How are boundaries created and reaffirmed between groups? Does cultural similarity always bring people together? Need cultural difference always set people apart?

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Essay for “Versions of Foreign” writing seminar (Prof.  Oxfeld).

In this class we have spent few months studying the concept of foreignness and portrayals of the foreign in various samples of world literature. Being foreign always means being foreign to something that is different from your own, thus studying the concept of partitioning or grouping would be deemed as prior to studying the foreign. But obviously, at first, we did not have enough factual material, so it’s quite reasonable at the end trying to define what originates foreignness.

By nature, we, homo-sapiens, are very social and cooperative animals: we tend to work together to enable our survival and to make it a more pleasant experience. If we could, we would cooperate as a whole species across the globe, but so far we did not manage to create a global approach to success and it’s more natural for us to separate ourselves into groups that are determined by geography and economics, by common ancestry and history, and, of course, by culture-a cumulative concept encompassing before mentioned factors.

A social group is essentially an enhanced “ego”, a product of socio-biological evolution. Group-to-group competition for resources and power has created an environment that is conductive to social evolution – i.e. it’s not the case anymore that the species evolves due to the survival of its fittest individuals, but rather it’s the case that the human species evolve due to the survival and success of its fittest groups, or societies, or nations. As “ego” establishes its identity by separating itself from the others, groups are created and maintained following the same principle: differentiating the group from a group, attributing it with unique, often hyperbolized qualities, and establishing the boundaries, often intentionally impassable. Here are several moments, how Baldwin discusses the essence of identity and boundaries between racial groups of black and white in America:

“The identity they fought so hard to protect.”,  “the battle waged by Americans to maintain between themselves and black men– a human separation which could not be bridged”, “Thus it was impossible for Americans to accept the black man as one of themselves, for to do so was to jeopardize their status as white men” (Baldwin p.7, p.6)

So how the boundaries between groups are created and reaffirmed? The first reason that comes to mind is that it is a vestigial behavior of ours. When our ancestors were tribal creatures, sightings of members of other tribes were very unwelcome. It’s a direct result of the inter-group competition – members of other groups, or foreigners as you might call them, meant unwanted competition, and thus were treated with contempt. Baldwin could never feel accepted in the tiny Swiss village, because, by instinct, the Swiss treated him as something from outside of the boundaries of their group.

“…and they regard me, quite rightly, not only as a stranger in the village but as a suspect latecomer, bearing no credentials, to everything they have however unconsciously-inherited.” (Baldwin, p.3, PL emphsis).

Apparently that ancestral behavior of suspicion and contempt for members of the other is wired into our brains.

Another reason for existence of groups and boundaries is, of course, historical. I am not sure if anybody already made this assertion, but I’d compare the historical memories of a human society to a social DNA in terms of role they play in preserving the social structure. The social groups are very inertial objects, they exist during long stretches of time and the historical memory is what makes them so stable. As Baldwin notes:

“Joyce is right about history being a nightmare-but it may be the nightmare from which no one can awaken. People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them” (Baldwin, p.2)

I sit here in the chemistry SFR room, in front of the computer, writing this essay. Outside the window, it’s dawn. It’s beautiful. I wish I was there now, in those woods, breathing in the fresh smell of snow, listening to birds flap their wings as they fly to warmer lands, instead of here in front of this screen, absorbing these sharp, ordered, rays that kill my retina cells one by one. Soon enough, those birds wont have to fly south each winter – it will be warm enough here in Vermont, because of all the greenhouse gasses these computers emit. That’s what’s really foreign here – computers. And I treat them with contempt.

But I digress. There is of course much more powerful force then computers that determines what is foreign and that is responsible for creating and maintaining boundaries in society. It’s ideology. As I mentioned earlier, the humans are very much social animals, meaning that social factors like religion and ideology may dominate their instincts of self preservation and rational calculations. In Graham Green’s “The quiet American”, we see how this version of foreignness comes into play. There, perceptions of foreignness are tinted by idealism and war. To Pyle, the idealistic capitalist, the orient is something to be conquered and mended to his own little ideas of what it should look like. Thus, for him, the Vietnamese are subjects, to be tested under his ideology.

