Breaking My Silence: The Dangers of Othering from Racism to All Oppression

As an English major in undergrad, I wrote almost all my papers examining othering in literature. What is “Othering?”—the act of distancing oneself from a group of people who are outside of one’s own group. This concept is taken from Edward Said’s Orientalism, in which he criticizes Anglo colonizers and writers for manufacturing Asia and the people of Asia without having been to Asia or having interacted with Asians.  Othering applies in many relationships and contexts, such as racism.

Othering creates room for oppression and hate. It is best understood by a song in Pocahontas, called “Savages:”


Composed by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz © Disney.  The Youtube subtitles are not accurate.  Full lyrics can be found here.

 In other words, it is the inability to put oneself in someone else’s shoes, creating an ‘us vs. them’ mentality, often coupled with an unequal power dynamic. There usually is an oppressed party and the oppressor oppressing them.

In the song, “Savages,” the white settlers and Native Americans both sing the chorus, “They’re savages! Savages! / Barely even human” about each other. Colonialism is a clear example of othering. The colonizer, AKA oppressor, uses force or threat of force to take over the colonized, AKA oppressed, lands and way of living by othering the colonized as weaker, uncivilized, etc. The colonizers distance themselves from the colonized by assuming the colonizers are better than the colonized and therefore in the right to take what they want and impose their ‘better way of life’ on the ‘inferior’ colonized people without knowing anything about them. In “Savages,” both the white settlers and Native Americans other one another’s group, assuming that they are savages and wanting to kill each other before they get to know anything about each other.  The word “savages” in and of itself creates othering and hate.  Sadly, that word has been used to referred to Indigenous People, fostering racist beliefs and acts.

The one instance where I have difficulty with processing othering is the relationship between people with disabilities and their personal care assistants.   While the people with disabilities may have the upper hand as essentially the employer in the employer/employee context, the personal care assistants also have some power in the fact that the people with disabilities cannot meet their needs without the services of personal care assistants. If an assistant refuses to give food or water, help with hygiene, etc., s/he would be the more powerful party. I’ve had great friendships with many personal care assistants and some not so great ones, like those who mother me, which may also be a form of othering.

For my senior thesis, called Ethnicities at Twilight: A Critical Look into African-American/Korean-American Relations in the 1992 Los Angeles Riots, I wrote about mutual othering between the Korean-American and African-American communities. When Boston Legal Aid interviewed me during my last year of law school and asked what I discovered about racism through this thesis, I was caught off guard, saying something PC like we are all more alike than people think. I should’ve said, just because I’m a person of color, it doesn’t make me immune from racism.

I have gotten into trouble calling out racism. I may not have always been tactful. In college, one of the feeders at my dorm for students with disabilities asked, “What are you?” I laughed hysterically for a few minutes, asking her back “What are you?” I know… she was asking about my ethnicity, but I hate that question—followed by “Where are you from?”—to which, I answer that I’m from a suburb of Chicago, even though I know that’s really asking where my family is from—Korea. That white student feeder probably never asked that question in that way again, at least I hope not.

No one likes being called racist, when in fact, (in my humble opinion) everyone is to some extent, even me. I catch myself thinking something of someone and say that’s racist or based on prejudices. No one is immune from racist thoughts—people of color can perpetuate mainstream Anglo-American racism against other people of color.

If you know anything about the relationship between Korea and Japan, you’d know there’s animosity on both sides—from Japan colonizing Korea: changing it’s name from Corea to Korea so Japan comes first alphabetically, forcing Korean men to fight as Japanese soldiers, and serial raping Korean women—AKA Comfort Women. I know more of the Korean perspective because my mom often speaks of her anti-Japanese sentiments, citing that Germany apologized for the Holocaust, yet Japan still denies the atrocities it committed to Koreans during that same era. Although it’s not as bad as parents bringing kids on picnics to watch innocent African-Americans lynched during the Jim Crow days, I believe my mom’s rants still try to instill hate. I’m glad to say it didn’t work, I have Japanese-American mentors and friends.


