How Popular Cultural reinforces or Neutralizes “Othering”

The 2019 AAUW-Virginia state convention focused on how our organization can be more inclusive. In 2017, for my Post-graduate program on Antiquities Theft and Art Crime I wrote about cases of popular culture (books, movies, etc) either reinforcing or neutralizing “othering”. What follows is an excerpt from that essay.

Repatriation, Recovery and Return Essay

Lane Stone

August 2017


Popular culture has the power to change or to reinforce perceptions created by othering, thereby affecting the climate for cultural object return or for negotiation for an alternative means of resolution. Just as othering can be a part of the taking of cultural heritage, its diminution can play a part in return and repatriation.

For the purpose of this paper we will define popular culture as “cultural activities or commercial products reflecting, suited to, or aimed at the tastes of the general masses of people.” (–culture)

This paper will look at three examples:
(Book) The Moonstone, by Wilkie Collins (Collins, 1868) for insight into the British acquisition of the Koh-I-Noor diamond.
(Book) Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West, by Dee Brown. (Brown, 1971) and the Ghost Dance Shirt exhibited at the Glasgow Museum.
(Film) Schindler’s List, produced by Steven Spielberg, and the return of Nazi looted art. (Schindler’s List, 1994)


Recently I heard someone on the radio talking about his family trip to Paris. They were on a street corner discussing where to eat when a Parisian overheard them and suggested a nearby bistro. He told them how popular the spot was with locals because the food was excellent and the prices low. The American family excitedly headed there but after a few blocks they heard an American accent, and stopped to talk. The American questioned their decision to go to the bistro, saying, “I’ll bet his brother-in-law owns the place.” He recommended a chain restaurant! The person telling this story said he could feel himself beginning to doubt the French-native and feeling more comfortable with what the American – another tourist! – was telling him. The mental space he was slipping into was “othering.” Though this is a benign example, it illustrates both how irrational and easy othering is. This example illustrates intergroup bias. (A catalog of ‘Othering’, 2011)

The concept of the other begins benignly – “that against which you define yourself,” or “self-consciousness.” From there, the evolving definition led to a “simultaneous construction of the self or in-group and the other or out-group …through identification of some desirable characteristic that the self/in-group has and the other/out-group lacks and/or some undesirable characteristic that the other/out-group has and the self/in-group lacks.” (Crang, 1998) (Brons, 2015)

The ‘othering’ of subaltern races and nations provided an ideological rationale for continued imperial exploitation, or colonialism. (Jamieson and McEvoy, 2005, p514-515) With othering, what was once an exception or state of emergency becomes normal. (Jamieson, 520) (Subaltern describes populations which are socially, politically, and geographically outside of the hegemonic power structure of the colony and the colonial homeland. Wikipedia.)


Cultural property accumulation was part and parcel of conquest. Sometimes this included genocide. Usually commercial exploitation. The foundation of many museums and art collections around the world is imperialism or colonialism. (Yates, 2017)
The Moonstone, by Wilkie Collins


The 105-carat diamond’s path from excavation in today’s India to its current home as part of England’s crown jewels has been violent and complicated, weaving through modern-day India, Pakistan, Iran, and Afghanistan. (Jaffar, G. M. 1998) The 2016 book, Kohinoor, the World’s Most Infamous Diamond (Dalrymple and Anand, 2016) calls into question what was previously reported as the history of the diamond. Though it was not mentioned in recorded history until 1750 those caught up in its lore believed they had seen evidence of the diamond’s existence in rumors, poetry and letters. (Dalrymple and Anand, 2016 p 7) In 1846 The Treaty of Lahore ended the First Anglo-Sikh War when the British marched to Lahore, and in 1849 The Last Treaty of Lahore turned the Koh-i-Noor over to the British monarch. Article three states: “The gem called the Koh-i-Noor which was taken from Shah Shuja-ul-Mulk by Maharaja Ranjit Singh shall be surrendered by the Maharajah to the Queen of England.” (Jaffer, 1998, p48)
It was presented to Queen Victoria in 1850. At the 1851 Great Exhibition in London it was put on exhibit and seen and admired by one-third of the country.
While all are historically accurate, what happened later reveals the underlying othering that was occurring. The 1851 Great Exhibition in London stamped it as part of British history. Returning to Lajos Brons, who divides othering into crude (the differences are assumed) and sophisticated (an argument is made): “What makes sophisticated othering especially persuasive is its apparent reasonableness.” (Brons, 2015, p71)
Current status:

