Estimated reading time: 6 minutes, 12 seconds

Unbearable Whiteness, Elusive Inclusivity & the count-on-one-hand test

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes, 12 seconds

Several incidents occurred in the past week or so to highlight the unbearable white maleness of the #edtech field, among other things, but also to highlight the elusive nature of inclusivity (watch out for a diverse group of women at the #et4online panel of #edtech women, btw).

This post is really complicated in my head. I want to say one thing to start: if you’re a man or white, it’s not your fault you were born that way. It’s not something to apologize for. But it is a privilege you need to recognize, to realize that others do not share it. And many of you do. I could make a list, but it would end up being another list of white men, you know? πŸ™‚

To give some quick examples of privilege that’s difficult to imagine:
-you need to be a woman to understand how it feels to be walking in a poorly lit neighborhood alone, and hear the footsteps of a man approaching. Even if this kind of thing scares men, the threat of it cannot possibly be the same.
– you need to be a non-white person watching episode after episode after film after pop culture thing full of mainly white people who don’t look like you to understand how it feels to be excluded. And then to find a “token” person of your race/culture included, usually in a caricaturish way, which makes you wince, really, because…really?
– i am not color-blind or dyslexic (two mild-ish disabilities that are not as visible to others as e.g. Blindness) but i am left-handed. It isn’t a disability, but you realize the world is designed for right-handedness and you have no choice but to adjust. I cannot begin to imagine how the world feels to people with disabilities or how to plan my own teaching, for example, to “accommodate” them all. And the word “accommodate” is telling. It implies effort, sacrifice on my part, when it should be each person’s right to be included.

So also, a disclaimer: there are complex forms of privilege all over the place. In my own society I am considered “white” (skin color wise); I am of the majority religion, educated, socio-economically comfortable, heterosexual, physically able; I have my own privilege to recognize.

The whole point of this post is to recognize that even though it is useful to call people out on their privilege, complete inclusion is impossible.

I am in the process of co-editing a book with an international authorship (like 4 Arab countries, US, UK and a couple of other countries). A reviewer thought we should have included more South-East Asian chapters. Honestly, i tried, and tried someone from Latin America, too, but I got declines. When I think about it, it’s because I really know very few people from those regions. I know a few, but are they interested in contributing to a book about this particular topic? I have a few people of Asian origin but they’re based in the US. What can I do?

Shyam and I wrote two Hybrid Pedagogy articles around a year ago on the “illusions of inclusion” (i.e. most Westerners think they’re being inclusive but they aren’t) and “participation as inclusion” (i.e. to be inclusive you need to actually let others different from yourself participate and make decisions, not to talk about them); I also wrote about people who embody openness via inclusive digital praxis, so I won’t repeat all that here. It’s all possible to an extent, but there will always be something, someone, some category that you miss.

I commented recently on Twitter on the unbearable whiteness of a list. Response? “Not intended, do you have suggestions?”

I told the guy I don’t blame him. #edtech and academia as a whole are unbearably white male.

And yet the “unintendedness” πŸ™‚ That’s a sign of what your circle, your view, is like. That you didn’t naturally include people different from yourself…that’s a sign of how limited your field of vision is. Whether it’s the field or your vision is another story. My sense is the field itself doesn’t help people’s vision. The prominence of white males is stark. I love that the #et4online conference has 2 female keynote/plenary speakers (Bonnie and Mimi – and Mimi is also Japanese). How often does this occur in our field, though? To struggle to find non-white non-male (and i remember someone putting a call out on twitter about looking for these recently)… Is… Telling.

But I would like to suggest a “test” to help people think through how inclusive their social/professional circle is:

Can you count them on one hand?
If you can count on one hand the number of friends you have who are Muslim, black, gay, anything different from yourself, then you know you cannot, at all, speak for that category of people, and you should never assume you know what they might need/want. To be fair, all men know many women and still shouldn’t assume they know anything πŸ™‚ but you get my drift.

