"Non-Western Humanities": A Pedagogical Meditation

I teach a class called “Non-Western Humanities” at Harry S Truman College, one of the City Colleges of Chicago. On the first day of class, everyone introduces themselves, saying their name, major, and something about themselves: Professor Wilson, Philosophy and Humanities, I’m a cat person. Then, we discuss, first in small groups and then as a larger whole, the meanings of and differences between Western and non-Western, developing terms through free association that are written on the board: individualism, Christianity, expansionist, mysterious, poverty, history. We discuss how people in the West learn about peoples and cultures that are non-Western: the news, Facebook posts, other classes. These sources give us a picture, sometimes literally, of what life is like for them over there. Starting from this point, the class sets out to undermine the division between us and them through the critical analysis of texts and by highlighting histories of inequality that have underlay this apparently obvious, natural division.

Accordingly, the first reading assignment in the course is an excerpt from Edward Said’s Orientalism. Orientalism is a seminal critique of European representations of and knowledge about the “Orient,” a catchall term used to describe the various cultures and peoples living in North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, and the eastern Mediterranean Basin. For Said, Orientalism is the body of knowledge that defines and represents the Orient produced by Europeans during the Age of Enlightenment. Starting in the eighteenth century, poets and painters, academics and intellectuals developed a fantasy image of the Orient as Europe’s opposite: a backwards and uncivilized place with a glorious past but a pitiful present that would be modernized by the ideals of progress and civilization. Orientalism literally created the Orient rather than describing it. Said asks readers to consider that the Occident/Orient binary, like the Western/non-Western binary, rather than being a natural division between two mutually oppositional entities, was and is discursively produced. The associative terms written on the board on the first day are revealed by Said to have been products of and influenced by Orientalism, described by Said as a discourse.

For the purposes of the class, discourse is roughly defined as the production of knowledge and representations that come to speak for and about a group of people. Discourse is like a filter that not only shapes the understanding of who is or is not like us, but also defines them and shows us what they are like. Partly through sheer repetition and self-referentiality, discourse functions to naturalize its own discursive claims, reproducing definitions and representations that come to be taken for granted. This ubiquity, which appears to confirm the truthfulness of discourse’s claims about us and them, turns these claims into common sense, the sense that we all know and share. This common sense shows itself in the ready-to-hand images and descriptions that are mobilized when defining the Orient, the non-Western, the other. This is one of the important insights from Said’s text: our ideas about us and them are not inherent or immutable, but are shaped by discourse.

As an example of how discourse represents the non-Western as other, the class watches a scene from Disney’s Aladdin. In the scene, Princess Jasmine, strolls through the market incognito, called out to by merchants with bulbous bodies and noses that accentuate her average arms and face. She bumps into a rail-thin fire-eater who belches out flames. She sees a young child reaching for an apple at a merchant’s stall. Without hesitation, she hands the needy child the apple. The merchant grabs her hand, which disappears inside of his gargantuan grasp. His body is nearly triple the size of her petite frame. He demands payment for the stolen produce and when it is not produced, he produces the scimitar that hangs at his waist. “Do you know what the penalty is for stealing?” he shouts as the scene turns to the terror that sweeps across the Princess’s face. Aladdin, watching from the wings, with his appropriately proportioned body, rescues the Princess from the merchant by momentarily outwitting him, and the scene ends with the Princess and Aladdin running from the market.

Although ostensibly part of the film’s exotic desert landscape, Aladdin and the Princess are actually set apart from it. To start, Aladdin and the Princess are represented as having normal bodies with appropriate proportions, their skin a lighter hue. The merchants are represented with bodies that are excessively large with fat noses, and the fire-eater appears emaciated, excessively thin. The different use of body sizes is one way the film distinguishes between the objects that are supposed to be identified with and those that are not. Aladdin and the Princess, with their average-sized bodies and lighter skin, are represented as like us, the objects of identification that give American viewers access to their love story and the forwarding of the plot. The inhuman size of the merchants turns them into the other, the ones in the scene not to be identified with. The differences in representation produce subsequent claims about the nature of us and them.

