Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

Difference, Cultural Hybridity & Only Loneliness

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Some days, you read something that resonates so deeply, you can’t stop thinking about it… or sharing it… and eventually, you realize it has evoked so much in you that you have to write it all down before it flies out of your head. That’s what happened to me when I read Annemarie Perez’s Lowriding Through the Digital HumanitiesI read it at something like 2am last night and I couldn’t sleep.

Only Lonely Phenomenon

Let me repeat some of the quotes I tweeted out while reading it and comment:

Most people, understand that it’s hard being the only woman in a room of 50 to 100 men. For people of color most of us know, it’s just as hard to be the lonely only. That’s how I felt. Alone and painfully self-conscious. When I’m one of the onlys, however kind and welcoming the environment, I experience stress. There’s a fear of asking questions lest I be seen as speaking for my race / culture and somehow reinforcing biases.

Oh that fear of being seen as speaking for my “category” whatever it may be. That fear. I have grown to overcome that fear, but I still have it deep down.

My parents raised me to embrace my uniqueness. I’m an only child. That’s already different and alone in many ways. But I’m also that in many ways.

My first reaction was to remember my experience at #altc last September. I was the only headscarved woman in a huge conference. I was one of a handful of non-white people in the room during the keynote. During lunch. Just me. In a way, this worked to my advantage. People could easily find me. People who knew me from Twitter did not have to squint to look at my face too closely to know it was me. Jonathan Worth saw me while giving his keynote and when I asked a question (from the second or third row) he said “Maha Bali is in the house”. After which people found me easily. Had I been blonde or even just not headscarved, it would have been so much harder. In that moment, on that day, being different was a good thing. A distinguishing thing. An advantage. Recognition. But when I was the only headscarfed woman in my Norwich, UK gym? It was really not nice. I made ONE friend from 9 months of going regularly to that gym. ONE. She is very dear to me and still my friend. But not a single other person was friendly to me. Not a single other person looked like me.

I’m one of the onlys in many different contexts, but I have to talk about cultural hybridity early on. Homi Bhabha made a really important point about postcolonial people – and it’s that we can no longer  talk about our own native culture as something pure and distinct from the colonizer’s culture. Our own culture is now something else, something mixed and not pure of one or the other, but a third one. When we meet someone from another culture, we meet them in a third space… but my thinking is that I am already in a third space of sorts, and just moving towards the other….


flickr photo shared by ma_bali under a Creative Commons ( BY ) license

In the image above, I’m showing how I see myself as different in some ways. I’m Egyptian, born to Egyptian parents. I grew up in Kuwait. I went to British schools then American Universities. I lived in the US and UK as an adult for around a year each so that doesn’t count too much towards my basic culture. I’m not American or English. Of course I am not. And yet I am not by any means Egyptian. And definitely not Kuwaiti. I’m this: I’m this Egyptian born-and-raised-in-Kuwait-who-went-to-British-school-then-AUC. My friend who have similar circumstances understand. We share something, this “other” culture. It’s not even a third culture, but more like a 4th or 5th culture. That thing about having pride in your Egyptianness when you don’t truly understand Egyptian culture (I still don’t understand most Egyptian humor), of loving the country you were raised in even though you’re not seen as “one of them” and knowing that your countrypeople (Egyptians) have a totally misconstrued vision of what Kuwait is. And then being in a British school most of your young life, with a multinational group of students and mostly British/Australian teachers…. and being bilingual but having only the one academic language, really, and that language being the language of your pop culture, too. And then going onto American university, but in Egypt… the university itself being a cultural hybrid… with many different people who are cultural hybrids in different ways.

But I digress. Most of the people around me now are cultural hybrids of a different sort and we are all different and that’s fine. What I’m thinking about is this: for all my friends who are American or English, I’m this Egyptian/Muslim person they know. For myself, I’m this Egyptian/Muslim person with very strong British/American/Kuwaiti influences on my mindset and thinking. I have read their books, I have seen their films and TV, I have visited their museums, listened to their music. Historical and contemporary. And yet the opposite is not true. What they know of me and mine (the me and mine that we don’t share) is partly historical, partly media propaganda and partly personal to me… which creates that problem again of being a representative of a culture.