Now here’s the thing. You might have just the one person (or handful) of a certain category, but you are so close to that person (I am pretty sure i tick that box of Egyptian Muslim woman for many of my online friends) that you understand a little or a lot. You probably do. What if you’re living with one (spouse, room-mate)? Then you definitely know more than the average white person, more than you yourself would have been without this experience. But you’re still not them, and you do realize this, of course πŸ™‚ I don’t need to tell you πŸ™‚

Why do we care about inclusion?
Is inclusion valuable in and of itself, or does it have practical value?

Both, of course. But what is our main goal when we include? To feel we’ve ticked the inclusivity box, or because we truly value what inclusion brings to a situation?

Let me give an example of ticking boxes, and how going beyond that is so much better. I often look at my reference list for an article I am writing and notice i am citing mainly white men. They’re awesome men with awesome ideas and it shouldn’t matter that they’re white. But here’s what happens when I make the effort to look beyond them. I find that:
A. Lots of women and non-whites have similar ideas, which makes me wonder why I (and many others) keep citing the white men? Why are they more prominent?
B. They might have totally different ideas – and adding them enriches my work. E.g. When working on my PhD thesis, most writing on critical thinking was white, North American, male. Then my work was enriched by Freire, Giroux and Barnett, still white men but from elsewhere. Better, but still problematic. Something felt off. Then my work was transformed when I started including Ellsworth (woman), Edward Said (man of Arab origin, minority in his own home of Palestine because he was of a minority Christian faith), Martha Nussbaum and the women (Belenkey et al) who worked on Women’s Ways of Knowing.

So here is the thing. We are lucky when we manage to include enough different voices as to allow them to transform how we see the world. Even if we can count them on just one hand. We can make them count.

Thank you to everyone who makes me count for them πŸ™‚

30 thoughts on “Unbearable Whiteness, Elusive Inclusivity & the count-on-one-hand test

  1. You’ve done an excellent job here of outlining issues like this that continue to plague this field. I’m incredibly guilty of these same actions and I constantly have to remind myself when I read and think about this that it’s not a personal attack on me, it’s not personal. It’s not about me. In any given day I’d tell people I *want* them to call me out when something I do sucks. And yet, in my head I know that my reaction is going to be defensive. In any case that you so much for writing this. Every day I feel like I learn a bit more about what it truly means to be inclusive and this really resonated with me today.

    1. Thanks, Tim! For reading and commenting and sharing how it felt for you πŸ™‚ I hope the early disclaimer helped reduce the defensiveness a bit πŸ™‚

  2. Thank you – especially for the comment about checking your reference list. It never occurred to me that I should be looking at my references and trying to open them up to ensure that I have delved into the literature in a more inclusive manner.

    When I read the comment about counting on one hand – I found myself say, but I have more friends than one hand allows, but I still would not speak for them … I may use my privilege to help give them an opportunity to speak for themselves … but to speak for … and now I think about the #et4buddy project and how I ensure that I am not speaking for you, but giving you the opportunity to be the one at the table doing the speaking.

    My privilege can allow me a seat at the table, but it doesn’t mean that anyone will listen.

    1. Great points, Rebecca. And yes, I have seen you use your privilege (and even lack of it) to great use in how you advocate through your blogging and your action.

    2. Btw the reference list concept started partway thru my phD when i did what is called the “upgrade viva” (like a mini thesis defense early on in ur thesis) and was told that I critique Western privilege and yet mostly cite Western authors, and virtually no Arab authors. I try to also include course material authored by Arab people when i can. It’s really hard finding stuff in our field, so sometimes it’s colleagues i know personally or non-peer reviewed stuff. I tried reading Arabic stuff but i don’t get academic Arabic, too much effort, translating each term in my head… I should go back go trying, though. I have a weird relationship with Arabic. Another story for another day.

  3. Like Rebecca I thank you for the idea of checking the reference list for other voices. Think I do that anyway as a bias against the “authoritative” positioning that publishers will award the well known voice. Also, as a generalization, many first-to-claim-the-idea are generally full of themselves to cover for their failure to attribute influences. Unless they are referencing another high placed buddy that improves their career they are hiding behind the right to declare originality because their voice is louder.

    Digging into references also reveals sources that didn’t “qualify” because they didn’t “speak” reverently enough of the dominant group. Or asked embarrassing questions that revealed hidden assumptions.

