, national, and global communities function where everyone has equal access to and equitable distribution of the rights, benefits, privileges, and resources, and where everyone can live freely unencumbered by social constructions of hierarchical positions of domination and subordination.”

Stereotypes & Scapegoats

A stereotype is an oversimplified, preconceived, and standardized conception, opinion, affective attitude, judgment, or image of a person or group held in common by members of other groups. Originally referring to the process of making type from a metal mold in printing, social stereotypes can be viewed as molds of regular and invariable patterns of evaluation of others.

Stereotyping can and often does result in singling out individuals and groups as targets of hostility and violence, even though they may have little or nothing to do with the offenses for which they stand accused. This is referred to as scapegoating. With scapegoating, people tend to view all members of another group as inferior and to assume that all members are alike in most respects. This attitude often leads to even further marginalization.

The origin of the scapegoat dates to the Book of Leviticus (16:20–22). On the Day of Atonement, the high priest selected a live goat by lot. He placed both hands on the goat’s head and confessed over it the sins of the people. In this way, he symbolically transferred the sins of the people onto the animal, which was then cast out into the wilderness. This process thus purged the people, for a time, of their feelings of guilt, shame, and fear.

When stereotyping occurs, people tend to overlook all other characteristics of the group. Individuals sometimes use stereotypes to justify the subjugation of members of that group. In this sense, stereotypes conform to the literal meaning of the word “prejudice,” which is a prejudgment, derived from the Latin praejudicium

To stereotype and scapegoat all followers of Islam for the events of 9/11, San Bernardino, and Orlando is as invalid as blaming all Christians for the despicable actions perpetrated by Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber who was involved in the so-called “Christian Identity” movement.

When demagogues play on people’s fears and prejudices by invoking these images for their own political, social, and economic gains, in more instances than not, this results in loss of civil and human rights, harassment, violence, and at times, death of the “other.” Throughout history, most dominant groups have depicted or represented minoritized groups in a variety of negative ways to maintain control or mastery.

Dominant groups represent minoritized groups through myths and stereotypes in proverbs, social commentary, literature, jokes, epithets, pictorial depictions, and other hegemonic forms. Looking over this history, for example, we find many clear and stunning connections between historical representations of several minoritized groups, whom dominant groups construct as subhuman (lower “racial”) life forms.

Following the horrendous events of September 11, 2001, a national poll found that 50% of all U.S. residents believe that our government should place a ban on Muslims entering the country, an idea proposed by then presumptive Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and virtually instituted with his ascendency to the Oval Office.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) released its 2006 report finding that approximately 25% of U.S.-Americans consider Islam as a religion of hatred and violence, and that those with the most biased attitudes tend to be older, less educated, politically conservative, and more often support the Republican Party.


Young children learn the values and attitudes of people and later the larger society around them. Within this process, children also learn prejudice and how to discriminate through observing others around them, and through reinforcement, and modeling. This is the process of socialization.

Children begin developing attitudes about various groups in society as early as ages three or four. Initially such attitudes are quite flexible. However, as children grow older their attitudes become more difficult to change (Byrnes, 1995, p. 3).

Beverly Daniel Tatum (1999) states that identity is shaped by several factors, including individual characteristics, family dynamics, historical factors, and social and political contexts. No matter where a child is born—Atlanta, New Guinea, Moscow, and Tokyo—all children undergo the process of socialization, which can be defined as the life-long process through which people acquire personality and learn the values, attitudes, norms, and societal expectations of their culture.

Though the content varies from one culture to the next, the process of socialization is very similar. Through this process, people come to understand their culture, begin to develop a sense of who they are, and come to know what is expected of them in terms of their social role. While an acorn will inevitably become an oak tree, humans require socialization to realize their humanity. Charles Horton Cooley (1922) talks about the “looking glass self,” whereby other people are the mirrors through which we see ourselves.

A social role is any pattern of behavior that an individual in a specific situation is encouraged to perform. The term comes from the language of the theater, being derived from the French role, referring to the “roll” of paper containing an actor’s part. A role is not the same as the person who is performing it at the moment—just as the role of Macbeth has been played by countless actors over the centuries. Macbeth has certain characteristics, which, regardless of the particular actor who plays the part, enable the audience to recognize him as “Macbeth.” Yet, as a stage role leaves some room for interpretation, so, too, most social roles involve general guidelines, but not precise behaviors.

Individuals play many different social roles. One can, for example, play the role of daughter, mother, student, friend, patient, and professional. Each of these roles has a set of expectations associated with it. The role of a student, for example, involves coming to class on time, treating teachers respectfully, participating in class discussions, doing homework on time, and so forth. Our understanding of these expectations enables us to recognize “inappropriate” behavior.

Though we have the capacity to reflect on these roles, most of us do not even notice them. The roles represent our socialization. Actors receive their roles by the person in charge of casting, instructed by the director, and handed the part to memorize. In learning a social role, however, we have a variety of teachers and models.

