Learning to See the Other



You are a person only if someone else thinks you are a person 
                                                                    — South African proverb


See the otherThe dehumanizing impact of labels and stereotypes—the losses we suffer when we fail to see the other as a human being with his or her own unique story—was the subject of Naomi Tutu’s presentation to my Rotary group last Friday morning.

Tutu, the daughter of Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, has been a long-time activist for human rights.  She began her comments with a compelling portrait of a young girl growing up under apartheid. No one in the audience was surprised when she described a world that viewed her as a member of the class of “black women,” someone who had no story apart from her blackness.

Similarly, no one was surprised to hear that she had viewed white South Africans as members of a class who had no story apart from their role as “oppressors.” Under apartheid, legal, social, political and historical barriers made it difficult for both whites and black to see the other as individuals—to see the other in terms of individual aspirations, fears and delights.

Breaking Down Stereotypes

But Tutu got our attention when she observed that the white oppressors were themselves oppressed, the victims of a self-imposed oppression. Yes, white South Africans as a class had wealth and privilege and opportunities denied to the blacks. But individually, many South Africans lived in a state of nearly constant fear of the violence provoked by decades of apartheid.

Naomi TutuThis insight came during her first visit to South Africa after she had finished college and started working in the United States. Proud of her spanking new credit card and driver’s license, she rented a car for the drive to her family home. Like all black drivers in that era, she was stopped at a police checkpoint. When she was told to get out of the car, she complied but “with attitude.” As she waited, annoyed and resentful, for the officer to search her car, she watched his face. It took her only moments to realize that the young policeman—in a position of power and with a gun—was clearly terrified of what she, “a black woman,” might do to him.

In an effort to calm his fear, she talked about her visit to her family and asked about his family. They talked, as human beings with a shared humanity, for a quarter of an hour before she went on her way. I had an image of the policeman waving her off with a smile, of her looking back with a grin to wave at him.

That was only one of many stories she shared. All of them spoke to the essence of being a person, of recognizing the unique stories of each and everyone of us. Tutu spoke movingly about the hurt we cause as well as the opportunities we miss when we fail to recognize and honor our shared humanity.

The weight of Tutu’s words struck me again only moments after her presentation ended. As I crossed the Drake campus toward my car, I found myself recoiling, intellectually if not physically, from a young man with heavily tattooed arms in a rainbow of green, red, yellow and blue. Mine was a shamefully elitist reaction, not unlike that of the white South Africans who saw only “a black woman.” Perhaps this young man was an honors student or a faculty member. Perhaps he was a loving husband and father. What right did I have to assume that that the color of his skin would tell me anything about his humanity?

How often do you fail to recognize our shared humanity, to truly see the other?


Tutu’s presentation reprised one of the key themes—the corrosive impact of stereotypes—in my novel, A Fitting Place, although my focus has been on gender rather than race. I would love to hear your thoughts and experiences on how stereotypes have affected your life. If you’d like to contribute to the discussion with a guest blog, please contact me here.


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  1. An important post, Mary. I don’t think we can stop reacting based on our internal triggers. The key is what we do about that reaction. Tutu chose to try to change her own attitude and the attitude of the young police officer. I hope to can be so brave and open and wise when situations arise.

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Carol … I often think that half the battle is recognizing when we are relying on stereotypes. I have become increasingly conscious, as I thought about gender stereotypes in A FITTING PLACE, of how often words that started out as descriptive and were intended to add to our understanding become “labels” that prevent us from seeing the individual beyond that label. I am as guilty of this as anyone, despite my best efforts.

  2. Thank you for sharing this piece and Tutu’s story. Recognizing fear in someone else where you didn’t expect to see it is a threshold event. Reacting sympathetically is a plus in our put-down, one-up culture. Last year I was wandering around a semi-desolate area of Brooklyn looking for the Museum of Morbid Anatomy. The directions I’d received via text said to enter through the alley. It was daytime so what did I have to fear? A young man dressed in put-together military garb from an unknown region of the world whirled into the alley from the other end. He was heavily tattooed and had earlobe plugs and various piercings on his face. I turned around, forcing myself not to run. Just as I was about to reach the broken-pavement sidewalk, he caught up with me. I looked up into an otherwise innocent face of a teenager. His military jacket looked like one my son owned which was from WWII Austria. “Can I help you?” he asked. I could see that he’d read the fear in my eyes. He politely showed me how to get into the building and hustled off on what appeared to be important business.

    I hope he’s okay.

  3. Mary Gottschalk says

    Sandra … A very moving example of something I we have all experienced, particularly in big cities … a negative reaction, often including fear, to people whose manner or dress is different than ours or different than we expected. Having lived in NYC for so many years, a bit of caution is wise, but it can close us off to many good experiences. I, for one, am glad that NYC has been a gentler and safe place.

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