Image Description:  Black and white sketch drawing of a large gathering of over 50 men with hats and guns watching a man standing on a donkey with a noose around his neck, about to be hung on a tree.

Upon searching for an image involving lynching, I discovered Hanging Trees: The Untold Story of Lynching in California, found here.  It reports that many Mexican-Americans and Chinese-Americans were lynched by vigilantes without any trials.  I never knew this.

As I’ve mentioned before, I am racist too. As a Korean-American with a disability, I never really fit in anywhere. I have many early memories involving Korean-Americans trying to convince my parents to institutionalize me, even my relatives. My first best friend was an able-bodied Korean-American elementary school classmate, whose mom made us stop being friends. For the longest time, I thought it was because of my disability—but gradually understood it was probably because I lived in Skokie, a less affluent neighborhood than where I was bused to school.

So when I was young, I consciously avoided Korean-Americans, wishing I was another race—because maybe, just maybe, the members of that race would accept me and my disability. This was racist and a form of othering of me to think that all Korean-Americans would be similarly narrow minded. But fortunately, I have since then made some really good Korean-American friends, who flocked to me on the first day off law school and beyond. As for the disability community in the U.S., which seems predominately white and culturally insensitive (I’ve heard what I felt were racist remarks and jokes from peers with disabilities), I couldn’t avoid them, as the education system usually grouped us together. I also now have good friends with disabilities.


This above video shows a White filmmaker, who traveled near the headquarters of the Ku Klux Klan to document reactions to him holding a Black Lives Matter sign,  He stands below a billboard advertising and, which say are “For the Family.”  You may think othering looks like this.  But othering does not always involve physical attributes.  While racism does, there can be othering that involve invisible characteristics.

I planned to get certified in sailing the summer between high school and college through an adaptive sailing program in Chicago.  My sister went with me for my first lesson.  They strapped me and another woman with a physical disability to chairs in the boat.  Our instructor was a white male teacher from a suburban school.  For the entire lesson, he only spoke with my sister.  This pissed me off.  Let’s say he was intimidated talking to me with my speech impediment, but this does not explain why he ignored the other woman with a physical disability, who spoke clearly.  This pissed me off even more.  I never returned to sailing.  I know I shouldn’t other people who sail, but I’m still not a fan.

Another example of othering is gang violence.  Although rival gang members may come from similar racial and socio-economic backgrounds, they are so infatuated by hate and othering of rival gangs, nothing will stop them from killing rival members–not even children bystanders.  I may be over simplifying gang violence; I admit I do not understand the pressures involved in that life.  But there must be substantial othering involved for a person to devalue human lives enough to kill other people and risk life in prison to do so.

We need to be aware of when we and the people around us are othering before it escalates in violence, like the deaths of so many innocent African-Americans at the hands of police, who consciously or unconsciously yield greater power over the Black community, who have been historically violently and socio-economically oppressed in the U.S. and continue to be today. I realize non-stop thinking about racism and othering is hard—my college friend and I often discussed race as two women of color, but as we became busy with life—her with motherhood and a full time academic job, and me just with surviving adulthood with a disability—we discuss race less and less. However, we all need to be conscious of when we, ourselves, and our peers and co-workers other oppressed people—call it out, stop it from escalating into any action; not just during protests and media coverage, but every single day!

I am not necessarily supporting defunding the police. I believe that even starting fresh with a community based system may eventually incorporate othering and unequal power dynamics. I do think there is merit in removing the police from Chicago Public Schools and using those funds for services, like mental health services. I do not have first hand knowledge of CPS, but feel it is problematic to treat students as criminals, reinforcing the school-to-prison pipeline, when suburban schools have hall monitors instead of police.