These claims can be seen mostly clearly in the scimitar sequence. When the Princess gives the child the apple, this act is represented as charity: she does the right thing, and therefore we do the right thing by identifying with her, gaining access to her charitable character and act. The response of the immense merchant, represented as the other, reveals them to be irrational, living in a lawless land, and prone to violence against women. The bringer of rationality and rescuer of the Princess is Aladdin, the other character viewers are meant to identify with. Through identification with Aladdin, we rescue the woman from the clutches of the brown brute. This gendered saving posits us as the rescuer of women from an other whose culture is associated with the persecution of women.[1] Through the use of representation, the market scene produces a series of identifications and claims about what we are like, thin, beautiful, charitable, rational, and what they are like, brown, fat, angry, violent.

Aladdin is just one instance of the larger historical discourse that Said describes as Orientalism. This late twentieth-century children’s film set in an Arabian fantasyland works in the same way as the nineteenth-century French poets and painters who depicted the Orient: both produce representations that distinguish us from them by showing them to us. These representations come to speak for, or represent, radically different societies, cultures, and geographical locations. Through these representations, they are represented as nothing like us, living in a land nothing like ours, and committed to ideas that are the opposite of or explicitly threatening to us.

To challenge the temptation to think that this is just a problem about how North Africans, Arabs, or Muslims get other-ed, the class investigates the representations of Latinos in the United States. The same other-ing that takes place though Orientalism, including some of the same vocabulary and imagery, occurs with groups who reside in the locations that were offered by students on the first day as Western. Therefore, the discourse of the other is not just a problem about how they get described over there, but also about how we define ourselves here.   

To begin the second unit, students read the first chapter of The Latino Threat by Leo Chavez, in which he introduces the concept of the Latino Threat Narrative. Chavez describes the Latino Threat Narrative as a discourse, the same term used by Said to describe Orientalism, with Latinos occupying the analogous position as people of the Orient. In this discourse, Latinos are represented as an existential threat to the nation, culturally and linguistic foreign, incapable of or refusing to assimilate into American society, excessively fertile, and criminal in nature. By proliferating these representations in popular media and scholarly research, the Latino Threat Narrative as a discourse produces the sense that Latinos are not only dissimilar from us but threaten us.

To see the Latino Threat Narrative in action, and to understand how Latinos are represented as other, the class watches a political ad from Tea Party candidate Sharron Angle’s unsuccessful 2010 Senate campaign in Nevada against Democrat Harry Reid. The 30-second ad, titled “The Wave,” juxtaposes gangs of menacing brown men with tattoos and guns alongside the innocent faces of white school children and families. The message of the ad is unambiguous and often mocked by students: Latinos are illegal immigrants that threaten America. Through its use of representation, the ad defines and represents Latinos: they gather in violent gangs and refuse to speak English, while we are working hard to raise our children. Like the Latino Threat Narrative described by Chavez, the ad collapses illegal immigrant and Latino, turning even Latinos born in the United States into others that are seen as threatening to an American identity understood as white and English speaking.

Students contribute their own examples of representations that other Latinos, frequently referencing the character Gloria played by Sofía Vergara in ABC’s sitcom Modern Family. She is sassy and sultry but still a mom whose accent, tenuous grasp of common English phrases, and traumatic retellings of life in Colombia always keep her at the boundaries of the liberal fantasy of sameness that drives the show. The show gives them a platform as long as they show themselves as what we already know and imagined them to be. The version of inclusivity that Modern Family relies upon fails to produce equality but instead requests all the others represent themselves as other, reproducing the same us/them division at play in the Latino Threat Narrative. By getting to know Gloria, we get to know them: she represents Latinos by reproducing a familiar representation of Latinas as excessively bombastic and sultry, but also submissive to white male authority and domestic in nature. Both the ad and the character are part of a larger discourse that constructs knowledge of what Latinos look and act like, and thus, like all discourses, influences the conscious and unconscious ways of thinking about and acting in response to the others represented. [2]

Photography by David Cordero © 2016

These discursive representations of cultures as other are a part of and occur alongside histories of colonialism, imperialism, and de jure or de facto economic, social, and political marginalization. Said describes how the development of Orientalism was part of European colonization of that Orient in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: French scholars who documented and depicted Egyptian culture and history accompanied Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt. It was by forcibly putting themselves there that Europe was able to produce the other, speak for the other, and make the other known.

