Estimated reading time: 5 minutes, 13 seconds

Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

Glasses for Ears

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Estimated reading time: 5 minutes, 13 seconds

Reading Time: 4 minutes

The title of this post is inspired by Laura Ritchie’s post where she used this expression of needing glasses for her ears. Her post is based on her Reflections on a Twitter convo where she had misunderstood what I was talking about.

Our eyes are not neutral. Neither are our ears. Wearing glasses? Not necessarily gonna help either of those. Think about bifocal and multifocal glasses (been hearing folks talk about those recently). You need to learn how to look differently in those glasses to enable you to see nearer or farther or to read. Some people need to take their glasses off in order to read. Others only wear glasses to read. 

It is an interesting analogy to make with regards to discrimination. Sometimes you need to look inside you to understand someone ; other times you need to recognize your own distance from the situation and try to see it from their point of view, knowing you may never fully understand or empathize because you aren’t them.

The backstory for this post is an article shared by Paul Prinsloo on Twitter about how difficult it is for people with non-native accents to navitate life and jobs in Australia. I responded with an anecdote of a saleslady in UK once telling me “I don’t understand your accent”. I called this racist because 

  1. I have a mid-Atlantic accent that’s not difficult for native speakers to understand. People usually think I am Canasian because it doesn’t sound like anywhere in particular in the US. Which is why I said, “You don’t understand my accent or is this [pointing to my headscarf] in your way?”
  2. Even though another salesperson apologized on her behalf saying she had hearing difficulties… I suspect people with hearing difficulties in customer service situations are used to politely saying “I don’t understand/can’t hear you, could you please repeat slowly/louder”, rather than blame it on the person’s accent.
  3. There is a history behind all this…coming up now

I am not a person naturally inclined to feeling discriminated against. Critical pedagogy makes me see injustice in the world more clearly than before and it is a painful way to live…but for the most part, I am optimistic about things and comfortable with my place in the world. Only headscarfed woman at #ALTC last year? Cool, i am easy to recognize from afar. For the most part, I believe people in my (online) communities see me as the person I am and not the token Egyptian Muslim woman.

When I lived in Houston I didn’t experience much discrimination. Mainly because many people there are expats, Mexican or Black. But most white people there were nice. Like I had one single incident of a silly newspaper salesman ranting at me. No biggie. More often people would say assalamu alaikum or just talk to me normally. We lived in the area called Medical Center/University so lots of expat doctors, international patients and international Rice University students and faculty. 

In Norwich, UK it was different. In winter I wore a wool cap and most people couldn’t at all tell where I was from. People were generally nice. When summer came, though, I started wearing a headscarf and treatment of me changed. People were colder and less friendly. Nothing huge. My husband’s experiences were worse, because he had more interactions with British people, I assume, because he had a job, probably, and likely because his skin is darker.

Because I don’t normally feel discriminated against, it’s difficult to explain how you know when someone is being racist to you without sounding petty. But in general, telling someone you don’t understand their accent (particularly when they don’t really have an accent) is pretty rude.

I don’t understand why people on Twitter felt the need to defend that person. Some of those people don’t even know what my “accent” sounds like. None of them were there. I repeat. When someone has a hearing disability, they are unlikely to blame someone else’s accent for their difficulty hearing. I don’t think it’s cool to assume I am the one discriminating against someone who has a heating disability. I have communicated with people with hearing disabilities before. They don’t say things like that, usually. 
No one in my life has told me they don’t understand my accent. Non-native speakers sometimes say I talk too fast. No native speaker has told me they don’t understand my accent. And I understand that some accents are difficult to follow because I have lived in a multicultural setting where I heard many all the time but saw others who didn’t understand them. I don’t understand all dialects of Arabic (well I do most except NorthWest African but many Egyptians don’t understand others as well). I had difficulty understanding the Sheffield accent each year I went there…took me a day or so to adjust. I know accents within a country are signs of where you are from and sometimes of social class.

None of those things are like the experience of being a person who looks different and being told you aren’t understandable when you know you communicate quite clearly.

Not victimizing myself. For the most part, people treat me well everywhere (airports being the often-occurring exception). 

So when I say I feel someone was being racist to me,  I don’t say it lightly. So listen. If you’re not convinced just ignore it. There’s really no reason for you to I defend them. And sure, self-reflect all you like. As long as you know your experience in no way matches mine. Unless you’re a Muslim woman who was in the West (and even then, some people have way worse or way better experiences. I don’t speak for anyone). 

Currently reading this book by Yassmin Abdel Maguid on her experience as Sudanese-Muslim growing up in Australia. Got to it through an article by her that Kate Bowles shared.

How strange to be writing this post on the day of remembering 9/11. It feels petty to talk about it when so many lost their lives in 9/11 and its aftermath. But I am just explaining what was happening on Twitter. 

3 Comments

  1. Thanks for writing to explain Maha – You are right, I had no idea of the backstory of the conversation, which is sometimes the nature of 140 char tweets… It did make me think of the need for communication and how misattribution happens. That as a concept is valid, but was not what happened to you! (I did say my post wasn’t really about that twitter conversation, so hoped it didn’t come across like that.) You are so right that I could never know your experiences – could not pretend to walk in your shoes, and discrimination is not acceptable in any form. to anyone. I wish for the day when we can all be like children who don’t see those differences. I say thank you for writing, because without explaining, without speaking out, someone in a different setting cannot understand. It takes time and effort on your part, and makes you remember the not nice incidents. I am sorry for that, but am very glad you are willing to write and explain to those in different places, looking with different perspectives. It helps.

    • Thanks Laura. And know that I love you and enjoyed your post (making a broader point about humanity and understanding) but needed to clarify in general. Hugs

  2. Living near NYC, I feel the pain of 9/11 victims every year and I remember the innocent people whose lives were cut short by crazy people. It’s a solemn day when we should remember the victims and the heroic rescuers, but I think that we have come far enough to also make it a day of reflection about the effects of it in the world we live in. The thing is that bigoted people, especially whose lives were not affected by the event, have no right to “use” that tragedy to be awful and inhuman to others (who had nothing to do with the tragedy, other than irrelevant association). I don’t face the kind of discrimination you describe (because I look like an Indian computer scientist, and I wish so hard that no Indian computer scientist ever commits a crime) but I can relate to it in some ways. Wishing peace and wisdom to all–

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