I did not understand how African-American police could engage in police brutality against members of their own African-American community, but it seems the culture of racism and othering in the police department can trickle down to many, regardless of color, ethnicity, and gender. This is the same culture of racism and othering in our society at large.

Similar to how rape is not an act of love or lust, but power; to me, racism is less about skin color and more about how the dominate race exhibit power over other races. There was a time when Italians and Italian-Americans were treated as the ‘lessor or inferior’ race. I believe racism and othering is less about physical looks, but more who has the power to define the ‘inferior’ groups, often associated with physical characteristics (think the “airen race”), usually to the advantage of those with power.

We must root out othering, which includes racism, especially the extreme and physical forms, as well as the subtle quieter forms, before we all kill each other.  We must teach our children to empathize, not other.  We must address the underlying othering and unequal power dynamics that perpetuate poverty, injustice, and hate through racism and all oppression.


Happy Holidays!

The following is from my annual holiday update to my friends.

A blue postcard says "Happy Holidays" in the center with white snowflakes and stars. This image is from this link.

A blue postcard says “Happy Holidays” in the center with white snowflake stars. This image is from this e-card link.

I dreaded writing this year’s update. Although I was appointed as co-chair for the Women’s Bar Association of Illinois’ Attorneys with Disabilities Committee and a member of the Statewide Independent Living Council of Illinois (SILC), I haven’t been as productive as I would like to have been this year. I’m so used to doing everything at 90 mph that my slower pace is hard for me to get used to.

Another SILC member I just met worked at the University of Illinois when I was a freshman. When I asked her why we never met before this year, she replied that she saw me but she could never catch me because I was too fast. So perhaps there are benefits to living a slower pace. Please forgive me if I was going too fast to be there for you. I’m definitely here now if you need me.

Last December, I was just ending my pro bono work with the Legal Council for Health Justice, or the organization formerly known as Aids Legal Council of Chicago, which was a fantastic six months of hands on experience with Social Security matters directly from the Executive Director. I was enthusiastic to launch my own law practice, the Disability Law Collective, with the assistance from my legal incubator program. I soon realized that successful self-employment requires more than shared office space, particularly as a person with a disability. I did get my first case through Access Living and am eager to grow my practice.

I see improving independence and employment for myself and others with disabilities as the reoccurring theme of my work and my ultimate life goal. Able Community is the non-profit housing cooperative for people with and without disabilities that I have been working on with a fantastic group of people, who all happen to have disabilities and are all graduates from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Our Able Community members are working towards improving independence for people with disabilities, personal assistants, and their families.

Able Community is not having a fundraiser this year because we are working on our 501(c)3 incorporation; we are extremely close to filing the application. I realize that I’ve been saying this for a while, but we have just submitted our materials to our non-profit pro bono attorneys and our next step is filing the application. We will have more fundraisers once we file for our 501(c)3 status, so we can provide tax deductions. If you still want to donate to Able Community anyway, we would of course gratefully accept your generosity; here is a link to our PayPal info on the bottom of this hyperlinked page. We are incredibly grateful for everything our supporters have done for us already.

(In case you missed it, above is our fundraiser video from last year. It explains what Able Community is and who the members are better.)

I consider myself so blessed to be back home in Illinois, near the city I love and to be closer to the other Able Community members. As someone who pursued a legal career to practice civil rights and fight racial injustices, I am appalled by the recent police brutality incidents. I am conscious that the systematic violence and racial inequalities deeply rooted in our nation’s history call for even greater collective systematic change at the city and national level. I have also come to realize that the everyday injustices are just as important to advocate for as the systematic ones and I hope that my law practice, the Disability Law Collective, will meet the everyday legal needs of the disability community.

(A sneak preview of Disability Law Collective’s animated promotional video.)

I also feel blessed to be back, closer to my friends in Illinois, to celebrate life’s happy and sad moments together. I lost 3 friends this year. While this comes with being a part of the disability community and I have lost schoolmates from an early age, I don’t think I will ever get used to it. I’m sure that my losses do not remotely measure up to what the families who lost their loved ones with disabilities or the teachers and professionals who continuously loose people with disabilities they work with must go through.

