“They” – a 1971 perspective on othering

As a sophomore at Willowbrook High School in 1971, I penned a short piece entitled “They” for the holiday edition of the school’s newspaper, The Skyline. It is republished below with 3 minor copyedits (!). There is a lot I’d word differently if I were to write this today – after lots more education and life experience. Such as it is, however, the article reflects an emerging awareness about formation of attitudes (and prejudices) towards groups different than our own, and about what we call today, othering. And sadly, its theme is still relevant almost a half-century later.

It is “they!” Are “they” coming? No, they’re here. Are “they” invading us? How could they, we created them. Then who are “they”?

Most every day, each one of us, to differing degrees uses a stereotype or generalizes about some group(s) of people. “They” are the objects of generalization and often degrading stereotypes. “They” can be those of any group, as seen by someone from the outside. “They” are nobody in particular, but everybody in general.

Generalization is lumping all people of one group in one category (“all blacks are lazy,” “people over 30 are untrustworthy,” etc.) without regard to the fact that sub-groups and more importantly, individuals within each group are different.

A stereotype is an image tagged on to a group. For example, the typical stereotype of a Mexican is a man taking a siesta sitting against a wall, with a big sombrero pulled over his face. Like generalization, stereotypes are unfair, because they put one label on each individual of a group.

Generalization and stereotypes usually are caused by lack of understanding about others. In turn, they promote more misunderstanding among people. But, an even worse problem is that unfound[ed] prejudice or hatred also give rise to stereotypes and generalization. Whatever their cause, it is incumbent on us to strive to eliminate these two promoters of misunderstanding in order to keep alive the hope of “Peace on Earth, Good Will Towards Men.”

“They,” by Don Osborn, The Willowbrook Skyline, 16 Dec 1971, p. 2


A quick note of remembrance for my journalism teacher at the time, and the longtime advisor for the Skyline, John M. Rowley, who passed away in 2012. RIP.

Mr. Rowley, as we knew him, was patient, generous with advice while not imposing his solutions, and had a good sense of humor (which more or less he had to). His lessons about concise headline writing I particularly remember, as they turned out to be transferable many years later to writing 140 character tweets!


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