Syllabi with American perspectives fuel biases

Photo by Ihsaan Mohamed

I was a sophomore when one of my classmates said “Yeah, we do not really like Turkish people.” To my surprise, my professor did not say anything and the class went on. I, on the other hand, felt targeted. The negative feelings lingered on for hours which prevented me from studying or socializing with other people. It is easy to let these kinds of things go when they happen once. But when they are happening constantly in classes, it gets distressing. After talking to my other international friends, I realized they had similar issues in their classes. I hope that this piece will initiate conversations and show the Lewis & Clark community how international students feel about the education we get at LC, especially in areas relating to humanities and social sciences. 

Daniela Zamora Alcaraz ’20 is an International Affairs major who has also been in similar situations  

“Recently one of the things that is surprising to me is to see how little preparation some professors do regarding how to manage conversations when it comes to controversial issues,” Zamora Alcaraz said. “And I think that I have experienced some times where professors validate opinions that can harm other students’ cultures, because they don’t know how to react to those situations.” 

For Zamora Alcaraz, not addressing wrong ideas right away in class perpetuates the ignorance. It is important to acknowledge that the material we have in classes are as biased as any other piece of information in a global world. 

Pamela Altabcharani ’21 is an International Affairs major.

“I think there should be disclaimers at the start of courses about the whiteness of the material we study,” Altabcharani said. “Most of our syllabus is white, American and male and that has an effect on how students read material and look at material.” 

It does not matter if someone has lived extensively and studied a country for a long period of time. At the end of the day they do not have the same emotional and psychological ties that locals do. For instance, in order for the symposia in any college to be truly global, you need people from different countries which is challenging due to financial constraints. You might have someone talking about a specific area in a specific country, but at the end of the day if they hold an American passport, they are not affected by the events happening in the country to the same extent and thus do not have the same insight.

American perspectives are more visible than the perspectives of those in many other nations when it comes to academic research, but this should not prevent international perspectives from being heard in academic settings. If international perspectives are not heard, we are inadvertently being taught through a culturally colonialist and imperialist lens as we force our opinions on others thinking that they are the absolute truth.

Abdulrahman Al Rayyis ’22 is a computer science and economics major. 

“It is amazing that people still thought in that class that America acted in the best interest of the world,” Al-Rayyis said. “We would literally study realism, every country for its own self-interest, and then people would be criticizing China and Russia harshly for the same things the United States does.” 

Of course, in such a world, the U.S. is on the right side because look at Captain America, he is good and handsome. It does not matter if the International Monetary Fund is pushing other countries to change their financial systems and causing unrest and protests. And it is okay when people die in Libya in NATO airstrikes because it is just “collateral damage.” As one of the students in one of my classes said, these actions are justified “because the U.S. is trying to shape the world in its own image.” I am pretty sure that is what the colonial powers thought throughout history. We saw how that worked out.  

Altabcharani offers an interesting insight into how specific situations should be handled.

“I think what Americans should do while they are criticizing specific pathologies in the outside world, especially in the Middle East, Latin America, Africa, etc., they should know that the same things are happening in the U.S. — the same misogyny, the same sexual assault, the same Islamophobia, same lack of access to healthcare, the same persecution,” Altabcharani said “And that does not make the U.S. a shitty country and it should be the same when it comes to other countries — that you look at it as a whole, as a country with extremely diverse, multi-layered people. But at the same time, there are specific tropes of lack of religious freedom, lack of freedom of expression, but these things can happen everywhere. They are not inherent.”

Reducing identities is yet another problem of our curriculum. Many times, I hear students and professors say that “not everyone is the same.‘’ but since we do not have the chance to explore what that means, our education tends to show the world in a reductive way. For example, many people do not know that Turks come from Central Asia, or about  the transition period from the Ottoman Empire to the Turkish Republic, or that we have a religious-secular divide and so on. What they see is a majority Muslim country that is next to Arabic states, so Turkey and the surrounding states are reduced to be the same although these countries are very different. I constantly hear people say that they have been to Europe as if it is “United States of Europe.” There might be close ties between the EU countries, but according to the UN there are 44 countries in Europe and only 27 of them are currently in the EU and Europe is a continent, it is not a federation.  

“I felt like I had to fit in a box,” Al Rayyis said. “I was repeatedly asked whether I was a Kurd or an Iraqi, and I would say both, and get an answer saying that I cannot be both. All the Americans could have individual opinions, but for me it felt like I needed to represent a nation’s opinion rather than my personal opinion.” 

We should also try to understand the meaning and emotional aspects of different events happening in other countries rather than talking about them as if they were a chess game and making bold comments. As an international student, I really would like to study in an environment in which professors make sure that students are talking about Iraq, Kashmir, Sudan, etc. with the same sensitivity they talk about the gun violence, mass shootings and police brutality in the U.S. Because the pain people feel in those areas are not any less than the ones felt in the U.S. and those people are not any less human than the ones around you now. 

To sum it up, our syllabi should acknowledge biases of the authors, talk about their backgrounds, include international perspectives, and show the range of identities possible within a country or region and support it with visual material that portrays the issue from the perspective of local actors. Last but not the least, we should base all of this on a community in which people do not feel afraid to share their opinions and are not afraid to make mistakes. 

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