Having said that, I believe it is wise to make legal preparations so your loved ones and family know what your final wishes are. This can be done through estate planning, including wills, and medical and financial powers of attorneys. I’d be happy to help you figure out what legal options meet your needs and if for some reason I cannot (I’m only licensed to practice law in Illinois and California), I’ll be happy to help find someone else who can. And please let me know if there is anything else I could help you with, legally or otherwise.

I have been enjoying Chicago. One of the Able Community members would marry football if he could, whereas I would definitely marry Chicago. My sister and I have been doing the touristy things that we never did before, like architecture tours. We’ve also been going to Broadway musicals. I’m really glad that my love of musical started in an early age (thanks to my elementary school music and art teachers). I did subject to my whole law school to this love by making many of the professors and students participate in my law school musical production during my last year.

I’ve also taken up some inherently dangerous adaptive activities, including water skiing and alpine skiing (I’m sure some of you would love to throw me off a mountain). It feeds my rebellious-defying-what-people-say-I-cannot-do-because-of-my-disability spirit. Similar to the teams of people assisting people with disabilities find independence through sports traditionally meant for able-bodied people, I am excited to be a part of teams advocating for the independence for people with disabilities through the Disability Law Collective and Able Community.

Esther's SEWASP adaptive ski team: Jim, Ally, Dan, & Steve! #ablecommunitychicago, #ablecommunity, #WI

A photo posted by Able Community (@ablecommunity) on

(Photo with the crew of volunteers who made sure that I didn’t kill myself my first time skiing.)

I am taking better care of my health with adaptive yoga and horseback riding. I look forward to adding adaptive scuba diving to the list of my inherently dangerous adaptive adventures. Perhaps I am training to be the next James Bond… I know that I am not an attractive British able-bodied man. But how cool would it be if there was a movie with a female spy with a disability who is a person of color?!?

Happy Holidays, but especially a very Merry Christmas and a Happy Hanukkah (showing my Judeo-Christian biases)!

Esther S. Lee,
Attorney at Law
Disability Law Collective <>
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Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg: A Parallel Between Disability and Women’s Rights

This past Monday I attended a luncheon hosted by the Chicago Bar Association, featuring U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (AKA Notorious R.B.G.). Justice Ginsburg was asked about her quote that “Impediments turn out to be good fortune.” She elaborated that if she and the other female Supreme Court Justices did not face the adversity and discrimination that they encountered in employment, they probably would be retired law firm partners by now, instead of shaping the direction of the U.S. legal system on the Supreme Court.

A Notorious R.B.G. t-shirt from

A Notorious R.B.G. t-shirt from

Justice Ginsburg graduated in the top of her Columbia Law School class, after transferring from Harvard, where she was also in law review. However, upon graduating, she had difficulty finding employment. She clerked for Justice Edmund Louis Palmieri, who preferred clerks from Columbia. She later learned that a Dean at Columbia pressured Justice Palmieri to hire her, threatening to dissuade Columbia students from clerking with him. She subsequently went on to do gender rights work for the ACLU and taught at Rutgers Law School before her D.C. District Court judgeship and her current Supreme Court tenure.

She hid her pregnancy to avoid discrimination during her professorship. She shared that she had three strikes against her: (1) that she was a woman, (2) that she was Jewish when Jewish attorneys were not accepted, and (3) that she was a mother. She explained that being a mother was her biggest perceived problem; she would be distracted should something happen to her children.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg at the Chicago Bar Association event.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg at the Chicago Bar Association event.

Hearing Justice Ginsburg’s experiences with discrimination resonated with me and my struggles to find employment. The combination of having a disability, being Korean American, and a woman adversely affects my employability. Although people with disabilities have been graduating from law schools for some time, I still notice that a substantial number of attorneys with disabilities are unemployed. I am not sure how much of this is because of the economic recession increasing unemployment for all attorneys, but I do suspect that employment discrimination is at play. Most of my friends with disabilities from college are unemployed or underemployed.