But in other ways I am hybrid (and many of us are). For a practitioner, I am too academic/theoretical; for an academic, I am too practical 🙂 It can drive me crazy sometimes, but I think I’m the right balance for my strengths and my interests 🙂

One other thing that may be less obvious to people who aren’t here in Egypt is how I feel as a headscarfed woman here in Egypt. There was a time when most educated women (higher socioeconomic status) didn’t wear a headscarf. Then there was a time when it became more mainstream, say, half of them did. And now we’re moving back to mostly not. So I am less and less likely to find myself at an event or conference where people assume I am a professor. Being young and headscarfed somehow reduces the changes of people assuming/believing I have a PhD and I’m an academic. It’s a lot of pressure to appear professional, to speak eloquently, to (oh no) represent because otherwise, I’m not myself present, you see? Sometimes, I need to be louder to be heard. And then my loudness can become an annoyance.

A lot of Egyptian conferences I go to tend to have MEN AND MEN AND MEN AND MEN AND MEN on the stage and an equal number of women and men off-stage. A recent conference had some women on stage (like by the end of the first day) but they were the same 3 women on 5 panels, and different men on each of the 20 or so panels throughout the day. An upcoming event is like that, too. It’s frustrating because I’m seeing men who are NOT necessarily the most qualified to be responsible for education, leading talks, with women who are more experience/qualified as participants. Leading because they are in leading positions. Because in Egypt, we count the number of women who end up as ministers and in the parliament. On one hand, I think. And as one of my colleagues says, they’ll take the minority and try to hit many birds with one stone (pick a Christian woman for minister and congratulate themselves on ticking two diversity boxes)

I’m not saying I am the only one like this. We’re all, to some extent or another cultural hybrids; most of us (even occasionally white men, but much less so) find ourselves in situations where we feel different, uncomfortable, even unfairly discriminated against. We are all complex and there are different aspects of ourselves that come to the surface. But the difference is that things like being a woman, covering my hair, being a person of color, all of those things are not things I can hide. And so they give an impression before I ever speak. And they can easily make me see I am in the minority.

Not “Getting” It

Another part of Perez’s piece that resonated deeply with me was this:

“We need to understand what it costs for a scholar of color to admit to not knowing or “getting” something and don’t take it lightly”

This is multiplied for a person who is postcolonial living in the scholarship field of the dominant white/Western/male/patriarchal etc etc. When someone like me tells you something is difficult for me to read (you being white Western academic) do NOT assume it is difficult for me in the same way it is difficult for YOU. I am already crossing cultural barriers to get to where we are on similar footing. I’ve already worked quite a bit harder than you to get to where I am, using a language that’s not mine (to the extent that I cannot use my own language to express myself well anymore), crossing cultural contexts to absorb all your culture so I can understand all the academic discourses we share, immersing myself in your world (this includes having a job at the American University in Cairo which is an immersion in American culture of sorts – a hybrid Egyptian-American culture) – every extra step is a  struggle for me. There will be pieces of writing that I do not understand at all from the get-go. I might try to read it over and over and the context will illude me. And then someone will explain it in simpler terms and I’ll understand. Why the heck do you want me to read the difficult explanation when the straightforward explanation is clear enough? When sometimes couching something in jargon can make it seem more foreign than it needs to be. When giving something a term and repeating it gives it some sort of elevated value and uniqueness, as if it doesn’t exist elsewhere… and then when I understand it, I realize I can say it in simpler terms. In my own terms. In my own language.

For me to be able to communicate clearly with those dominant in my field… I’m already taking all the steps. If there are 10 steps between us, I’ve taken 7 or 8 and you’re taking 1 or 2. Your language. Your turf. Your everything. My opinion and my voice 🙂

This has turned out to be an angrier post than I had intended… the issue is bigger than what I’ve been saying. And I love what Sean Michael Morris stated:

We must be civil to be accepted, even if what we have to say is radically uncivil. Civility, too, is only a virtue if nothing needs shaking up, if the established ground of the Digital Humanities is plenty good enough for everyone it includes. And it does not include everyone. Women are not safe in the Digital Humanities. Women of color, queer women, trans women, or gender nonconforming people, either.

That quote is from the prompt for the upcoming #DigPed chat tomorrow (Friday) at noon EST, and I am especially looking forward to exploring this particular question:

“What does exclusion look like in public digital spaces? What does inclusion look like?”

I am also thinking of what it is that makes me willing to take certain risks and not others, while seeing people who are supposedly in stronger positions than myself being less likely to take those risks? Did they get where they are by NOT taking those risks? I don’t know.

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