Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

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

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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™‚

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