    As a white male I don’t even have to try and maintain my power. It’s conferred upon me. When I broke down in a doctors office out of frustration and exhaustion I graduated from impolite to aggressive to abusive on my records. When I left in tears it became an issue of being out of touch with my emotions–denial maybe? I realize that most of this is unintentional but it is discrimination and stereotyping and paying for the sins of our fathers.

  4. As an example of writing from different sensibilities “Of Hospitality Anne Dufourmantelle Invites Jacques Derrida to Respond”, Stanford U Press. Right side pages are text of Derrida’s two lectures relating to hospitality and the left are Dufourmantelle’s “clarification” of Derrida’s philosopher’s voice.

    I am unable to follow Derrida any better than D&G but I can understand Dufourmantelle and that brings up a question of the value interpretation and which text is ‘truer’ to understanding. Why should fame be applied to the impenetrable writing? Because some claim to understand it? How would I judge their understanding except on sheer belief in their word? Or maybe their standing in a community that isn’t my community anyway? With the interpretation there’s something MY mind can investigate. Does this leave me detached from the original? I don’t know. Have I excluded Mr D? Or maybe I just don’t have an ‘ear’ for his genre?

  5. Thank you, Maha, for your thoughtful, informative post. As you’ve pointed out, there are so many nuanced layers of privilege, and many situations of inclusivity/exclusivity. I feel like it should be my life’s work from now on readjusting my perception of the way things work. As always you manage to express important things clearly, simply and powerfully.

    1. Thanks, Tania. I was looking forward to your response to this piece, but didn’t tag you coz I thought it was too early when i wrote it πŸ™‚ The count-on-one-hand idea came partly from the “I’ll Ride with you” incident in Australia recently that you told me about πŸ™‚

      1. Tag me any time, Maha. I feel lost in too many things happening when I’m not pulled into a few particular conversations, etc. Yeah, that “I’ll Ride with you” incident and your comments really made me think. Meanwhile, I’m still wondering how to find a more diverse community of friends. Pretty tricky for an introvert.

        1. Hey Tania, u reach out pretty well online, it is hard to know or notice the introversion (tho i notice that ppl who are educators often don’t appear introverted even when they see themselves that way, so…).

          I also don’t know how diverse your environment is in “real life” and whether that is realistically feasible, but you already do a great job of it online… Am pretty sure what you do online would help you when opportunities occur f2f. Don’t know if this makes sense or not.

          I do know that my experience of not making many friends when O lived in England (tho i joined a gym, 2 book clubs at the library, and regularly went to lectures at the univ) made me extra friendly to “new” people when i came back to Egypt. I made a point of inviting new faculty to lunch, meeting their families, etc. It wasn’t in the interest of diversity, as it was in an attempt to make their newness less lonely. I did end up meeting really interesting and different people and hopefully helping them settle in.

          1. Thanks, Maha. I’m guessing that introverts seems less so when you see them online because writing is less intimidating than speaking up f2f.
            Definitely you make more of an effort to reach out to people F2F when you’re not in your home place, eg travelling, new situations, or, as you describe, after an experience when you get back to home territory.

  6. Your little plugin says “5 minutes reading time” though I know I have spend at least 5 times e re-reading and thinking about it- thanks for pushing on this. I could talk about stuff I am trying to do to be more cognizant of my privilege, but I am thinking it’s better not to draw attention, and just put it into action in the world.

    I’m almost tempted to say “on one hand” is a low threshold. I raise it to at least two hands.

    And I have never heard of anything described as being “too inclusive” so we can always work to do better.