Who owns the past? It turns out the Queen does. “Irresistible moral forces frequently meet immovable objects.”  (Baggini, 2015)

About the book:

The Moonstone was published in 1868, less than two decades after the Great Exhibition in London. The setting of the body of the novel is England, and the events in the span of June 1848 until November 1850, but the prologue and epilogue take place in colonial India. The prologue tells of the actual 1799 siege of Seringapatam by the British Army and their looting of jewels and artifacts of Tipu Sultan.

The fictional loot includes a large diamond, which carries with it a curse, and is protected by three Brahmin priests. A soldier kills the Indian priests and takes the diamond to England.

Later, when the “moonstone” is stolen from his niece, three Indians are found nearby and are suspected. Their portrayal is stereotypical, but overall the novel is not pro-imperialist.

What was the impact of the work on public perception? Was othering reinforced or undermined? Othering was reinforced.

While there have been movies based on the novel from 1934 until the latest in 2016, the words in the book reinforces the “keep” argument for the Koh-i-Noor by the British government.

India is portrayed as exotic and dangerous and must be conquered. (SparkNotes Editors) The three Indians are superstitious, primitive, scheming. Though they are not the three Brahmins in the prologue and it’s fifty years later, they think and act the same, as if time had not passed. This ‘being a more capable guardian’ narrative is also seen in Agatha Christie’s The Secret of Chimneys (Christie, 1925) when the Balkans are portrayed as backward brigands “as an other to illustrate British virtue”. (Stott and Yaseen, 2016, p19)

Though the Koh-i-Noor’s early life is being reexamined and it is described as “rather flawed and far from the largest ever discovered,” (Dalrymple and Anand, 2016, p160) it is unquestionably important as a symbol of colonialism. There’s no debate that it is both a lightning rod and a Rorschach test.

Marquis Dalhousie, author of the Treaty, in his personal correspondence, made it clear the Koh-i-Noor was a spoil of war. (Ghoshray, 2007-2008) Conquest was normalized.

An object that symbolized, and symbolizes still, suffering, was put on a pedestal, literally and figuratively. (Dr. Donna Yates, Week 3 Lecture, 2017) The Moonstone did nothing to change that perception.

Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West, by Dee Brown, 1971 (Movie, 2007)


By the late 1890’s, with little land left and the buffalo at near extinction levels, in desperation, the Lakota Indians grasped onto a teaching by Wovoka, a Pauite medicine man, that performing the Ghost Dance would remove the invaders and bring their dead back to life; and that wearing the Ghost Dance Shirt would protect them from the soldiers’ bullets. This slipping of control worried the US Army and reinforcements were called in. In the process of collecting weapons from the Indians, at Wounded Knee Creek, South Dakota, a shot was accidently fired by a deaf Lakota who did not understand the orders from a cavalryman. (Dr. Donna Yates, Week 5 Lecture, 2017) In the melee that resulted 250 Lakota men, women and children were massacred. The tragedy of December 29, 1890 essentially ended the traditional Native American way of life. (Glasgow City Council, 2000) Reporter, George Crager, who had lived and worked with the Lakota visited the site. A year later, while working with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show in Europe, he offered to sell items taken from corpses from the massacre to the Director of Glasgow Museums. He eventually donated some items and sold others. (Glasgow City Council, 2000)

Current status:

On 27 February 1973, AIM, or the American Indian Movement, occupied the area near Wounded Knee Creek to protest US government persecution of Native Americans. The group members surrendered on May 8, but had received a good deal of media attention and was seen favorably by many, especially young people, already familiar with the 1971 book.