“He had no more of a notion than any of you what the whole affaire’s about and you gave him money and York Harding’s book on the East and said, “Go ahead, Win the East foe Democracy” (Greene, p.32)

So it’s a bit different from the vestigial, instinctual reaction the Swiss villagers had towards Baldwin. Pyle’s “borders” are premeditated and “scientifically” justified. The recognition that the Vietnamese are human beings just like him is blocked for Pyle. He only sees that they are different from him, and he wants to change them to the way his culture and society works, because he believes it would be better for them (and for him). Fowler on the other hand is the exact opposite of Pyle. He has no strong ideologies to taint his view of the Vietnamese. In fact, he is so open minded and so concentrated on viewing the reality of the situation, that for him, one might say, the borders are defined more vaguely, they are porous and fuzzy. That’s why he is so able to relate to the Vietnamese, and understand the situation in a realistic way.

History, ideology, ancestral memories are parts of culture in broad sense. We need to discuss yet how the cultural (in narrow sense, like habits, tastes, preferences) difference brings people apart. I will use for this purpose the Keith Basso’s book “Portraits of the white man”. In it, the author describes with a degree of humor the images of Anglo-Americans that are contained in Western Apache jokes. Reading this book you understand how immensely deep can be the cultural difference between two groups of people. As Basso writes: ”

“they [Apaches] portray them [Anglo-Americans] as gross incompetents in the conduct of social relations. Judged according to Apache standards for what is normal and “right”, the joker’s actions are intended to seem extremely peculiar and altogether “wrong”” (Basso, p. 48)

Apaches are very restrained in their emotions and in their expression of feelings toward other people and they ridicule Americans that greet everybody with “Hello, my friend” as utterly inappropriate:

“Whitemen say you’re their friends like it was nothing, like it was air.” (Basso, p. 48)

Apaches restraint in this case can be well understood and even approved as reasonable modesty. What is much harder for us to understand (as well as them us) is their relation to the use of personal names.

“Personal names (‘izhi’) are classified by the Western Apache as items of ‘individually owned property’. Consequently, calling someone by name is sometimes likened to temporarily borrowing a valued possession” (Basso, p. 50).


“use of personal names in direct address is understood by Apaches to serve as a marker of social relationships characterized by trust and goodwill” (Basso, p. 50).

There are many more examples in the book of how vastly different are the views of Apaches Indians on what is and what is not accepted as norms of social behavior.  So with this example, one would not hesitate to confirm that cultural differences always set people apart (to a certain degree, of course).

So far we discussed how boundaries between social groups are created and confirmed. There is of course an inverse process also. The social boundaries are not cast in stone, despite the fierce efforts that members of (usually dominant) groups apply to maintain the separation, those boundaries are porous and fluid because the nature of the relationship between two different groups or between two individuals from different groups is determined by two opposing forces: the competition between the two groups and the realization that members of the two groups share very similar experiences: the common Human experience and cooperation between them may be more beneficial then competition.

As I am sitting here in the chemistry SFR room, a black girl walks in the door. She’s very dark black – were she living in Baldwin’s time, she’d be called a Negro. She sits down in front of one of the eye-killing machines, and starts printing – pages and pages. She stops, makes a few clicks, and resumes transferring info to the white leaves. I can hear the timber falling, habitats dying. Do I consider her foreign? Not really. Were not she printing so much, I would not consider her foreign at all. You’d be hard pressed to find someone at Middlebury or in Vermont for that matter, that would, which casts doubt on the relevancy of this essay topic. But it is relevant, very relevant. Americans have managed to come to grips with the fact that blacks are human beings, thanks in large part to the civil rights movements of the fifties. But now-a-days there’s another fine group of human beings that’s receiving our wrath, and it’s the Muslims. Just a few weeks ago I overheard a fellow freshman’s motivations for taking Arabic classes. It was so he could grow up to kill as many Arabs as he could. The veracity and honesty of those his statements is obviously questionable, but what’s certain is that there are Americans who do think that way, and I’m not sure that the minority they form is all that minor. The root of this hatred is of course competition between two tribes (American and Muslims) for a natural resource (oil). It’s just like the primitive conflict that might have created the human instinct that stood in the way of Baldwin’s acceptation in the Swiss village as a human being.

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