    1. Hi Alan, ur definitely among the people who works hard at this and ur v sensitive about how u respond to these things. The one hand thing should be per category, not total πŸ™‚ so you need to have a handful from each category to be deemed inclusive of that category πŸ™‚ well, that’s the arbitrary test i had in mind… I hope no one takes it too much to heart πŸ™‚ or makes it into a theory or a test lol

    2. Speaking of hands, I suddenly remembered a particular birth defect (due to some drug women took while pregnant, i think) where children were born with deformed hands or limbs or something, so even the counting on the hand metaphor is not that inclusive. Oops. I suddenly remembered that growing up, I had a close friend who had one hand where the fingers were smaller than average size and looked different than her other “normal” hand (i guess people would call them deformed or not well developed, but I grew up with them so didn’t find them that strange). It was one of those things that isn’t really a disability (both hands were functional, though one more than the other; she became a medical doctor so it didn’t hinder her much) but it was the kind of thing that you get used to when it’s your best friend and you stop noticing it. You only notice it when someone meets her for the first time and they comment on it. It’s sort of what I am trying to get at, here. When you know someone closely, you don’t need to make an effort to “include” them. It happens naturally. As adults, though, if we’re not already in that kind of situation, it may take intentionality to make it become so. And we know we’ve gotten somewhere when we don’t have to intentionally include them every time… Not very easy…
      A lot of people who don’t live here refer to me as “my friend from Egypt” (including one of the few friends I made when I lived in England). It’s ok, it’s a little exoticizing but it’s ok. I get it. But it becomes something more when I just become their friend and they where i am from is not the first way they describe me, you know? When I know they’re talking about me for myself and not for my “difference”.

      1. Just a short story on the aspect of the one defining feature. I was born in Australia but my parents were born in Russia. When I was in primary school I used to get into trouble for talking when we were supposed to work silently. My grade 4 teacher made me write out lines: ‘I am a Russian parrot’. Pretty offensive now that I think about it. Not as offensive as kindergarten kids calling me a communist. Clearly none of us at the age of 3-4 knew what a communist was but it says something about the parents’ attitude. And stupid when you think that obviously people who left Russia during the Soviet era were running away from Communism. I remember feeling ‘dirty’ when they taunted me with communist, and was too ashamed to tell my parents. Do you think that people who grew up excluded from the ‘normal’ circles are more sensitive to exclusive/inclusive thing? I hope so, although it depends what you do with that pain of being different.

        1. Wow, powerful story and questions and conclusion. It does depend on what you do with the pain, doesn’t it? You can become a kinder, more empathetic person, or you can become a harder person feeding the pain forward to others. What makes us one or the other has probably been studied somewhere and is worth looking into. I know of ppl who were abused as kids and turned out to be wonderful, kind and strong people. But of others who turned out violent themselves. I got off point, didn’t I? But thanks for this πŸ™‚

  7. Maha, I want to apologize for using my white male discrimination example as it’s out of place with your intent here. Sorry. That said, there’s been a lot written about men that features only our sociopath personality type that clouds our view of ourselves too.

    This idea of inclusiveness I think has borders that need exploring. In order to make the idea of diversity more than simply excluding one to make room for another we might need a better concept of abuse or misuse of easy assumptions. For instance the result of gender imbalance over centuries has created polarities that can’t be reasoned with, only rejected as “wrong” or “right” on a wholesale basis.

    As a male, I’m so ‘disappeared’ by categories and evidence at an impossibly high level of generalization that I essentially don’t exist.

    1. I don’t think you need to apologize Scott. You have a lot of pain in your background and one should not ever assume that someone’s being white/male means they are privileged every which way. And also bell hooks writes beautifully in her feminist writings about the pain men go through. Have you ever read her A Will to Change? I blogged about it a bit when i was reading it.

  8. Maha, thanks for writing this. It’s an incredible post, and an extremely articulate conversation / explanation about what white male privilege is and why & how it’s important to consider. It’s a very difficult concept to get across but one that I think you’ve tackled extremely well – and simply too.
    I first read it yesterday morning when you first posted it but had to come back, think about it a bit then read it again to work out where, how or what I would start with commenting. The very first thing it brought to mind was the #i’llridewithyou thread and convo that we had – and the question that you asked at the time: how many Muslim friends do I have? And the answer, to my surprise, was really very few. Sure I know and work with a few Muslim people, but really, they are more acquaintances than ‘friends’ as such. And (like Tania says) that did get me thinking about the diversity of the people I know, and particularly those that I’m close to. They all really are very ‘white’. Many of them white in a literal sense of being from an Anglo background, but also – even of those who aren’t (e.g. Asian, mixed, or other ‘non Anglo’ heritage…), they tend to be second generation and brought up very much in a ‘white Anglo-Australian’ culture – and identify very much with that culture. Sure, this doesn’t mean they don’t still get judged or discriminated against because they don’t look ‘white’ (I still do – although more often than not, it’s not direct discrimination… I do, Often, get asked ‘where are you from?’ This is not something I get offended by as it’s usually either from other migrants who are genuinely curious, and trying to connect, or people just wanting to make conversation…However, obviously someone from a white anglo background would never be asked such a question).