In 1992, the Ghost Dance Shirt (part of Crager’s donation) was part of a temporary exhibit at a Glasgow museum and was seen by US attorney John Earl. He told the WKSA, Wounded Knee Survivors Association, about the find and they wrote requesting repatriation. In 1995 a delegation visited and presented their case for the return of the shirt plus four other items since they were war booty and had been stolen off of corpses. In September, the Glasgow City Council informed them of their decision to keep the five artefacts based on the fact that the items had been acquired legally, and by being in a museum they could be seen by the public. (See Addendum One.) The Lakota appealed in 1996. The Glasgow City council decided to formulate guidelines to use in all repatriation requests, facilitating a case by case policy. In November 1998 the city council agreed the shirt would be returned, and in 1999 in a ceremony at the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, with a bagpiper and an Indian hoop dancer, it was officially transferred. (Glasgow City Council, 2000)

About the book:

The title is the last line of the Stephen Vincent Benét poem, “American Names,” but also refers to the belief that Crazy Horse’s parents buried his bones and his heart in 1877 in the area around Wounded Knee Creek.

Most of the chapters of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee are tribe by tribe accounts of atrocities. Chapter eighteen, “Dance of the Ghosts,” describes the “Ghost Dance religion,” and the unsettling effect it had on the Army. The last chapter, nineteen, “Wounded Knee,” begins, “There was no hope on earth, and God seemed to have forgotten us.” (Red Cloud) (Brown, 1971)

As the subtitle promises, the book is written from the Native American’s point of view. This corrects inaccuracies of what many of us were taught in school and media portrayals, and shows the readers the reactions of the Indians to what was happening.

What was the impact of the work on public perception? Was othering reinforced or undermined? Othering was undermined in at least four ways by this book.

First, othering often includes a condescending and criticizing view of the rituals surrounding death used by the out-group. “Primitive and folkloric death-customs may then be located in a nostalgic past, which is yet another way of relegating reactions to death to ‘the others’, or at least the other that has survived in us. (Fabian, 1991, p.179) When this loss of life is made less important, the theft of human remains and the property of the dead – like the Ghost Dance Shirt – is not recognized for the violation that it is. Consider that we would not go into a funeral home and steal clothing from a corpse.
Second, the fact that the items were valuable shows the othering going on beneath the surface. Brons draws on the work of Edward Said, “In his Orientalism (1978), Said combines a notion of “the other” with exoticism, the commercial exploitation of constructed otherness, to analyze the Occidental picture of the Orient.” (Brons, p 75) (Said, E. 1978)
Third, by documenting the Indians reactions to the purge, distantiating (keeping someone or something at a distance) – another component of othering – is lessened. Another way Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee undermined othering was by stating that not only was the Native American voice not heard, but pointing out the attribution of desirable characteristics for the self/in-group and undesirable characteristics for the other/out-group (Crang, 1998) (Brons, 2015) In chapter thirteen we read, “The whites told only one side. Told it to please themselves. Told much that is not true. Only his own best deeds, only the worst deeds of the Indians, has the white man told.” Yellow Wolf of the Nez Percé (Brown, 1971, Chapter 13)
Fourth, documenting the victims’ reactions dispels the myth that colonialism was benign.

Schindler’s List, 1993 movie, produced by Stephen Spielberg


The study of Nazi-era looted art is an example of the elimination of internal groups with othering as the underpinning. Victims can be either physical or conceptually removed from legal protection. (Jamieson, McEvoy, 2005) In World War II, European Jews suffered from both. During the Shoah (Shoah was used until the 1950s when Holocaust became more common.) German Jews were physically removed from Germany and relocated usually to labor camps in Poland, (Davies, 2005) and later to death camps. Often after the deportation or arrest, art and other possession were declared ownerless goods and confiscated. But this was only after they had been placed beyond the jurisdiction of courts by the 1935 Nuremberg laws (Jamieson and McEvoy, 2005) In 1938, the German government decreed that insurance companies were not obligated to pay claims for damages suffered by Jewish owned businesses during Kristallnacht, depriving them of protection of domestic laws. (Sher, Berenbaum, Smith and Neuborne, 1998) Kristallnacht was (is) seen by many as a trial balloon to check the public’s reaction. There was little and the abused escalated.
Again, what was a state of emergency became the normal way to govern. (Jamieson and McEvoy, 2005)