More historically relatable for many students is Said’s Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine Howe We See the Rest of the World. Despite being published thirty-five years ago, Said’s insights feel prescient to many Muslim and non-Muslim students. Said describes the news media coverage of Islam as a discourse that produces representations of Muslims as terrorists or radical religious extremists. Said goes on to connect this discourse to the extension of America’s historical role in the countries and cultures being represented. Even now, images and claims about radical Islamic jihadists elide America’s invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. This history of involvement is ignored by discourse’s singular focus on Islam as the explanation for terrorism and regional conflict.

In both of his texts, Said emphasizes the connection between knowledge production and political, economic, and military power. He directly challenges the objectivity of media and academics, showing how this objectivity ignores complicity in historical contexts. In so doing, Said shows how representations of an other, a not us, work to legitimize histories of violence and the impacts those histories continue to have in the present. With the sense that they are not like us, we justify what we think is okay for people like them to experience, such as civil war, famine, occupation, drone strikes, or deportation.

The first chapter of Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza narrates the histories overlooked by the discursive representation of Latinos as threatening. Anzaldúa identifies herself as a mestiza—a product of the Spanish colonization of the Americas, both colonizer and colonized—who has been marginalized from American identity because of her brown skin, language, and culture. She was raised in Texas, working and living on land that generations of her family had farmed, land that was once Mexican until the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. By providing a history of the US/Mexico border in the first chapter, she shows that the same border that marks Latinos, including those born in the United States like Anzaldúa or Chavez, as threatening and “illegal aliens,” like all borders that seem to naturally divide us from them, is a product of history.

Anzaldúa describes the circumstances that led Texas to become a part of the United States. As someone raised in Texas, the retelling of the Lone Star State’s independence and annexation comes to look less heroic than represented on field trips to the Alamo or proclaimed by waving “Come and Take It” flags. In Anzaldúa’s text, what happens in Texas comes to look more like legalized cultural devastation and discrimination following an imperialistic war for territory. Anzaldúa narrates an account of American history that inverts the Latino Threat Narrative identified by Chavez: it was white American settlers who were the threats, who were the invaders, who violently segregated and lynched Latinos, who exploited the labor of populations as they went from being citizens of Mexico to citizens of the Unites States overnight. Anzaldúa historicizes the US/Mexico border, refuting the idea that it was inevitable rather than contested and established by force. In so doing, she demonstrates one method by which the discursively produced other combats hegemonic discourses: by telling the violent histories that accompany the production and reproduction of these discourses, histories ignored and covered over by representations of the other.

Having revealed the historical nature of the US/Mexico border, Anzaldúa offers to lead us out of the binary logic at the heart of discourse. Anzaldúa leverages her mestiza identity, the intermediate position at the border between us and them, to reveal a new way of thinking. The mestiza is both: us because she speaks English and is a US citizen, but also them because she speaks Spanish and has brown skin and an Indian heritage that traces its roots to before the arrival of the English or Spanish to the Americas. But because she is both, she is neither. From the struggle of the borderland, where us and them meet, the colonizing Spanish/native Indian, the US/Mexico, white America/brown America, arises a consciousness that moves beyond duality.

Anzaldúa describes the mestiza consciousness as a new consciousness. The mestiza, at the conjunction of multiple cultures, languages, modes of being, is a synthetic identity with a synthetic consciousness. This new consciousness accepts ambiguity and uncertainty, bringing together apparently oppositional sides, challenging the rationale that supposes us/them to be capable of clear distinction. Anzaldúa’s emphasis on multiplicity uproots fantasies of racial, cultural, linguistic, sexual purity.