When infants are born, they are limited in their understanding of the ways of the world. Their most important agents of socialization are parents or guardians who consciously and unconsciously model certain behaviors while teaching all sorts of roles: “No dear, not like that, like this.”

As roles become more and more sophisticated, people learn from others who are already performing them. For example, a first-year middle school student may “learn” how to be a middle school student from observing other students.

When a young child enters school, teachers are not merely the transmitters of knowledge, but they also serve to continue and supplement the process of socialization. It is in these early years of school when the child learns many of the “rules” of behavior and becomes a social being to an even greater extent. Later, peer relationships play a more significant position in the socialization process.


Ethnocentrism to Sigmund Freud (1930) carried with it the social “function” of displacement of aggression from the ingroup to the outgroup. In addition, Wurtzel (1986) maintains that people maintain prejudicial attitudes to gain certain rewards and to avoid punishment, what he refers to this as the “Utilitarian Function” of prejudice.

People generally want to be liked and, therefore, will take on the prejudices of others, including family members and peers. This is a way of consolidating their personal and social relationships, and in turn enhancing their own self-concept. Also, when a leader exploits a prejudice widely held by her or his constituency, group members may experience a heightened sense of purpose and a stronger feeling of community while at the same time solidifying the leader’s position.

Wurtzel also contends that people treasure their own particular sets of values and modes of living, and there may be some insecurity surrounding anything that is different from those standards. Any difference may be construed as a threat to those frameworks, a threat that would undermine the security their social norms provide.

Consequently, any group perceived as challenging one’s values one may be considered as inferior and threatening. Prejudice against people who maintain values different from one’s own tends to strengthen the values of those who hold the prejudice. Wurtzel calls this the “Value-Expressive Function” of prejudice. Seeing even imaginary threats to one’s shared values may not only increase animosity toward those who are perceived as threats, but also make the values appear to be worth defending.

Wurzel discusses a “Self-Esteem” or “Protective” function of prejudice and conflict. He asserts that people often hate what appears threatening or uncertain, for it reminds them of the fragility of the human ego.

All of us fail at times, and it is often frightening to take personal responsibility for those failures. Prejudice in these instances protects one’s self-esteem against conflicts and weaknesses arising from one’s limitations (whether internal or external). Thus, scapegoating certain groups shields people psychologically from their own inadequacies and fears. An example might be someone who blames “those gays” for destroying the institution of heterosexual marriage in order to cover up the problems they may be having in their own marriage.

MacCrone (1937) added that the mere existence of an outgroup protects the ingroup from internal disruption. Furthermore, the ingroup actually needs outgroups to serve the function of directing aggression outward. Jean Paul Sartre (1965) stated that in the absence of Jews, the anti-Semite would have to invent them. Similarly, in the absence of LGBTQ, Muslims, and “other” people, those with high levels of prejudice would have to invent them.

Coser (1956) proposed his “group maintaining function” of conflict in which the expression of conflict (both within one’s own group and between groups) serves as a “safety-valve” by releasing pent-up stress. This expression can eventually “clear the air.” The scapegoating of other groups can aid in the maintaining of group cohesion.


Bobbie Harro’s “Cycle of Liberation”

On her “Cycle of Socialization,” Bobbie Harro (2013a) charts the process by which we internalize our socialization. She envisions liberation, though, as “critical transformation” with her “Cycle of Liberation” (2013b)

The cycle, or model, is composed of several points, any of which individuals can enter depending on their degree of awareness. Harro emphasizes that travelers as they process along the pathways “will repeat or recycle many times,” since “[t]here is no specific beginning or end point, just as one is never ‘done’ working to end oppression” (p. 619).

She emphasizes that this Cycle is held together by a “core” set of factors: “qualities or states of being,” some which are exhibited on the individual and collective levels all along the path toward liberation.

The points along the Cycle are as follows:

  1. Waking Up

Often this entry point onto the Cycle begins when we feel somehow differently than we had previously, evidenced by an intrapersonal shift at the center of how we felt or believed about ourselves. This might have been sparked by a critical incident or incidents or may have come about through a slow evolutionary process whereby we experience a sense “of cognitive dissonance, where something that used to make sense to us (or that we never questioned), ceases to make sense” any longer (p. 619).

  1. Getting Ready

Though we may progress from a general sense of un-ease onto the Cycle at differing rates depending on who we may be, this point “involves consciously dismantling and building aspects of ourselves and our worldviews based on our new perspectives” (p. 620). Crucial factors involved in our initial part of our liberation includes “introspection, education, and consciousness raising.” We reflect on our thoughts and behaviors, the language we use that may indicate possible inconsistencies with our newly developing perceptions. We read, talk with people, and in other ways educate ourselves as we begin to make connections between our changing worldview and how we live our lives.

