Updated: Jan 15, 2020
It was already dark when I stepped out from the gym onto the street. It was unusually cold for Los Angeles and the air bit through the layers I had bundled into like the cold-weather wimp that I am.
Then I spotted him.
He was hard to miss.
He had crossed Fourth Street yelling and waving his right arm wildly. His other hand clutched his waistband keeping his oversized pants from falling down.
Luckily for me, the sidewalk is especially wide here so I was able to give him a wide berth. Without looking directly at him, I kept him in my sightline, never giving him my back and maintaining a good twenty feet of space between us.
He made a beeline towards the trashcan on the corner. As he focused on rummaging through the trashcan I was able to scan him without drawing his attention. He was white, tall but gaunt, had dark curly hair, a full scraggly beard and wild, darting eyes. He appeared to be in his late-twenties but the ravages of homelessness, and likely drug use or mental illness, made it hard to tell.
Though his erratic outbursts put me on guard, nothing about him was particularly extraordinary. He was just like one of the hundreds of homeless I pass by in Los Angeles each day.
As I waited impatiently for the pedestrian light to change he continued to yell, pace and throw things out of the trashcan. Though he would face my direction, I couldn’t tell if he was looking at me. Looking directly at him to find out was too risky — I didn’t want to catch his eye. When the light changed, my plan was to skirt widely around him keeping myself out of his attack range. His agitation increased as I went through my tactical checklist:
Stay as far away from him as possible, CHECK
Identify routes to escape to safety (and avoid running into traffic), CHECK
Hands out of my pockets if needed for defensive or counter measures, CHECK
Shoulders back looking as tall and big as my 5’4” frame would allow, CHECK
Avoid eye contact but keep him in sight, CHECK
Never, ever, ever give him my back, CHECK
Usually by this point these situations resolve themselves when the person ambles on to forage at the next trashcan. But from the corner of my eye I could see him facing my direction, flailing his arm and yelling unintelligibly.
Then, suddenly I heard him very distinctly growl, “You in that Philadelphia hat”.
He meant me.
I was wearing my Philadelphia Flyers hat and so he clearly meant me.
With it confirmed I was on his radar, I knew I had to get out of there fast.
The light to cross Fourth Street had just changed and I wouldn’t make it without running into traffic. This meant the light to cross Main was now in my favor. If I circled him wide enough I would be well outside of attack range.
Also in my favor were the oncoming pedestrians crossing the street coming towards me. As they approached, I used them as concealment and made it out of his field of vision.
By the time I made it across Main his attention had moved on and I cautiously watched as he wandered down the opposite side of the street.
Minutes later, tucked safely into my seat on the Metro headed home, I marveled at this encounter. What struck me was despite how far gone he seemed, the Flyer’s logo was able to penetrate his illness — even in the dark and twenty feet away.
I mean, I know — everybody hates Philly fans, but c’mon.
I teach a self-defense and personal safety classes in Los Angeles that focus on the red flags of violence with the goal of helping participants identify and avoid violence in the first place. One of the topics we cover is the concept of “Othering” and specifically the skill to avoid being “Othered”.
Othering is when an individual or a group is identified as so different than you that it is OK to treat them poorly. Taken to its extreme it makes it easy to rationalize mistreatment, even violence towards that Other. We can see this in the use of slurs used to describe race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and gender. These labels are used to dehumanize and justify violence.
While the idea of Othering dates back to 18th century European philosophers, rapid social and technological changes in the 21st century have accelerated it.
But Othering is not merely a dusty concept to be considered in the ivory towers of philosophers and social scientists. It has real and practical consequences for our everyday lives. But the good news is that there is a degree of control we can take. As Rory Miller asserts in his book, “Conflict Communications: A New Paradigm in Conscious Communication”, not being Othered is a skill we can develop.
To illustrate the idea of not being Othered as a skill I return to the example of being a fan from Philadelphia while living in Los Angeles.
Right around the time I moved to LA, a Giants fan was brutally beaten in the parking lot after a verbal confrontation inside Dodger stadium. He was beaten into a coma but survived, albeit with severe lifelong disability and trauma. So it was with some trepidation that Brian and I began our annual tradition of going to Dodger’s games when our hometown team, the Phillies were in town.
“Was my new town filled with violent psychopaths looking for visiting team fans to brutalize?”, I wondered.
We weren’t going to stay home and watch the games living in fear, however. Instead we approached the excitement of game day with mindfulness, very consciously and with a plan:
We don’t drink alcohol and risk impairing our judgment or cognition
We don’t act like jerks and we’re not overly attached to the outcome of the game
We don’t get upset when the Dodgers do well and we don’t gloat when the Phillies do well
While we do wear red Philly shirts, we also bring nondescript jackets just in case we feel the need to go incognito
We joke and kid around with our seat neighbors and turn strangers into friendly rivals and allies
When the Phillies screw up we trash talk our own team. Okay, so this probably isn’t so much a tactic as it is just in the nature of being a Philly fan — nobody kicks their own team when they’re down like a Philly fan.
And one last thing, it probably doesn’t hurt that the Phillies seem to lose every freaking time we attend a game. Even if they are winning the rest of the series, they seem to just fall apart when we get there. So the upside is no hard feelings from Dodger’s fans.
Now I have to admit, there is a part of me when teaching the skill of not being Othered in class that is a little uncomfortable. I’m a white, straight woman. For the most part, not being Othered for me can be as simple as choosing what shirt to wear or not wear.
But I realize that is not the case for everyone.
Developing the skill of not being Othered is more challenging for a person of color, for example. And does this mean that I’m suggesting gay people shouldn’t show affection for each other in public or that a woman shouldn’t wear a headscarf related to her religious beliefs?
Of course not.
The last thing I want someone to take away from this conversation is that they should hide who they are just to make others happy. The world I want to live in welcomes and celebrates diversity. The people who hold those values and are fighting for a better world are the ones I hold dear.
But self-defense is not about the ideals — it’s about the reality that comes when your head hits the concrete.
So while I still grapple with how to teach the skill of Othering from my place of privilege, I recall the lesson from the man on Fourth Street. That finding ways to Other transcends even the most foggy minds and can trigger the most frightening impulses towards violence.