    Anyway…thinking about the reason why I tend to have a very white circle…I wonder if it is because, as a second generation Australian, growing up in a time where being Asian was still a bit unusual, with parents who had been in English speaking countries for a while, and living in an area where there weren’t that many other Asians (or even really, people of colour in general) – I just didn’t really have the opportunity to develop a lot of close ties with people who weren’t white. I also think there was some aspect of unconscious bias passed on from my parents to avoid being ‘too Asian’ – as a way of fitting in. This may have been something I touched on in an edcontexts post.

    Regardless, of why and how it may have come about, this definitely highlights and enhances my privilege – and I thank you and also my involvement with edcontexts as critical for helping me realise this – and even to understand what it means to be ‘privileged’ and how this impacts my perspective and actions. It is absolutely something that tends to be invisible to most people (I know it was to me) – essentially it’s like unconscious bias – and the first step to improving it is to recognise it exists, and how it exists and operates.

    Thanks also for mentioning accessibility and inclusivity in relation to people with a disability. Something I’ve started considering too – but (only) because it is a requirement to make Australian government websites accessible to people with disabilities. Seeing how difficult it is to make a site accessible to visually and hearing impaired definitely highlights how designing for the able bodied (and right handed!) is the default state.

    1. Thanks for this, Tanya, very interesting angle on migrants not wanting to feel more assimilated or integrated (i’m interpreting based on what you said). I realized when i say My Big Fat Greek Wedding how IS pop culture seems to make fun of ppl who hold on too strongly to their home values, while I as an Egyptian respect Egyptians who maintain their home culture while still managing to integrate (but not assimilate, as in not try to be “the same”). I love what we are doing at edcontexts and I hope it goes towards raising awareness. I’m glad this post resonated with people of all colors and cultures. Love you all πŸ™‚

      1. Maha yes your interpretation was accurate (& a nicely succinct version of what I was trying to say!). I guess this type of pressure to assimilate (or even just integrate) occurs in any community where there is a dominant group – as highlighted by Mark’s reference below to the To Kill a Mockingbird church story. Scott’s point on how white males can be portrayed (emphasis on the ‘sociopath’ personality) is an interesting perspective too. Maybe in the end it is as Mark suggests…just about welcoming strangers (or people) & making an effort to connect…regardless of who they are, or they come from.

  9. Thanks Maha, will have a look at the bell hooks tomorrow in the city. In the strangeness of being a person I find myself between the relief of being emotional and a defensive aggression to defend that part of me. This posting is perfectly timed for some changes in my life.

  10. Maha. Something you re-retweeted said, “Like fish who do not know they are wet, those who are the beneficiaries of privilege need to know how to be inclusive continually”.

    I believe that privilege depends on exclusion so this dialectic seems contradictory to me. Exclusion, in turn, is about economy – about managing scarcity. In higher ed, we do not manage knowledge so much as we manage accreditation, creating artificial scarcity and then monopolizing it. The opposite of this is Open Education – a concept that resembles some non-Western systems, including the Arab ijaaza qualification.

    Privilege is a function of communities. Each community imposes its own rules, regulates access.

