Community Learning Exchange

Bridging Divides

 

I was standing on the campus of a university in Delhi, India, chatting with a colleague. I had been in Delhi for about three weeks and was just learning the cultural and logistical ropes of the city. As we chatted
about the classrooms of the teacher education interns I had been visiting,
another faculty member walked past and she introduced us. He was a Muslim man
and was very courteous in greeting me.

 

I learned from my colleague later that as the man walked away and I turned to chat with someone else, he privately asked her. “What can one such as you possibly learn from the ‘Americi? It is you who should teach
them.”

 

My colleague relayed this exchange to me by email that evening as she talked about the anguish she felt with the approach of 9/11, the media-sensationalized threat of Koran burning in the U.S., and the anger so
many in the Muslim world feel towards my country. She was staying awake in a
prayer vigil to stop that mad preacher from Florida from his hateful book
burning.

 

Just the day before, while visiting a Muslim school for boys, I had been asked by a teacher what faith I practiced, if I were a Christian? I said that I had been raised Christian, so that was within my
worldview, but that I was not a practitioner of any religion and open to all
and that I believed in god. He looked relieved and immediately asked me what I
thought of Israel. I said that I stood for justice for the Palestinians and
felt that Israel as a state was engaging in apartheid and indeed genocide, in
Gaza especially. I think I passed his test because he then gave me his card and
asked me to telephone him anytime for discussions.

 

These incidents have impressed upon me how easily we are viewed through certain cultural and political lenses by others and, of course, how we also do that from our own side of cultural divides. In my case, I am
seen as a white American and I come with the baggage of what my country is
doing in the Muslim world. I also have the baggage of being a white privileged
person in a land of color and intense poverty. Every day, I know I am often
seen as “the other” and have to find a way through that to make real contact,
person-to-person.

 

In the case of the teacher who asked me about my faith and political stance, it was not that difficult. I had to reveal my identity in a way that respected his and also to show my solidarity with him over the issue
of power vs. powerlessness. Being of a spiritual nature, if not religious, and
also a leftist by American standards helped me to establish common concerns and
form an initial connection.

 

But it won’t be so easy to connect to the faculty member who angrily dismissed me to my colleague. He and others like him have a clear understanding of hegemony and how it is working from people of my culture,
race, and religion against people of
his culture, race, and religion. How can we individuals overcome these
identities and learn from each other? Care for each other? Work and play
together?

 

Truly learning from each other is key. This man assumed I had come to “teach” them how to be or how to do. No doubt this came from experiences he had had with westerners. But what I didn’t get a chance to say
to him was that I had actually come more to learn than to teach, that I wasn’t
even sure I had much to offer people in this part of the world. Other than my
heart.

 

I have in fact been doing more listening than speaking in India. Officially, I have been here as a “researcher,” so that befits my role. But even if my role were defined as teacher, shouldn’t I be at least as much a
listener as a speaker? Aren’t teaching and learning inextricably bound
together? Isn’t teaching dialogical?

 

What I have been studying here in India is the role of gender in education especially seen through the lenses of identity and power relations. But I have found myself not just wearing these lenses as I observe
classrooms or interview teaching interns and faculty members. I can see so much
else through the filter of who we are or are perceived to be and how empowered
or privileged we are or are perceived to be.

 

Cultural differences and power differentials stand between us, in every walk of life. We who see ourselves as teachers have a special responsibility, I’d say – a professional responsibility – to construct bridges
across those divides. How do we do that?

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