Photograph by James Luna.
Chapter

We and They

Discover how societies throughout history have defined membership based on ideas about human similarities and differences, such as race, religion, and nation.

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At a Glance

Chapter

Language

English — US

Subject

  • Civics & Citizenship
  • Social Studies

Grade

6–12
  • The Holocaust

Overview

About this Chapter

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.

  • 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?

This chapter is from the We and They section of Holocaust and Human Behavior and includes:

  • 16 readings 
  • Connection Questions

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 racereligion, 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.

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

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Inside this Chapter

Analysis & Reflection

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

 

  1. Reread What Do We Do with a Difference?. What responses to differences between people occur in the history presented in this chapter? What were the consequences of those responses?
  2. Scholar George Fredrickson writes that racism has two components: difference and power. He explains:
    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
    How is Fredrickson’s definition of racism reflected in the history of slavery in North America? How is it reflected in the histories of antisemitism and imperialism?
  3. What is antisemitism? In what sense is antisemitism a form of religious prejudice? In what sense is it a form of racism?
  4. What have you learned about the forces that shape a nation’s universe of obligation? What have you learned about the forces that shape an individual’s universe of obligation?
  5. This chapter introduced many different ideas about the evolution of the concept of race. What echoes of these ideas do you recognize in our world today?
  6. Why do humans so often divide themselves into “we” and “they”? When does it become a problem? What historical examples from this chapter help you answer this question? What examples from the world today help you answer it?
  • 1George M. Fredrickson, Racism: A Short History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002), 9.

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Facing History and Ourselves is designed for educators who want to help students explore identity, think critically, grow emotionally, act ethically, and participate in civic life. It’s hard work, so we’ve developed some go-to professional learning opportunities to help you along the way.

Using the strategies from Facing History is almost like an awakening.
— Claudia Bautista, Santa Monica, Calif