In this very personal essay, Michael Duckett reveals how his experiences with the many others he has encountered through teaching have not only broadened his perspective, but revealed a multitude of stereotypes that need to be challenged.
During my decades teaching at Dawson College, I have had wonderful encounters with people of hundreds of the world’s cultures and thousands of personality types. As a straight, white, middle-class male raised in suburbia, such contacts have opened my mind on literally thousands of occasions. While concepts of “other” undoubtedly lead to misunderstandings and even more serious consequences, they are also excellent learning opportunities.
There are stereotypes with every cultural, political, ethnic, religious, LGBT and other possible labels. Further identifications include slacker, vegan, jock, videogamer, bookworm, and myriad other definitions. The danger is greatest when one is literally prejudiced, which I consider occurs when you pre-judge the person on the basis of the label. At the same time, though, awareness can reveal much about ourselves and our societies.
In classes where profiling is openly discussed, students learn just how ridiculously extreme concepts of the “other” can be, especially when it becomes apparent that everyone suffers in varying degrees. After students of visible minorities recounted stories of harassment from Atwater metro police, another mentioned how she regularly went from school to the gym but got stopped by the metro police only on the day that she had changed into her sweatpants before leaving school. Their comment of “why’s a nice girl like you dressed like a gangster” caused her reaction, “My pants got me stopped by the police!”
Even if you have not read their writings, those who critically analyze “otherness” have been having increasing impact. Michel Foucault showed many ways power can manifest itself, from open attack to discrete control (see: Surveiller et punir 1975 [Discipline and Punish]). Pierre Bourdieu looked at concentrations of power that threaten individual and cultural autonomy globally (see: Contre-feux 1998 [Firing Back 2003]). Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978) has particularly compelling arguments about artificially imposed definitions of the “other,” showing how painting and movies have produced stereotypes of harems or other exotica that dominate Eurocentric views and even the self-portrayal of those in the Middle East.
The Nazis plotted that before they could move aggressively against their country’s Jewish communities they first had to separate them and turn them into the “other.” The Nuremberg laws of 1935 were designed to push non-Jewish Germans apart from Jewish Germans. The Night of Broken Glass (Kristallnacht) of November 1938 marks when they believed this social distance had been achieved.
There are more individual examples to illustrate the dangers of stereotypes about “others.” A colleague who suffered a stroke exhibits the associated effects like slurred speech and challenged balance. As a white male whose elegant dress includes cape, wide-brimmed hat, and beautiful walking stick, people are consistently patient with him and rush to his aid when he begins to lose his balance. Meanwhile, though, I can tell you of a Cree woman whose stroke symptoms regularly cause people to turn away soon after she speaks and, not only fail to help her when she falls, but also spit on her and even kick her out of the way while verbalizing stereotypes around alcohol consumption and her ethnic origin.
Generally, the more all of us are aware of the context and presence of stereotypes the more it helps. Anticipating stereotypes helps deflect them when they appear. I know that, as a “white, etc…”, it is not so problematic for me to throw out my applicable stereotypes, such as “up-tight,” “culturally narrow,” “privileged,” or “environmentally wasteful”, but knowing them allows one to deal with them more directly and more effectively. Recognize also that such successes are of course helped by tolerant environments like at Dawson.
One can often suffer under the labels of “other”, but also learn to use them to one’s advantage. There is a danger it perpetuates “otherness”, but it does reverse the power relation when Mohawks in bridge and skyscraper construction are helped by the myth of a supposedly genetic inheritance from times when they walked in a straight line on forest trails.
We could all learn better ways to deflect attempts to label. I am inspired by former NDP leader Ed Broadbent’s declaration of himself as a “non-practicing Druid” in response to a question about his religious beliefs. If anyone seems unnecessarily interested in my sexual orientation, I declare myself a “non-practicing bisexual.” At times I start to feel boxed into “Christian” or “not religious” and hope to sound almost rabbinical when I ask, “tell me what a Jew is and I’ll tell you if I’m Jewish?” More recently, with credit to Kennedy’s ich bin “ein” Berliner, l hope that I have learned the phonetics well enough to declare myself Arab (arabiyoun anna). While at times painfully aware of mis-comprehensions and fearfully treading onto possible insult, I like to think that it helps deconstruct negative elements of “other.” Also, those close to me help me avoid falling into the white liberal “I understand you” trap as they remind me that I am not Jewish, bisexual, Arab, etc.
An integrated world diminishes the rigidity of labels. Through marriages and multiple parenting, my family–like many others–has been broadened by Asian, Afro-Caribbean, and Latin American additions to my own multiple-faith European origins. In just one generation, most of our children claim over half a dozen ethnic and religious origins each. The more we learn the active hybridity in every culture the more we all identify with each other. Seeing the complexity of the world around us shows the complexity in each one of us. In short, recognizing the concepts around “other” counteracts “otherness.”
History, Dawson College