Perhaps disability rights are not as evolved as gender rights. I heard that disability rights seems to stem from charity, instead of social justice rights, which is problematic in receiving these rights that are not considered to be on par with other rights. Perhaps to some degree, gender rights are not seen as relevant or on par with other rights as well.

Justice Ginsburg attended law school in the 50’s, soon after law schools starting admitting women, and there were a handful of women in her class. I graduated in 2008 and there were less than a handful of students with visible disabilities and students who were out about their hidden disabilities in my class, which had more female students than male. I realize gender discrimination still exists; my friend was fired right before her maternity leave.

Ginsburg was one of nine women in her Harvard Law School class. This picture of Ginsburg in law school is from this online article.

One major reason I chose to attend the law school that I attended (besides its Civil Rights Clinic) was because there were other students with disabilities. I was alarmed to find inadequate university disability services and lack of accessible housing. I constantly had to advocate for myself, which diminished my time for my studies. I had a theory that law school has a disparate impact on students with disabilities, since there are extra considerations for students with disabilities, in addition to being inundated with a new system of learning, called the dreaded Socratic Method. However, people like Justice Ginsburg poke holes to this theory, succeeding in law school while taking care of a child and hospitalized husband. Of course, I am not suggesting that I am any way near Ginsburg’s Harvard law review level; not many attorneys are. We also don’t all have Columbia Dean championing our causes.

Another student with a disability sued our law school for lack of accessibility. I’m not sure how much of the improved accessibility in the new addition and remodeled law school building was because of this law suit or my efforts promoting awareness with other students with disabilities through our Law and Disability Society events. The law school administration was initially reluctant to put in a bigger elevator in the addition, but there is now a spacious new elevator. An administrator justified the lack of accessibility in the old building that hadn’t been remodeled when I attended, from what seemed to be its inception in the 60’s, saying that they did not know that there would be students with disabilities. However, I found evidence to the contrary; a picture of one of the first graduating classes had a student with a disability in cap and gown. Of course he was a white male student, but a student with a disability nonetheless.

A law school professor I respect (particularly since she graduated from my law school, which is elitist in primarily hiring professors from Ivy League law schools) called me a trail blazer. I said that I wasn’t because I chose to attend this law school with other students with disabilities, as opposed to a Chicago school that tried almost successfully to woo me as its first student with a significant disability. Although this law professor never mentioned it, it is possible that she too faced gender discrimination as she attended law school in the 70’s, two decades after Justice Ginsburg. She did discourage me from going into personal injury litigation (Torts was my favorite class), saying that it was a Boys’ Club when she practiced.

Perhaps I was wrong about having to be first to be a trail blazer. Perhaps people who widen and improve the trails that have already been blazed can also be trail blazers. Just as Justice Ginsburg looks forward to the day when all nine Supreme Court justices are women, I look forward to the day when there will be our first Supreme Court justice with a disability, leading to more justices with disabilities. If she is a woman, that would be even better. Perhaps then, the ADA can have some bite and we can fight disability discrimination more effectively.

Michael Brown: Civil Rights and Racial Justice for All

Michael Brown

Michael Brown’s picture in his graduation cap and gown, holding his Normandy High School diploma, from this online article.

Darren Wilson, has been named as the police officer who shot Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager, on August 9, 2014. This shooting occurred 2 years, 5 months, and 14 days after an unarmed, teenaged Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch coordinator. Unfortunately, this scenario has become commonplace; an African American being subjected to police brutality, excessive force, and even death.

