Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

Understanding the “Other” When We “Just Don’t Get It”


Reading Time: 3 minutes

I wouldn’t ever give myself the right to talk about the Ferguson issue. I’m neither American nor Black; I have not even lived in America in a long time, and that was only in one place and for one year. I’ve written around it, though, and the timing is partially coincidental. Since both of the posts were not on my blog (one on the Teaching Social Justice blog; the other on EML), I thought I should summarize what I was saying over here (and also because the EML piece is not open to the public yet – I’ll re-post here once the 3-month embargo is over**).

The first piece, published in the Teaching Social Justice blog, highlights the multiple dimensions of social justice, and how our own histories, contexts and biases make it near impossible to truly, deeply, understand the struggles and oppressions of others different from ourselves. I cite the South Park episode on racism where Stan finally admits to his Black friend Token that he just doesn’t “get it” and that’s how the issue is resolved. In my post, I say:

“Critical theorists approach things with lenses, and our lenses are always incomplete. As an Egyptian, Muslim, headscarf-wearing woman, I see the world in a different way; I see injustice upon women, postcolonials, etc. more clearly from my personal experiences than I see injustice against, say, homosexuals or African Americans. I can try to understand it from their perspective, extrapolating from my own experiences of oppression, but it is not the same. I have never experienced poverty, and without firsthand grassroots experiences, I would have been ignorant of the extent of it in my own country. And yet I have not lived it; I cannot speak for them.”

I am suggesting that individuals cannot possibly comprehend every critical lens for looking at an issue, and that a first step is to recognize that we “just don’t get it”. The idea of this post came to me over a year ago when I was working on my dissertation and I allude to the idea in my thesis. Coincidentally, the post was published (not intentionally) just before the recent Ferguson events and a friend of mine asked if she could use it in her class when discussing the topic, alongside some other more context-specific literature.

My second piece published in Educating Modern Learners (entitled Culturally Relevant Pedagogy: a Primer) and published today is only slightly inspired by the Ferguson events, but also highly relevant. Most of the  ideas in it are ones I had discussed in my thesis before with an international postcolonial focus, but the concept of CRP originated exactly for the US race situation.

What triggered my EML post was watching a TV show discussing Ferguson where the majority of people talking about the topic were White and the discourse (while clearly well-meaning) annoyed me. And I realized it annoyed me because it is so hard for someone not Black to really talk about a topic like this and be truly deeply completely empathetic and not say something stupid. It’s possible, but really hard. And I think the solution for us as teachers is not to try to individually figure it out. I think the solution (but don’t take my word for it) is something like Culturally Relevant Pedagogy: which is basically to create space for diverse cultures (different from the dominant ones of the school or of the teacher) to have a non-marginal place in our curricula. And not to use our own guesswork about how to do this – but to involve people from different cultures (parents, other adults, as well as students, in helping us make choices of not only content but pedagogical process.

All of this starts with recognizing the limitations of our own perspective (dominant and non-dominant aspects of it), our institutional perspective, and seriously, genuinely, continuously questioning our practices. I hope to write more about this in the near future… here or elsewhere… and I’m intentionally keeping the discussion not context-specific and leaving it up to readers’ judgment whether these ideas apply to their own contexts and how it might work. I know I’ve tried it in my own context and it’s worked for me really well.


** Note on why I wrote for EML: While I am really committed to Open education/publishing, the reason I agreed to write for EML (which is behind a paywall) is mainly that Audrey Watters said the agreement is for authors to be able to re-publish openly after 3 months – so all is not lost – one day, everything I publish there, I can publish openly. ALSO: this particular post (my second for EML) was timely and addressing a US audience and I thought education leaders (EML’s audience) might benefit from it more than my regular blog audience. Other reasons I publish for EML are that I highly respect and admire Audrey and am honored that she would appreciate my writing enough to publish it. Call it whatever you like 🙂


  1. Excellent, thought-provoking post, Maha (and thanks for the links to Hybrid Pedagogy). I’m interviewing an American academic at the moment, long distance, and I have asked her about the Ferguson situation. I’ve also asked a couple of friends who live there. I look forward to their responses… What I do find disturbing, in the meantime, is our (UK) fascination for gun crime stories from America… especially when a lot of local crime stories go unreported. I wonder what this says about us as a nation.

  2. P.S. When I say “live there” I mean “live in America” — not live in Ferguson.

  3. @Bali_Maha And a great quote pulled (in parts) from your piece … [picture]

  4. @dogtrax really nicely done Kevin, thanks! Is that just ur project for today or a #digiwrimo thing?

  5. @Bali_Maha Oh .. who knows anymore .. I figure I write/connect/don’t worry about where it falls … (then if it crashes, I have excuse!)

  6. @dogtrax lol! Well wondering if u saw the link in that post where i refer to lack of headscarfed game characters? I wrote it b4 ur cartoons

  7. Good posting Maha. Sometimes all we can do is visit someone’s pain and observe it. Trying to internalize the experience as you say is always going to be unavoidably through the lens of our own context personal context.
    I remember as a 15 year-old being at a civil rights demonstration protesting pay and work conditions for older African American women working in hotels and restaurants. The cop standing right in front of me said something like, “why do you care about these people?” Being a young white kid from the middle class I suppose the question was appropriate but appropriate answer that came to me years later is, “why shouldn’t I care?”
    Have you read “The Wounded Storyteller” 2nd edition by Arthur W. Frank?
    First chapter “When Bodies Need Voices” is fabulous.

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