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Tahmina Urmi, our guest blogger this week, is an MA student at Florida Atlantic University who loves English in all its forms. She hopes to further her education while working on her goal to break down walls, ceilings and boundaries through her presence as a modern Muslim woman in classrooms. Although her degree focuses on Shakespeare, her passion lies in advocating change through written and spoken words while donning colorful hijabs in place of a red superhero cape.
When students meet me on the first day of class, the first thing they notice, and sometimes are confused by, is the scarf on my head. I always witness a wide range of reactions: some whisper quietly to their classmates while looking nervously at me, others avoid eye contact, and some are simply disinterested. At first I thought I felt this way because of the nervousness many instructors feel in the beginning of the semester until I started noticing a pattern—as soon as I went out of my way to discuss my cultural background and mention that I am, in fact, a Muslim woman living in the land of the free who made the active decision to wear the hijab, many of the students look less tensed and less guarded. I have actually had several students tell me, “I am so glad you said that. I wanted to ask you but didn’t want to offend you!”
This confused me at first. Why would asking me a simple question regarding my headscarf offend me? In recent years, women adorning the hijab have been splashed all over the news, in both good and bad light, so the students may have had some idea of its significance. But then I began to understand; although they might have seen it discussed on the news, the ones who talked about it always had political reasons for doing so. Many times, these very same people had little understanding of the cultural and religious significance of certain symbols, such as the bindi and dreadlocks, and were called out for “stereotyping” or being “ignorant” about another culture and accused of attempting to divide citizens of the United States. It dawned on me that because of reasons like these, these students were growing up in a culture in which people were becoming culturally hypersensitive as a result of always wanting to be politically correct (PC). Although at face value it might seem like it is better to have a society of people who were trying to avoid conflict, what it really means is that, although the ones who wanted to be PC avoided asking questions, the ones who were ill-informed have no issues being loud and perpetuating incorrectness.
For this very reason, I think it’s that much more important to talk about cultural diversity in our classroom in a way that goes beyond the traditional and cliché. Currently, universities do have activities that cater to “(Insert Race) Heritage” month, but these only discuss surface level topics, like food and clothing. There are several selections from Emerging that can help facilitate this conversation to transcend the politically correct.
- In “The End of Race: Hawaii and the Mixing of Peoples,” Steve Olson looks at the stereotyping and racism in communities even as mixed and diverse as Hawaii. This can open up the floor to a discussion of what the current practices are of distinguishing the different races we see in our own communities and question how logical and sound these methods of distinction are.
- An in-class activity can include students going through the entries in “Portfolio of Postcards” by PostSecret and create postcards of their own about questions regarding race, religion and culture that they are too afraid to ask or voice.
- “Leave Your Name at the Border” by Manuel Muñoz would be helpful when discussing how something as simple as a name can cause unwanted reactions, which can be tied to what Yang says about the higher expectations from Asians.
- Wesley Yang’s “Paper Tigers” can be used to talk about the different stereotypes that are in circulation.
- Leslie Savan’s “What’s Black, Then White, and Said All Over” can then be used to discuss the reasons behind the uproars mentioned earlier. Students can learn not only about cultures beyond the surface level, but it’s then that the students can, hopefully, start to understand what “appropriation” and “assimilation” really mean and why they can be upsetting.
- Finally, Rebekah Nathan’s “Community and Diversity” talks about the sense of togetherness amongst college students. This essay can help start the discussion of what makes a group of people a “community.” Each semester, I’ve seen students come up with their own definitions of “community” that sometimes varied even within a group of friends. This particular reading can then open up a discussion on how we can celebrate our differences while still belonging to and being an active member of a community.
To try to make students more comfortable asking questions without worrying about offending people, more complicated and uncomfortable topics need to enter the classroom. Giving students a platform to discuss different stereotypes and cultural matters without having to be PC provides an opportunity for both the instructor and students to respect each other’s differences while still attempting to create a unified community.
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