Perhaps this is why 42 U.S.C. § 1983, referred to as “Section 1983,” which is part of the Civil Rights Act of 1871, is still in use today. Section 1983 allows governmental actors, including police officers, to be liable for damages, declaratory, or injunctive relief for violating a citizen’s rights, such as the Freedom from Excessive Force under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments. Sadly, this legislation, also known as the “Ku Klux Klan Act,” which was used to prevent racial hate crimes in the 1800s, is still needed today to deter racial injustices, often at the hands of the police, who are supposed to protect us.

Functionally, Section 1983 serves as a method to deter governmental officers from violating citizens’ rights. This often comes in the form of making governmental officers pay money for inflicting personal injuries, including wrongful deaths, on citizens, when it was not warranted. Is any amount of money going to lessen the loss of the Brown family? Understandably not. And what good is deterrence after the fact? Unfortunately, this is just how our judicial system works in our society that values money.

Below are excerpts from articles involving Michael Brown:

“The ghost of Dred Scott haunts the streets of Ferguson,” was written by Amy Goodman with Denis Moynihan (ellipses omitted and bracketed information added):

Thousands have been protesting the police killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American teenager in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson. He was due to start college just days after he was shot dead in broad daylight. Police left his bleeding corpse in the middle of the street for over four hours, behind police tape, as neighbors gathered and looked on in horror. Outraged citizens protested, and police brutally cracked down on them. Clad in paramilitary gear and using armored vehicles, they shot tear gas, rubber-coated steel bullets and flash-bang grenades, aiming automatic weapons at protesters. Scores of peaceful protesters as well as journalists have been arrested.

Portrait of Dred Scott from this Wiki article.

The protests have raged along Ferguson’s West Florissant Avenue. Four miles south of the protest’s ground zero, along the same street, in the quietude of Calvary Cemetery, lies Dred Scott, the man born a slave who famously fought for his freedom in the courts. The Dred Scott decision of 1857 [Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. 19 How. 393 393 (1856)] ruled that African-Americans, whether slave or free, could not be citizens, ever.

Scott was born into slavery in Virginia around 1799. Scott’s owner moved from Virginia, taking him to Missouri, a slave state. He was sold to John Emerson, a surgeon in the U.S. Army [and was subsequently taken to free states and territories]. In 1847, Scott sued Emerson for his freedom in a St. Louis court. In the U.S. Supreme Court’s majority opinion, Chief Justice Roger Taney, a supporter of slavery, wrote, “A free negro of the African race, whose ancestors were brought to this country and sold as slaves, is not a ‘citizen’ within the meaning of the Constitution of the United States.” Thus, the court ruled that all African-Americans, whether slave or free, were not citizens, and never would be.

The people of Ferguson demand justice for Michael Brown, including the arrest of Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson, who killed Brown. A number of groups are calling for a special prosecutor to take over the case, the removal of the National Guard and a Justice Department investigation into every shooting of an unarmed person of color.

On Monday, August 18, 2014, Democracy Now reported that 1,300 people packed the Greater Grace Church for a rally attended by Michael Brown’s parents. Brown’s cousin Ty Pruitt addressed the crowd: “So, before I say anything, [raises hands in air]. I just wanted to kick it off like that, because what I want you all to remember is that Michael Brown was not just some young black boy. He was a human being. He was a younger cousin. He was a son. He was an uncle, a nephew. He was not a suspect. He was not an object. He was not an animal. But that’s how he was killed.”

While the verdict is still a whiles away for Darren Wilson after a jury hears all of the evidence presented for the case, I fear that justice will get lost in our deeply rooted history of racial inequalities, that Michael Brown will not be portrayed as a human being, and that this will lead to race riots (like the 1992 Los Angeles Riots after the acquittal of the police officers, who beat Rodney King). I wish there were solutions to end racial injustices and oppressive policing. I wish that we didn’t need Section 1983 to remedy the wrongs that our government commits on our citizens. I wish our society would finally treat all of its citizens as citizens. For now, let’s keep our eyes on the prize and keep on marching towards our Civil Rights and racial justice for all.