You Can’t Sit With Us: A White Man’s Tale of Othering

By: E. Osigwe

West Side Story introduces the Jets as the top gang in town. They intimidate with just one look and strut down the streets as if they own them, but do they? It seems that the only requirement for doing so is acting the part. They have, not because anyone gave them this power but because they took it. Although, I’m not judging because this seems to have worked for the Jets so far. It has even afforded them some privilege as they speak recklessly with law enforcement and usually manage to escape any insults about their good-for-nothing immigrant parents. The Sharks, too, =have nothing but the streets and their community, having only recently relocated to America. Yet, society frequently criminalizes them for the color of their skin, which the Jets often use to craft their insults. The gang discriminates against Anybody’s as well. However, the Jets gear her insults toward her gender identity or at least their narrow-minded understanding of it.

Paradoxically, the Jets’ tendency to other outsiders acts to reinforce bonds within the group. However, it also reinforces the labels from their parents, community, and law enforcement who consistently criminalize them. Nevertheless, they project much of the same stereotypical, degrading language that they’ve received onto Anybody’s and the Sharks. In doing so, they perpetuate the very villainization that they despise when aimed at them.  These observations reveal a certain level of privilege and hypocrisy in what it means to be a Jet. Despite both gangs’ vilification by the local law enforcement, the Jets and the Sharks are continuously at odds with one another. Despite Anybody’s desire to join the gang and help them defeat the Sharks, the consistently reject her. Thus, the Jets develop a sense of belonging through the othering of those outside of their pack.

The primary unifying factor of the Jets is the way in which the world perceives them. Throughout the musical, the Jets reference their junkie mothers and their alcoholic fathers who beat them. Their sob stories paint them as helpless, basically predestined basket cases in the eyes of the rest of their community. In “Officer Krupke,” the Jets make light of society’s futile efforts to understand them by diagnosing them with “a social disease” or declaring them “psychologically sick” or just downright “no good.” They understand that society’s desire to “fix” them stems from a need to label them and put them in an easily definable category. After all, it’s almost impossible to control something that you don’t understand. Despite their decision to stay out of trouble by “giving the people something to believe in,” the Jets ultimately convey their objection to these labels by yelling “Officer Krupke, krup you!” So, in order to get by, the Jets play into their labels by milking their sob stories. As they each take part in mimicking those who seek to villainize them, the Jets reveal a shared identity of being neglected. They are also frequently misunderstood by a world that seeks to conform them to a more socially acceptable manner of conducting themselves.

Anybody’s shares a similar outcast status with the Jets. Although no one explicitly discusses her sexuality in the film, Anybody’s exudes the traditional “tomboy” trope. She is extremely ahead of her time as she rocks a pixie cut, an old tank top, jeans, and some beat-up sneakers in 1950s Manhattan. Apparently, this is enough for grounds to ridicule her as the Jets consistently deny her requests to join the gang. Their insults are usually targeted toward her femininity, or seemingly lack thereof, and are always sexist. When preparing to make another request to join the gang, Anybody’s reminds them that she just helped them fight off the Sharks, even after the cops showed up. They take turns laughing at her, telling her to go put on a skirt, and “get lost.” They even claim that she only participated in the brawl as some desperate attempt “to get a guy to touch her.” She constantly tries to prove herself and is literally willing to fight anyone to do so, especially the Sharks. So, shouldn’t that be all that matters? Sadly, the Jets can’t seem to see past her female status. She is a misfit just like the rest of the Jets as her rejection of traditional gender norms has caused society to ostracize her. Even her name reveals her deeply rooted desire to be anybody’s, to belong with the Jets. Notably, their decision to reject and other her based on her sex also reveals their hypocrisy. Despite knowing what it feels like for someone to brand them with labels that don’t match their identities, they choose to ignore their similarities with Anybody’s. They choose to ignore her possession of the very ideals that unify them as a group, such as a willingness to fight, their disapproval of outsiders like the Sharks, and resentment toward law enforcement. Thus, their mistreatment of Anybody’s highlights their misguided attempt to preserve their unity by becoming like the very people they despise. They other those who deviate even a little from their preconceived notions about how a Jet should look. This decision, though discriminatory and toxic in every way, ultimately serves to strengthen their ties to one another as they join in on the ridicule and keep outsiders at a distance.