There is always a reason, a payoff, for othering. (Brons, 2015, p77) The payoff for Nazi looted art was commercial exploitation: of labor, homes, art. The planned Führermuseum in Linz, Austria was to be the home of most of the looted art. (Kreder, 2016) In addition, as Gestapo officers moved into homes in occupied countries they helped themselves to antiques, rare books, and art.

According to cultural geographer, Crang, “Othering sets up a superior self/in –group in contrast to an inferior other/out-group, but this superiority/ inferiority is nearly always left implicit.” (Crang, 1998, p61) Nothing was “implicit” in the treatment of German Jews in the years leading up to the rise of power of the National Socialists, being the exception that proves the rule.

Current status:

Claims for the return of Nazi looted artwork continue, with several hopeful advancements.
A1954 court case, Bernstein v. N.V. Nederlandsche-Amerikaansche Stoomvaart-Maatschappij, exempted art stolen by Nazis from protection under the Act of State Doctrine. (Kreder, 2016) The Act of State Doctrine was not to prevent the return of art to their rightful owners.
According to Dr. Donna Yates, University of Glasgow, “In the mid-1990s, there was a sea-change in art taken from Jewish collectors.” (Lecture, 2017, Week 10) The internet facilitated the discovery of the art, giving owners or heirs a reason to begin the quest for return of their families’ art.

Both the 1995 conference, “Spoils of War – WWII and Its Aftermath: The Loss, Reappearance, and Recovery of Cultural Property” ( ) and the 1998 “Washington Conference on Holocaust Era Assets” ( convened high level experts to discuss, document and publish papers on various aspects of the taken artworks.

In December 2016, the Holocaust Expropriated Art Recovery Act, HEAR, became law extending the statute of limitations for bringing a action to recover Nazi looted art. (

About the movie:
The 1982 book, Schindler’s Ark, released in the United States as Schindler’s List, by Thomas Keneally, won the Man Booker Prize, but the movie outstrips it in the public’s consciousness. According to the Man Booker Prize website, “In the shadow of Auschwitz, a flamboyant German industrialist became a living legend to the Jews of Cracow. This is the story of Oskar Schindler, a womanizer and drinker who risked his life to protect beleaguered Jews in Nazi-occupied Poland, who continually defied the SS, and who was transformed by the war into a man with a mission.” (, 2017)

“If there is a Richter scale to measure the extent to which commercial films cause reverberations inn the traditional public sphere, the effect of Schindler’s List might equal or come close to that of D.W. Griffith’s racist blockbuster of 1915, The Birth of a Nation. If we bracket obvious differences between the films (which are not quite as obvious as they may seem) and bracket eight decades of media history, we are tempted to make the comparison because a similar seismic intensity characterizes both Speilberg’s ambition and the film’s public reception.” (Hansen, 1996) (Schindler’s List, produced by Steven Spielberg, 1993.) (Griffith, 1915)

What was the impact of the work on public perception? Was othering reinforced or undermined? Successful at undermining othering.

“I understand now that nothing but “otherness” killed Jews, and it began with naming them, by reducing them to the other. Then everything became possible. Even the worst atrocities like concentration camps or the slaughtering of civilians in Croatia or Bosnia.” Slavenka Drakulić

The focus was on the victim. Schindler’s List taught us how to think of the victims of the Holocaust, giving them a voice, with images like the little girl in the red coat, and the toddler raising his hands as his father carries him out on his way to be arrested.

Seeing Others as “neighbors rather than enemies” (Brons, 2015, p86) doesn’t magically lead to the resolution of cultural property disputes. De-othering can, however, lead to a shift in public consciousness. That, in turn, can create a groundswell of opinion, empathy, and a desire for justice. This new political climate can create the political will for action. Which is done by getting to the other side of othering.

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