  1. Reaching Out

Eventually, as we do our work toward liberation, we begin “to seek experiences outside ourselves to check our reality and to expose ourselves to a wider range of difference than we had before” (p. 621). We engage in dialogue and sometimes in debate with others, and we may disagree with others where we previously remained silent. As we begin to challenge the status quo, we may find resistance from some who would rather us stay quiet. On the other hand, we also may experience encouragement from others to continue speaking out. 

  1. Building Community

This interpersonal phase of the Cycle involves two steps: “dialoguing with people who are like us for support (people who have the same social identities as we do regarding issues of oppression), and dialoguing with for gaining understanding and building coalitions” (italics in original, p. 622). We engage in ongoing dialogues, learn from others’ experiences, and come to a better and more integral understanding of ourselves.

  1. Coalescing 

Now that we have reduced some of our defenses to change, have joined with others, and strengthened our commitment, we are now at a point to challenge systems of oppression. In coalition, we may organize, shape actions, lobby key stakeholders, engage in fundraising activities, and educate others. We may express our views more overtly, take public stands, and rally others to join the coalitions. We now understand ourselves differently and refuse to collude any longer in systems of oppression. “We are refusing to accept privileges, and we are acting as role models and allies for others” (p. 623).

  1. Creating Change

According to Harro (2013b), “The parameters of this phase of the cycle of liberation include using our critical analysis of the assumptions, structures, rules, and roles of the existing system of oppression, and our coalition power, to begin transforming the system” (p. 623). This involves imagining new ways of living and being, a new culture reflecting changing assumptions and social structures concerning the rules we enact and roles we perform that align closely with our philosophy of a socially just, diverse, and equitable society and world.

  1. Maintaining

We must remain ever vigilant each day to maintain, enhance, strengthen, and modify when needed our changed self-awareness and social consciousness. Along with this daily maintenance, we need also to celebrate our successful efforts at changing the system, no matter how small, no matter how large. “This process says to the larger world, ‘Look, this can work. You can change things by dialoguing and working together” (p. 624).


Not A Conclusion

Since September 11, 2001, we see growing numbers of violent acts directed against Muslims and incidents including “unreasonable arrests, detentions, and searches/seizures.”

For example, the CAIR report of 2005 (“Civil Rights Report: Unequal Protection) included an incident in which a Muslim woman wearing a hijab< (the garment many Muslim women wear in public) took her baby for a walk in a stroller, when a man driving a truck nearly ran them over. The woman cried out that, “You almost killed my baby!,” and the man responded, “It wouldn’t have been a big loss.”

Nearly one-quarter of all reported civil rights violations against U.S.-American Muslims involve unwarranted arrests and searches. Law enforcement agencies routinely “profile” Muslims of apparent Middle Eastern heritage in airports or simply while driving in their cars for interrogation and invasive and aggressive searches.

In addition, governmental agencies, such as the IRS and FBI, continue to enter individuals’ private homes and mosques and make unreasonable arrests and detentions.

National attention focused on the severe beating of Rajinder Singh Shalsa in New York City, and the fatal shooting of Sikh gas station owner Balbir Singh Sodhi in Mesa, Arizona. It is widely assumed that Sikhs are targeted because they wear turbans, which the public imagination equates with Muslims, which equates with “terrorism.”

In its 2015 report (“Islamophobia and Its Impact in the United States”), CAIR summarized a number of research sources, including the following:

  • The public’s favorable rating of Islam sank from 40% in November 2001 to 30 percent in August 2010 according to the Pew Research Center.
  • In late November 2010, the Public Research Institute found that 45% of Americans agree that Islam is at odds with American values.
  • A Time magazine poll released in August 2010 found, “Twenty-eight percent of voters do not believe Muslims should be eligible to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court. Nearly one-third of the country thinks adherents of Islam should be barred from running for President.”

According to key findings in CAIR’s 2018 research report:

“CAIR recorded a 17 percent increase in anti-Muslim bias incidents nationwide in 2017 over 2016. This was accompanied by a 15 percent increase in hate crimes targeting American Muslims, including children, youth, and families, over the same period. Of particular alarm is the fact that federal government agencies instigated 35 percent of all anti-Muslim bias incidents recorded in 2017. This represents an almost unprecedented level of government hostility toward a religious minority within the United States, and is counter to the American value of religious freedom”.

Islamophobia can be defined as prejudice and discrimination toward the religion of Islam and Muslims who follow its teachings and practices. Like racism and sexism, for example, Islamophobia is much more than a fear, for it is a taught and often learned attitude and behavior, and, therefore, falls under the category of oppression.


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Harro, B. (2013b). Cycle of Liberation. In Adams, M., Blumenfeld, W. J., Castañeda, R., Hackman, H., Peters, M., and Zúñiga, X. (Eds.). Readings for diversity and social justice (3th edition), New York: Routledge, pp. 618-625.

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Sartre, J. P. (1965). Anti-Semite and Jew


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