Travel and challenging assumptions



In my previous post, I mentioned a couple of times here when my assumptions were unexpectedly challenged. This is actually one of the things I cherish about traveling and living abroad: it forces you to confront and examine beliefs you thought were steadfast and unassailable. Often those beliefs are relatively benign and harmless either way (like weed and the moon landing). But sometimes those beliefs are less harmless, as I discovered last week during a tutoring session with two high school students.

We had somehow gotten around to speaking about Africa when one of the girls chimed in, “I don’t like the black people.”

“Oh, really? You don’t like black people? Why is that?” I asked, dearly hoping she had made a mistake and would self-correct. Instead, she giggled, “Yes. I don’t know, I just don’t like black people. I don’t know why.”

Clearly not a mistake. “Well, you do know that’s racist, right? You know, ırkçılık?”

Her friend gleefully jumped in. “I’m not racist! I love n—ahs.”

Again the gear-stopping mental sensation, overwhelmed at the sheer amount of political incorrectness crammed into that one moment. From an American perspective, race is an impossibly historically loaded and sensitive topic–even writing down these anecdotes, and thereby transmitting the explicit racism, is problematic and difficult for me, socially programmed as I am to politely avoid any possibility of racial discrimination.

That’s not necessarily the case here in Turkey–there simply isn’t a parallel social category or history to race (the closest thing might be religion, or ethnicity.) Consequently, Turkish students’ flippancy with race always catches me off guard. Today wasn’t nearly the first time that I’ve heard the n-word uttered in an academic setting–I’d even heard it out of a colleague. Another time, in a class earlier this year, a student announced gushingly, “I love the black people! They very attractive. Barack Obama very handsome.”

These kinds of statements and behaviors are problematic in obvious ways that I don’t need to mention to this audience, but how do I explain it to an audience unfamiliar with the nuances of American history, our shared tragic past and history of injustices which still shape our attitudes and worldviews and language today?

In the end, the student and I had a conversation, in which she admitted that she didn’t know any black people (there weren’t any in her çevre, she said) and suggested that that might be why she doesn’t like them. I agreed. “In university, or when you travel abroad someday, you will meet people who are black from Africa, America, and other places, and you will see that you like them just as much as everyone else.”

But how could I begin to approach, within short one hour tutorial, the nuances of the n-word and the concept of verbal repossession by minority groups? All I can hope is that my students have their assumptions challenged as much as mine are, and that they too can start to imagine living within a different history and a different paradigm.

Photos: Top: student and stray on the Bogazici University campus. Bottom: students doing boardwork at Anadolu 


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