    There is an episode in To Kill a Mockingbird in which the protagonists, two white kids – Scout and Jem – are taken to church by their African American maid, Calpurnia. Their father is away and the maid doesn’t trust them to go to church, so she takes them with her to the African-American church. Calpurnia refers to Scout and Jem as “my children” but one member of the congregation, Lulu, objects to her bringing white kids to their church. It’s a tangential episode, but there is nothing superfluous in fiction. This is in Chapter 12 – a summary is here:

    Privilege is often contextual – everyone belongs to multiple communities and the degree of privilege anyone enjoys varies from community to community. So I think that it may be possible to deal with this by promoting policies of openness within our communities by welcoming strangers and making an effort to connect with them. We need to be aware of behaviors that can intimidate and exclude…

  11. Wow, Maha, I’ve skimmed some of the 25 comments here and it looks like you have touched a lot of people in very deep, meaningful ways, congratulations and thank you for that.

    As you know, I read your piece several days ago – these thoughts on this subject are something you and I talk a lot about via DM in Twitter and I wanted to thank you publicly for your kindness, tolerance, and patience with me as I struggle with the concept of white privilege, so thank you :).

    As the wife of an Indian and mother of Indian children (goodness I get so tired of saying it, but it makes a difference, right?), I know I’m white-with-privilege, regardless of my family. I know this because of the way people’s faces change – their way of talking, even their body language – when they find out that my family is not as white as I am. That alone is enough to remind me that things are different for non-Whites and that I can only guess at the differences and respect that.

    The part of your post that struck home the most (and has me up at 4AM typing this comment) was the part about token, caricature non-Whites in television and movies, etc. It hit so close to home because, in many ways, that’s where my real journey started. My girls (7 and 9 yrs old) would want to watch Disney Channel television shows and I would see Indians and others of color portrayed in the most disturbing ways, and yet my children would be laughing and my husband was fairly blase about it because he grew up with it…but it’s not right and I want my kids to see the underlying assumptional framework so that they know it’s Disney’s problem – not my kids’ problem.

    So I know I’m not non-white and yet I find myself in a very scary predicament – I see something that impacts my children and I don’t know how to deal with it because I didn’t have to deal with it myself. And so, initially for my children but now for myself, I have embarked on a journey to figure some things out so that they and I can talk about it and I can give a slightly more educated perspective than I had before. It’s a weird place to be in.

    So thanks for being there, both in DM and in blog posts, to be an anchor, to provide a safe place, to keep me sane, and to teach me new things everyday. I realize you don’t have to do any of that and I respect and honor your choice to help us all be better people. Thank you.

  12. Be an interesting project to develop a sensitivity course based on what you witness Laura. Our college did a great animated presentation called Aboriginal Awareness and was unfortunately “reviewed” by a couple of MΓ©tis community leaders who objected to it because the goals of equality upset their position and power in the small world they rule over. Though to be fair, a world where it’s better to be seen as ‘almost white’ wasn’t their choice and they are just playing the game by the rules presented them.
    Working in the same office as they were reviewing the material was quite educational and I think the impact comes from seeing it ‘in real life.’ It can also be observed on the faces of whites as they walk by Native People on the sidewalk. Humans can read facial expressions with enormous accuracy and I wonder if learning about prejudice might be enhanced by showing people pictures of the faces of disapproval and asked how they feel if they were the ones receiving ‘the look’?

    1. I was so humbled by Laura’s comment i couldn’t really reply

      But I will respond to your point here, Scott, about looks, and just say i am a natirally non-paranoid confident person in any environment, but i definitely felt the difference when i lived in Norwich, England (unbearably white and older, except the university) – when i wore a wool cap, ppl thought i was European or Canadian. When i wore a veil showing clearly i was Muslim i got a totally different look from some ppl. I probably said that at some point, maybe even this blogpost… No time to look πŸ™‚

  13. Maha, don’t feel too humble, you wrote a wonderful piece about a subject people shy from. Fee brave if humble doesn’t fit:-) A number of the Lebanese / Canadian women working at the local college wear their veils I think by how they feel that day. Being the majority population in the community they give the look right back. From your wool cap picture I at first thought you were a guy, which would add a whole new level of complexity to your identity and parenting responsibilities.

  14. Phenomenal post, as always. I am painfully aware of having “white privilege” while also being a member of disenfranchised groups simultaneously, and teaching alienated & disenfranchised students. I take baby steps – doing things like screening youtube videos for the presence of non-white people. Seems basic. Seems obvious. Seems like it shouldn’t need to be done. And yes.

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