Between Othering, Smothering and Favoring: On Transculturality in the Classroom

By Amira Eltai

First and foremost, let me point out that a great deal of the following is based on my own, thus very subjective and unscientific, life experience – which is not a lot, considering I am only 22 years old. In a recent conversation with a friend of mine, who has quite a similar background with regards to culture, religion and our upbringing in general, the topic of school came up. It comes up a lot, especially in my Muslim social circles, because many of us only now, after years of reflection and observation, realize how many times and in which ways we actually experienced micro-racism from teachers, as well as from fellow students, while we were in school. But this particular recent conversation took a different direction: We found ourselves discussing the way we had been treated by generally open-minded teachers of ours. Both of us had gotten good grades and had been kind of popular among our teachers. The question we asked ourselves was something along the lines of: “Was this because we were genuinely good at the respective subject, or because of our ‘interesting’ and ‘diverse’ cultural background? Did these teachers give more weight to our contribution in classes about certain kinds of cultural topics because they came from us – the ones who would be assumed to have more insight, and a finer understanding of culture and matters associated with that?”

Living Up to Other People’s Expectations

Of course, I cannot speak for these teachers. However, I definitely did behave according to these assumptions, and I tried to provide the kind of ‘more differentiated’ answers that only a cultural hybrid would come up with in order to improve my grade. I always felt like I was being favored whenever we dealt with topics like racism, wearing a hijab, or multiculturalism, and thus, in a way, I tried my best to deliver the opinions the teacher and the rest of the class expected from me. Even if I didn’t really hold these opinions. Being one of the only students of color in a class was a job in and of itself. It came with responsibility and an omnipresent sense of obligation. Sure, I liked being recognized for my different background and the experience and knowledge that I brought with me, but still, living up to other people’s expectations can become really tiring.

Now, how does this experience relate to the question of what transculturality means to me as a future teacher? I think by presenting students of color as experts for certain kinds of topics, merely due to their background, is too much othering to not end up smothering the respective student. It’s much more of a responsibility than people realize, as one interview in this video shows, where a young black man recounts his experience as the only black child in class.

Even though the teachers were very tolerant and accepting, the classroom thus did not completely have the feel of a safe space to me. So, I wondered: what more (or less) could, or should I expect from my future colleagues, as well as from myself?

Oversimplified depiction of “othering, smothering and favoring” in the classroom. © Amira Eltai

These experiences left me thinking that I had merely manipulated the teachers in such situations. That I could utter nonsense, and they would think it was a qualitative contribution, because I just had to know that stuff, right? I must have had something greater in mind, something that everyone else was just unable to see from their white majoritarian perspective. This train of thought is by no means a complaint about the behavior of these teachers. It would be disrespectful and even stupid to disregard the fact that they did try to make me feel as if my brown opinion mattered in a mainly white classroom. And we desperately need teachers who try and put in effort. This made me realize just how complex it must be to teach a class in light of transculturality. Soft skills concerning cultural awareness and sensitivity and just overall proficiency in transcultural studies are becoming more and more of a minimum requirement for scores of educational spaces.

Implicit Bias

That there is yet another layer of complexity to teaching in light of transculturality became clear to me due to a workshop by Amarachi Igboegwu at the HSE digital Autumn School. In her input, Igboegwu introduced us to the causes and effects of implicit bias. This confronted me with a personal issue, one that I had yet to acknowledge, which is the fact that I also can be biased. This must seem very obvious, but when a lot of what you hear in the media (and rightfully so) are cases of our society discriminating against women, Muslims, and People of Color, it can be very easy to overlook the fact that a Muslim woman of color is biased, too. The part that really hit home was where Ms. Igboegwu talked about the so-called “affinity bias” , which denotes the tendency to surround yourself with people who mostly share your values and beliefs in order to avoid uncomfortable situations and confrontation. This is basically what I have been doing the past few years, ever since I moved away from my hometown. Don’t get me wrong – I strongly believe that I deserved some time in my cozy little bubble after 18 years of being surrounded by people whom I can relate to only so much.

Stepping Out of the Comfort Zone

Nonetheless, especially as a teacher, as someone who will constantly be working with and for many kinds of people, it is important to step out of your comfort zone, and to learn how to feel comfortable doing that. Sure, it can be tiring answering the same two questions each year during Ramadan, or the same three questions about the Muslim dress code. Being with people who actually share these experiences, and to whom I do not need to explain every last thing I do and say, is so much easier. One of the participants of the Autumn School really inspired me in this regard as she told us that while it is a burdensome task, which we hadn’t asked for, she accepts and embraces it, and views it as a chance. The more we talk, respond, answer, ask and communicate, the easier it will be for future generations.

Especially situations of grading students shine a light on the significance of Igboegwu’s call to constantly strive for awareness of one’s biases. Studies show that students with foreign names generally get graded worse, and that is a real problem that we have to work on. But it does not stop here for me: Even if the discrimination based on origin is generally aimed at minorities, who is to say that I won’t subconsciously reciprocate these tendencies towards non-minority student? Harboring sympathies towards students who are similar to you seems very hard to obliterate, since they generally stem from our subconsciousness. But then: How do I make sure that I’m neither preferring these students over students with whom I have less in common nor treating them extra strictly to avoid being accused of sympathizing with certain groups of students?

The answer to this question is essentially found in Igboegwu’s appeal to get to know your biases and to leave your comfort zone. Carola Mantel’s approach of shifting from the “first sight”, which is marked by incomprehension and closemindedness, to the “second look” provides further strategies for dealing with transculturality and one’s own deficits. Mantel pointed out that these deficits aren’t necessarily bad, since they are only human; the crucial point is what you do with them. Will you take them on directly or will you stay oblivious of them?

I am aware that these reflections probably raise more questions than they give answers to, but I believe that this is one of the first steps that must be taken towards a successful transcultural teaching experience. In the end, it all boils down to the key question: “What does transculturality mean to me as a future teacher?” And my short answer has to be: “Becoming aware of myself, understanding my past and my present, and only then trying to understand everyone else.” Six days of Autumn School sessions, and especially reflecting on my own experiences and observations, has helped me realize that, even though ‘transculturality’ (to me at least) sounds like a self-explanatory concept, this understanding couldn’t be more wrong. Transculturality is highly complex, highly subjective, and highly significant. If not for the sake of our future students, successful classroom management, and the avoidance of discrimination, we should all read about and study transculturality for our own personal development. Yes, transculturality is (or should be) extremely important to teachers, but aren’t we all clashing with cultures in our private lives too – in politics, in our workplace, in our free time, maybe even in our family? Each and every one of us needs to learn more about transculturality, and, based on that, we need to develop skills and competencies. I am convinced that if we keep this up, we will all benefit in ways we haven’t even thought of yet.

Amira Eltai
Student at Heidelberg University

REFERENCES

Igboewgu, Amarachi (2020). “Teaching Consciously: Understanding the Impact of Implicit Bias in the Classroom”. Live Discussion and Video Sequence from the Material for the HSE Digital Autumn School 2020: Transculturality in Teacher Education.
Mantel, Carola (2020). “Pedagogical Orientation Within the Dynamics of Transculturality”. Handouts for the HSE Digital Autumn School: Transculturality in Teacher Education.”
The New York Times (08.05.2015). “A Conversation About Growing Up Black.” https://youtu.be/rSAw51caEeg. (last access: 15.11.20)


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