Objectifying Isn’t the Answer

Delos Emmons (right), military governor of Hawaii during WWII, recieves the Distinguished Service Medal in 1943. (Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.)

Is it easier to kill someone who is culturally different from you? 

The obvious answer is yes, as we see over and over. Upon closer observation, the answer lies in the nature of the relationship you have with the other culture. Cultures define reality and that reality determines who we like and hate. Yet, think of the many examples where individuals went out of their way to go against their culture’s rules. 

In Hawaii during WWII, Delos Emmons, the military governor of Hawaii, was ordered to incarcerate all residents of Japanese descent, as was happening in California. In fact, the danger posed by a third column of spies and terrorists would have appeared even greater in Hawaii because it was home to what was left of the Pacific Fleet. Emmons' experience living among Japanese Americans in Hawaii convinced him to not incarcerate the ethnic Japanese. As a result, the Japanese Americans helped to rebuild Pearl Harbor in record time, and many went on to fight for the United States in WWII though they were only allowed to fight in Europe. 

The lesson to be learned from this is that we objectify the “other,” and this marginalizes them as not one of “us.”  This social distance permits us to act toward others differently than we would act toward someone “like me.”  More than 100 years ago, the German sociologist Georg Simmel wrote his seminal book on “The Stranger.”  Most of what he had to say about the consequences of defining  “us” and “them” still holds true today. 

Those of us in the diversity and inclusion field must dig deeper into all of the areas where divisiveness reigns, and create the environments at work and in our communities where strangers can meet so they will no longer be strangers to each other.