But the mestiza consciousness is applicable beyond simply critiquing myopic definitions of American identity and representations of the threatening, brown-skinned other. Anzaldúa describes dualistic thinking as a habitual way of thinking, a common sense that has been reproduced until it has become taken for granted, much likes the images and claims of discourse. Anzaldúa’s critique of dualism extends beyond the us/them division to the division between subject/object, male/female, me/you. The infinite dualities that structure ways of thinking and representing life, mirrored in news, advertisements, children’s movies, novels, are broken down through the mestiza consciousness. Like the physical border between the United States and Mexico, discursively produced divisions are revealed by Anzaldúa to be products of history, and therefore, like those physical borders, able to change.

With the mestiza consciousness and the critique of dualism, Anzaldúa is not arguing for uniformity, for everyone to be the same. Instead, these are components of her attempt to preserve variety while dismantling the conceptual and material underpinnings that categorize variety into an unequal series of binaries. Anzaldúa’s text itself, through its combination of Spanish and English, poetry, literature and philosophy, past, present and future, challenges the claims and logic of dominate discourses that seek to make a clear division between us and them. The proliferation of creative and theoretical work that emphasizes blending, as Anzaldúa does, offers the possibility of new ways of understanding and new modes of being together in the world.  

At the conclusion of a recent section of the course, as we were discussing what students would take away from the class and what they would change, one student said the class should be called “Anti-Western Humanities” rather than “Non-Western Humanities.” Everyone laughed, some concurred.

Students do read many angry responses to experiences of colonialism, imperialism, and marginalization from individuals represented as the other to European, American, white identity. It is a critical class that challenges students to perform a difficult task: think about where ideas come from and the various histories, including violent ones, that have accompanied and accompany the production and reproduction of those ideas. These are large demands on students with little to no previous interaction with academic writing, visual analysis, or classes driven by student participation and discussion.

But it has been my experience as an instructor that the majority of students are prepared to think about, reflect upon, and discuss a variety of texts and how those texts relate to their lives, if not their own complicated identities. Many identify with Anzaldúa’s mestiza. Like her, they have their own linguistic and cultural struggles that accompany life on the border between a dominant and marginal community. The other-ing discourses discussed implicate and describe some of the students, producing moments of resistance and defiance that temporarily transform the space of the classroom into a site where self-representation pushes back against these discourse.  

Some students openly reveal in class discussions that they had not considered how their ideas about other people are informed by the representations of those people in movies or on the news. Some know little or nothing about histories of death and loss that their classmates identify with in simple and complicated ways. Other students attest that these representations and histories have and continue to impact them in their everyday lives. As a testament to the diversity of the city, the campus, and the two-year public college generally, students learn from their fellow students about religions and cultures from across the world. Equally important, they hear and share frustrations with being represented and responded to as a foreigner, alien, threat, other.

Overall, the class tries to follow the dictum typed at the bottom of their first paper: “Be a good Said-ian: use the skills of a good critical reader and thinker!” The command is not the perfect answer to how one challenges the various discourses of the other: it doesn’t immediately unearth and make known the histories of violence that these discourses have been a part of and continue to engender, nor does it promise the exhaustive retribution for the various wrongs of history or emancipation from the ideological chains of global capital, which was founded upon and thrives on global inequality. However imperfect, the use and cultivation of these critical reading and thinking skills opens up the possibility of asking about words and images, why things are the way they are, where ideas about us and them come from, and how those differences align with global histories of inequality. These skills open up the possibility of thinking about difference. If difference is historical rather than being inherent or natural, then it is mutable, capable of change. Within the exceedingly fleeting space of their “Non-Western Humanities” class, students fabricate possibilities for alternate futures where people make the world together, undivided.


[1] The scene recalls acts an instance of white men saving brown women from brown men, a fantasy repeatedly used to justify colonial and imperial invasion. See: Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s “Can the Subaltern Speak?”

[2] The concomitant gendered division in the two examples of Latino representation just discussed should not be overlooked. In the Angle ad, Latino men are associated with criminality, surveillance by the state, while Gloria represents Latin women as coupled with a white male. This division recalls the previous footnote where white men become the savior of brown women from brown men.