Privilege, Critical Self-Reflection, and the Opportunity to Build Counternarratives

by Melissa J. Enns

I confess that this is not my first attempt at writing my third post. Actually, I wrote a post about linguistic performances of machoism, an often dominating performance of “manliness,” in Mexico, observed when I spent a few months there years ago. However, I decided not to post it.

Here is why. I felt that my perspective was too limited, particularly as an outsider looking in. Despite my interest and enthusiasm for Hispanic culture, I had the sense that it crossed a line to comment on cultural performance in a way that could be seen as negative. It seemed uncomfortably close to countless instances where white people have taken it upon themselves to interpret the intricacies of other groups, as though “white” perspective could provide them with cultural guides for their own practices. I realized that if I felt that talking about my experiences through the lens of machoism was not appropriate, it was probably not.

Although I rejected the post, I found that I kept thinking about it. Why was it inappropriate? Was my “gut feeling” right? This made me begin to think about privilege and the way it situates me.

Despite any attempts I make to be objective, I am a product of history. I am a member of a race which has been overly imposing on the “other.” As a member of a privileged race, it is not my place to publicize my perspective about other people. In one of my other classes, we have been talking about the need for so-called white Western culture to stop interfering and allow minority groups and people of other ethnicities to use their own voices and define themselves in their own terms.

I will be honest. It is not easy to publicly acknowledge my own privilege. It is uncomfortable and a little bit frightening to wonder if my words will be interpreted as I intend them, because privilege is a sensitive issue.

You might be asking why I am talking about this when there are easier, less personal topics. There is a purpose.

In the language classroom, we as teachers are surrounded by students who may look to us as representatives of an entire culture (whether or not it is our first culture). In teaching language, we also teach cultural norms, social attitudes, and inevitably, our perceptions. We may think we are neutral, but the words we choose, the examples we give, our flippant comments, and our tones and gestures portray attitudes we might not even realize we have. They have the potential to affect students’ perceptions of themselves and the world. For example, we have talked about how “English only” classrooms may devalue students’ identities as native speakers of other languages.

Educational theorists such as Dewey emphasize the importance of critical self-reflection. Unless we as teachers know who we are and what personal and cultural histories we are products of, we are at risk of unknowingly perpetrating destructive values that elevate white English culture and devalue others. Therefore, it is important that we realize what has shaped our ways of thinking and how to account for these factors in our teaching.

In discarding my original post, I engaged in self-reflection. I was confronted by my privilege and the care I need to take not to let it cause damage. As I gain awareness, I can shape my teaching to offer a counternarrative to the discourse of white culture as dominant. What about you? Have you ever thought about how your attitudes, words, or even curricular material might reinforce dominant discourses? What effects might they have had? Have you made an effort to offer alternatives?

Sources:

Dewey, J. (1933). How We Think: A Restatement of the Relation of Reflective Thinking to the Educative Process. Lexington, MA: Heath.

“Machismo.” 2016. Oxford English Dictionary. Acessed November 17, 2016.
http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/111866#eid38482658.

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2 thoughts on “Privilege, Critical Self-Reflection, and the Opportunity to Build Counternarratives”

  1. Hi Melissa,
    Thank you for this honest and critical self-reflection and the care you’ve demonstrated in the many ways words and actions can carry meaning. You’re asking such good questions and they make me think of Ryoko Kubota’s work on critical multicultural education and critical anti-racist education. I think you might find some inspiration there.
    ~Alison

    Liked by 1 person

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