Who are “we”? Who are “they”?

The answers to these questions can have profound consequences, because they define who belongs and who does not. This chapter explores the human tendency to create “in” groups and “out” groups and the consequences of that behavior.

Essential Questions

  • Why do humans separate themselves into groups? When is this behavior harmless, and when does it become a problem?
  • How have societies distinguished between who can be a member and who must remain an outsider, and why have those distinctions mattered?



Before exploring our readings on "we" and "they" throughout history, get familiar with the chapter's central themes and concepts.

Reading 1 of 16

What Do We Do with a Difference?

A poem by James Berry invites us to question the ways we as individuals and societies react to difference.

Reading 2 of 16

Universe of Obligation

 Reflect on how individuals, communities, and nations decide who has rights that are worthy of respect and protection with this introduction to the concept of the "universe of obligation" (Spanish available).

Reading 3 of 16

Understanding Strangers

Journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski traces back to the earliest family-tribes and discusses how human beings either cooperate or divide with “the other."

Reading 4 of 16
Race in US History

First Encounters in the Americas

Consider what interactions between the first Spanish explorers and Indigenous Peoples demonstrate about encountering the unfamiliar.

Reading 5 of 16
Race in US History

We and They in Colonial America

Learn how race and racism evolved within North America’s first European settlements with the stories of two African Americans who secured freedom in colonial Virginia.

Reading 6 of 16
Race in US History

Inventing Black and White

Learn how Bacon’s Rebellion became a turning point for the way the laws of colonial Virginia distinguished people of different races.

Reading 7 of 16
Democracy & Civic Engagement

Who Is Human?

Consider the conflict in eighteenth-century US and France between the Enlightenment ideal of equality and the existence of deep social inequalities like slavery.

Reading 8 of 16
Race in US History

The Science of Race

Read about the seventeenth- and eighteenth- century scientists who tried to prove that humankind is divided into separate and unequal races.

Reading 9 of 16
Democracy & Civic Engagement

We the People in the United States

Learn how the US Constitution’s promise of equal protection under the law has been questioned throughout US history in debates over issues such as women's right to vote and birthright citizenship.

Reading 10 of 16
Antisemitism & Religious Intolerance

Religion, Loyalty, and Belonging

Read statements by George Washington and Napoleon Bonaparte about religious freedom and the membership of Jews in eighteenth-century France and the United States.

Reading 11 of 16
Race in US History

Breeding Society’s "Fittest"

Learn how people in the late nineteenth-century used race science, social Darwinism, and eugenics to justify their ideas about membership.

Reading 12 of 16

Creating the German Nation

Read about the confluence of nationalism, race science, and German-unification efforts in mid-eighteenth-century German society.

Reading 13 of 16
Antisemitism & Religious Intolerance

Anti-Judaism before the Enlightenment

Deepen your understanding of the history of antisemitism with this overview of the persecution, violence, and restrictions Jews throughout Europe faced during the Middle Ages.

Reading 14 of 16
Antisemitism & Religious Intolerance

From Religious Prejudice to Antisemitism

Learn about the restricted rights and membership of Jews in newly unified Germany, and antisemitism's pervasiveness across Europe during this period.

Reading 15 of 16

"Expansion Was Everything"

Read about nineteenth-century Imperialism, the Congress of Berlin, and W. E. B. Du Bois’ analysis of the profound consequences of Europe's colonization of Africa.

Reading 16 of 16
Genocide & Mass Violence

Imperialism, Conquest, and Mass Murder

Learn about Germany’s atrocities against the Herero, the Nama, and other Indigenous groups in South-West Africa during Europe's colonization of Africa in the late 1800s.

Analysis & Reflection

Analysis & Reflection

Enhance your students’ understanding of our readings on "we" and "they" with these follow-up questions and prompts.

Get Our Companion Unit: Teaching Holocaust and Human Behavior

Lead your middle and high school students through a thorough examination of the history of the Holocaust. Over the course of the unit, students will learn to:

  • Craft an argumentative essay
  • Explore primary sources, videos, and readings that lead them through an in-depth study of the Holocaust
  • Recognize the societal consequences of "we" and "they" thinking
  • Understand the historical context in which the Nazi party rose to power and committed genocide

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Everything you need to get started teaching your students about racism, antisemitism and prejudice.