Understanding the Distant Other, Angered by the Internal Other

From the Series: Teaching about Rape in Troubled Times

Photo by  Brian Wertheim.

Serving as a teaching assistant for “Culture, Gender, and Violence” was personally challenging for me. I grew up in a family of two daughters in central southern China, where people used to have a strong preference for sons. As a graduate student at UVA (where I also did my undergraduate work), I was a witness to the crisis precipitated by the Rolling Stone article in 2014. Yet, in all my time at the university, I had never gained experiential knowledge of the Greek social world. For me, this was another foreign culture.

I decided to make use of this lack of familiarity as a way to facilitate discussions among students. In retrospect, this pedagogical approach worked very much like fieldwork, in which the anthropologist from a faraway place induces her insider consultants to teach her about their culture. My approach to the course materials focused more on understanding than anger or action. My pedagogy, informed by my subject position, created both opportunities and struggles for students—the biggest of which was to understand the internal other in their own culture as well as the distant other elsewhere.

I began by encouraging students to become conscious of their own gender stereotypes. This allowed us to see campus social life, and especially Greek parties, as situations in which students unconsciously acted out patterns of gendered sociality. As insiders, students provided me with detailed accounts of the Greek system during classroom discussions and in their essays. They were able to use our course to bring into conscious awareness the programmed “fun” of Greek parties and the culturally patterned expectations that underpinned it. They also came to understand the specific ways that men’s parties put women in a vulnerable position.

Meanwhile, students learned to direct their emergent anthropological understanding beyond the Greek system and to see their personal experiences in the context of more general cultural patterns. As one student wrote:

It is this pattern of victim blaming which serves to further the problem of sexual violence, as it wrongly puts the focus on women while simultaneously taking it away from the real enemy—a male-dominated, misogynistic culture. . . . For women to be nice and grateful in the party scene is to set them up to be vulnerable, it is to allow men to take women’s gratitude and use it to exploit and coerce them into “repaying” with sexual favors—favors which often turn into sexual violence.1

Reading the final essays, we saw that anger infused many students’ understandings of gender in America. They were angry at the problems in American culture—sexism, misogyny, racism, homophobia, and more—that they saw both in and above individuals. They did not, however, blame specific individuals for these problems. They had learned that individual words and deeds are socially shared and culturally undergirded. Moreover, they were also becoming conscious of their own inability to resist the influence of the Greek system. Many female students wrote in their final essays that they would still try to join sororities in the coming semester, despite learning from the course and from their peers’ experiences on campus about the vulnerable position of young women in the Greek system. Simply put, they now saw the limits of individual activism in the face of hegemonic cultural patterns. They felt powerless, to a large degree.

Yet the results of the presidential election marked a turn in their learning. Suddenly, they felt that they could pinpoint a group of people who bore responsibility for the cultural problems they had identified—namely, Trump supporters. It was an unforgettable experience for me, as their foreign-born instructor, to interact with them on the morning after the election. Almost everyone came to section, many with tired eyes and tears on their faces. I could see that they had had long, sleepless nights and that they would not be prepared to talk about the readings. So I decided to let them guide the discussion. One girl started with a heartfelt question intended for Trump supporters: “Why?” No one answered.

Some students expressed their frustration with the American political system; some expressed their anger over the sexist and misogynist discourse that seemed to have triumphed. Yet the discussion soon turned from asking questions to finding solutions, and the class seemed for the first time to reach a moment of activism. “What should we do?” students asked each other, as they wiped tears from their faces. The most common solutions they considered were voting and education. “We should educate people,” they affirmed to each other.

“Educate people? Educate whom?” I asked. “People who voted for Trump?” Even though I shared their frustration and anger, their activist program seemed to fall back on the very individualism that the course had taught them to critique. I could not help but ask: “What is the difference between telling girls to make rational decisions and be responsible for themselves at Greek parties and making Trump supporters wiser?” I kept asking what else they could do, and yet they struggled to get beyond their habit of locating cultural problems in those individuals whom they thought they should “educate,” the ignorant internal other within their own country.

It seemed to me that the students’ frustration and anger originated, at least part, in an inability to imagine a subject position other than their own. It was difficult for them to understand why people who voted for Trump did not see their country’s problems as they did. I certainly did not encourage them to be relativist about the sexism, racism, and homophobia of some Trump supporters. But I did push them to try to understand the lifeworlds of their internal other, which was much easier for me, as an outsider, than it was for them. The discussion that day ended, at best, with recognition of cultural difference in the United States; I cannot say that it reached understanding.

During the portion of the course before the election, these students read about sex and gender in cultures very different from their own. It was not easy for them to learn that we could not expect to find our familiar categories and concepts in places where things that they considered to be biological or natural were quite differently configured. For weeks, assigned groups of discussion facilitators threw out similar questions: “Is X practice in Y a form of gender/sexual violence? Can we judge other people’s practices based on our own understanding of human/women’s rights? Can we really understand X practice from Y’s point of view?” As these students grappled with such fundamental questions, they tried to be conscious and critical of their American bias toward other places and practices, reminding each other that they could not jump to critique without first understanding the context of another culture.

Compared to their hard work in understanding distant cultures, though, students’ engagement with their own culture was dominated by anger. They switched from being observers of distant cultures to engaged citizens of their own country. For many, 2016 was their first election as voters, and this made them all the more frustrated and angry. Switching from observers to participants, they went from seeing culture as above any individual to locating cultural problems in specific individuals: the internal other who lived in different lifeworlds with different subjectivities. They were angered by those internal others “who voted for a pussy-grabber.” They wanted to solve cultural problems by educating the people who, in their eyes, embodied the worst of American culture.

Our course modeled a process of learning grounded in cultural comparison, much like the process I experienced during my undergraduate and graduate studies in the United States. Like my students, I learned more about my own culture not by comparing myself to other Chinese people in China, but by comparing the China I know from my years growing up there to the America I see from living here. I wanted my students to learn what I had learned, to go beyond truisms like “people are different” or “we cannot judge people who are different” and to analyze how cultural differences are configured. As it turned out, this was easier to do in relation to the distant other than the internal other.


1. Passages from student papers appear here with the permission of the student authors.