Collecting ourselves into groups is a natural behavior; everywhere on Earth, to be human means to live with others. In groups we meet our most basic needs, we share culture, values, and beliefs, and we satisfy our yearning to belong.

Like individuals, groups too have identities, and how a group defines itself determines who is entitled to its benefits and who is not. Sometimes the consequences of being excluded from a group are quite small. Someone who does not enjoy running is unlikely to be hurt by not being a member of a track club. But sometimes the consequences can be substantial, even dire. If someone is denied citizenship by a country, his or her freedom, livelihood, or safety may be at risk.

Chapter 2 examines both how societies decide who belongs and the consequences of those decisions. This chapter also explores how and why important ideas about human similarities and differences—such as race, religion, and nation—have greatly influenced the way many societies have defined their membership in the past several centuries. Finally, this chapter looks at what happens when people claim that the differences that matter most are permanent and biological—a belief that leads to racism. According to scholar George Frederickson, racism has two components: difference and power.  

It originates from a mindset that regards “them” as different from “us” in ways that are permanent and unbridgeable. This sense of difference provides a motive or rationale for using our power advantage to treat the . . . Other in ways that we would regard as cruel or unjust if applied to members of our own group.1

By introducing and exploring the “we and they” dynamic that so often plays out in all of our lives and throughout history, this chapter serves as a crucial step in the Facing History and Ourselves journey. We encourage students and teachers to take the time to reflect broadly on why we humans separate ourselves into groups, as well as on the benefits and dangers of this universal behavior. In addition, this chapter prepares students for the case study of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust by helping them understand how some key “we and they” dynamics—racism, antisemitism, and nationalism—were constructed throughout history. With these goals in mind, teachers should select the readings that are most appropriate for their curriculum and classrooms.



  • 1 George M. Fredrickson, Racism: A Short History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002), 9.

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