Blog Post

The Process of Unlearning

[cross-posted from www.aaminahnorris.com]

In a recent article, I argue that girls who were constructed in ways that caused them to develop negative self-concepts must go through a process of unlearning. I use the term unlearning because “these girls had already learned what it meant to be constructed. What they shared with others was an instantiation of the negative self-concepts that had been appropriated from social constructions” (Norris, forthcoming, 2013). It is only through unlearning, the definitions of ourselves prescribed by others that we can develop positive identities. I say this not only to others, but as a reminder to myself. On Sunday, I chaired and participated in a panel at AERA entitled “Connecting 21st century tools to learners: The shifting roles of educators in learning spaces.” In the paper I presented, I described ways that girls’ identity processes were hindered by their teacher’s unwillingness to facilitate activities about the capacity to resist.

Following the presentation, I walked down the street to meet my close friend and colleague at another venue. As I was waking, I heard a voice speaking to me. The voice said, “Excuse me, do you talk to white men?” I turned and saw a UC Berkeley professor smiling at me. Regretfully, I did what I have been conditioned to do in Berkeley culture. That is to say, I smiled at him, and gave him a hug. He went on to say as he gestured with his hand toward my hijab, “I am just saying that because you look kind of scary.” He then continued to talk about things that I was unable and unwilling to process. We parted and I walked on to my meeting.

Unlearning is a process. As we come into contact with others who would move to wield power in such a way that confines and restricts us, we must find ways to negotiate and navigate our trajectories. Vygotsky argued that language is a tool. Unfortunately it is one that has been both used and abused. Language can be used to wield power and to control. It has been used to construct social hierarchies and to marginalize. My goal is to continue in a process of unlearning in an effort to redefine what it means to be a woman of color, a Muslim, and an academic. This post is an answer to the voice I heard, and to all of the voices that would move to confine and define, “I speak to humanity. You are incapable of engaging in that conversation. So there is nothing left to say”.

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