It’s understandable why the Jets hold their gang identity so close. They don’t know where they would be without it. They have had nothing for so long that they are willing to fight to maintain their community and ensure that nothing ever changes. A prime example of this would be the Jets’ relationship with the Sharks. Despite their shared delinquent status, the Jets are quick to subscribe to stereotypes about Puerto Ricans because their primary concern is keeping their power. Notably unprovoked, the Jets jump Bernardo on his first day in America because they have convinced themselves that Puerto Ricans pose a threat to their rule over the neighborhood. As if that wasn’t enough, when they form the Sharks to protect themselves from the Jets, the Jets set out to start a rumble with them. The Jets note that other gangs have tried to challenge them in the past, but they insist that “these Puerto Ricans are different.” As such, their language toward the Sharks is overtly racist. They claim to be “drowning in tamale” as the Sharks “multiply like cockroaches,” taking over their turf, eating all their food, and breathing all their air. They even start to make a game of it as they each take turns coming up with more racist insults. So, the Jets automatically assume that the Sharks are a threat because of their nationality. It’s easy for the Jets to differentiate themselves from the Sharks based on race because it is so heavily ingrained in their society to do so. Back then, law enforcement officers like crooked Lieutenany Schrank and, honestly, the average American citizen frequently profiled Puerto Ricans. I mean, it was the 1950s. Once again, the Jets other themselves from outsiders to preserve their tight-knit community. They turn the villainization of those who are different into a group activity, allowing this discrimination to strengthen their bonds.

Although, it’s worth mentioning that the Jets also share a history of discrimination at the hands of law enforcement. For example, Lieutenant Schrank offers to help them fight off the Sharks in the rumble. Not only that, but he hopes to pin the entire thing on the Sharks so that he can have a reason to deport them. He sees it as the perfect opportunity to clean up his streets after the Puerto Ricans have turned the town into a “pigsty.”  The Jets don’t even hesitate to remain silent, divulging absolutely no information about the whereabouts of the rumble. Why wouldn’t the Jets jump at the chance to reclaim their turf from the Sharks once and for all? It’s because their conflict with the Sharks has very little to do with race and a whole lot more to do with ownership. It’s about maintaining a sense of control over their circumstances when so much else in their lives is out of their hands. At the first sign of resistance, Lieutenant Schrank resorts to showing his true colors by threatening to throw the Jets and “the immigrant scum they came from” in jail if they don’t comply. This is the first and only time that anyone insults the Jets based on their ethnicities instead of their delinquent status. Predictably, they do not take it very well. Their white privilege has usually allowed for the erasure of their parents’ immigrant statuses. My guess is Lieutenant Schrank never got the memo. So, as much as they despise the Sharks, they also recognize Lieutenant Schrank as the enemy. He is the physical manifestation of the same corrupt, hypocritical criminal justice system that profiles and villainizes them and the Sharks alike. The only difference now is he bases this mistreatment on yet another circumstance that they cannot control: their ethnicities.

So, albeit for different reasons, Anybody’s, the Jets, and the Sharks share a social-reject status that has manifested into delinquency in response to their unjust profiling and mistreatment. Even so, the Jets strive to hold on to the little power they have as a group. They don’t respond well to outsiders of any kind threatening their group dynamic. Their goal is to maintain as much control over their surroundings as possible. It looks like subscribing to widely accepted stereotypes about “no-good Puerto Ricans” and useless females is a means of doing so. The discrimination of others afforded to them by their white, male privilege is the only power they have. So, they choose to exercise it as they see fit. Naturally, the Jets find it easier to recognize and vilify one’s differences rather than highlight one’s similarities.

This type of perspective is not unique to the Jets. In this country, we have developed a tendency to distance ourselves from those who suffer discrimination by focusing on what makes us different from them. We may even join in on the abuse. We choose to feed hypocrisy as people who look and act like the Jets are simply “misguided” and “unruly,” while those who look like the Sharks are inherently “threatening” and “uncivilized.” Othering is an active, conscious effort to villainize those who are different. It’s what has perpetuated such toxic ideologies as misogyny, homophobia, and racism. Studying the Jets’ language and behavior towards Anybody’s and the Sharks reveals why people commonly find othering to be so attractive. Simply put, it’s the power and the incentivizing sense of belonging that othering offers the majority group.

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1 Comment Leave a comment

  1. I appreciate that you kept a conversational tone throughout this essay, that always makes things easier to read. “I mean, it was the 1950s” perfectly conveys what you want to say and just makes this all more engaging. The connections you drew regarding the sharks and jets were definitely set up and well supported, but I particularly liked how you included Anybody’s, since she’s just as much a reject as either of the gangs. This retelling of the classic Romeo and Juliet story, complete with Mercutio and Tybalt, really adds an interesting focus to the race relations of the Montagues and the Sharks – I mean the Capulets and the Jets, and I think you captured and supported that very well.

    Like

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