What it’s like to be ‘othered’

The harsh part of growing up as a minority is growing up not knowing that your background makes you an “other.” You could spend your whole life not knowing that you’re being treated differently, that you’re even different to begin with. You’re just you. It can take a long time to understand the full ramifications of that.

“I remember my first experience being othered, and it affected

the rest of my life.”

Jean-Karlo Lemus

I was born in Puerto Rico and spent most of my life on the island. But a good chunk of my early childhood was spent in the United States. Growing up in a mixed Latinx household, it’s easy for a child to think that the rest of the world works the same way. People speak Spanish and English, everyone eats fried plantains, everyone knows who Ruben Blades is.

Photo credit: Jean-Karlo’s mother

I remember my first experience being othered, and it affected the rest of my life. I was at day care, and being from a Latinx home I switched between Spanish and English at the drop of a hat. My non-Spanish-speaking day care teacher didn’t appreciate that, and I was quite summarily bullied out of speaking Spanish. And that was that. For the rest of my childhood, I didn’t speak Spanish. It made communicating with my extended family harder, and it left me with an accent in Spanish that makes others think I’m not actually from Puerto Rico.

“It’s that viewing of ethnicity as a novelty that can hurt. A person’s language, name, culture, home – these aren’t trivia, they’re a part of who we are.”

Jean-karlo lemus

When my family moved back to the island in 1999, I had to catch up to my classmates that had spoken Spanish for years and years; school became that much harder for me because I simply wasn’t as good at the language as my peers were.

To this day, I still find myself not answering in Spanish to anyone I know is bilingual. My only mistake was not knowing that I wasn’t like other people.

I returned to the United States in 2016. Me being Puerto Rican was still a novelty to many of the folks I worked with. When I took up a job at a furniture store as a customer service rep, my manager had to call support for some reason. “He doesn’t really have an accent, he sounds like a Yankee,” she answered. Being bilingual meant I would normally be called upon to help out with Spanish-speaking customers. It also meant there would be a small crowd of my co-workers somewhere amused by my speaking a language that wasn’t English.

Photo credit: Jean-Karlo’s mother

Tiny “othering” acts like these are hard to talk about, if only because much of it doesn’t really come from a place of hatred–just people not knowing better. And it’s something we all need to be aware of, present company included. I myself have also met people from different backgrounds and walks of life and have had to learn how best to make them feel included. Othering isn’t always slurs and segregation, it can also be thinking someone’s name is “too hard to pronounce” and offering a nickname. It’s interrogating someone about the particulars of their culture.

It’s that viewing of ethnicity as a novelty that can hurt. A person’s language, name, culture, home—these aren’t trivia, they’re a part of who we are.

Embracing the opportunity to learn as much as you can about people around you is an admirable quality. And asking questions isn’t wrong. But it helps to consider, you might not be the first person to ask someone about x-detail of their lives. You might not be the first person to draw a comparison between the person you speak to and a celebrity you know who is from the same background (for the record, no, I don’t like Lin Manuel Miranda’s music). The person you’re talking to might not be ready to have a discussion on political events concerning their home. Or, they just might be speaking their native language, and don’t mean to make a show of it. Another point I’d like to leave people with: don’t feel like you’re a bad person for doing this. There’s a lot of space between that day care teacher who bullied me out of Spanish and someone who only knows about Puerto Rico via Hamilton. Being more aware of how to make people feel accepted and included is a lifelong process, the desire to learn counts for a lot. You’re not a bad person for making a faux pas. That you care about someone feeling welcomed is enough.

-Jean-Karlo Lemus, DEQ Receptionist

Published by Oregon Department of Environmental Quality

DEQ’s mission is to be a leader in restoring, maintaining and enhancing the quality of Oregon’s air, land and water.

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