Us vs. them: Deconstructing dominant narratives of otherness by Amina Jama for EDU 5101 Perspectives In Education

Us vs. them: Deconstructing dominant narratives of otherness by Amina Jama for EDU 5101 Perspectives In Education

Throughout our lives, we interact with people from various cultures, racial and ethnic backgrounds, belief systems, and age groups. Part of the beauty of diversity is the fact that we gain a more enriched experienced because of such interactions. On the other hand, the very idea of diversity is problematic and/or overlooked by some people because it threatens their sense of identity and belonging. “The notion of diversity is equated with otherness, since [we] tend to see [ourselves] as representing what is normal” (Parsons & Brown, 2001, p. 1). Many of us “remain unwilling or unable to risk deeper examinations of ourselves and our beliefs… [and]… we often fail to make difference personal” (Parsons & Brown, 2001, p. 1). The increase of divisive political commentary and attacks on minority groups, created in part by the recent U.S presidential election, has amplified the need to understand constructions of us vs. them. In the following reader response, I will attempt to “dwell in the spaces in-between” (Watt, 2011, p. 65) in order to deconstruct dominant narratives of otherness.

“Go back to your own country” is a phrase that was recently hurled on a commuter train in Toronto. During a heated argument over loud music, a self-identified Trump supporter, made his stance on diversity quite evident. For those who have been casted as “other”, such statements are not out of the ordinary. “Looking relations are never innocent but are always determined by the cultural systems people traveling bring with them” (Watt, 2011, p. 72). Furthermore, “the look is under cultural pressure to apprehend the world from a pre-assigned viewing position, and under psychic pressure to see it in ways that protect the ego” (Watt, 2011, p. 80).

Growing up, I have always felt quintessentially Canadian. I love ice skating, being outdoors, and I pour maple syrup over everything. It was not until I was 11 years old that I felt different or “othered.” As I was walking to school one day, a car with 4 teenage boys pulled up in front of me. As I passed them by, one of the boys pulled down his window and yelled “terrorist” at me. This was shortly after 9/11. After this incident I was completely petrified. Especially since I was alone. I was too young at the time to truly understand the complexity of international politics or the ramifications of 9/11. This was a life changing moment because it was the first time that someone pointed me out as different.  I was smeared with a label that I did not give myself. “Stories of my lived experiences could not compete with dominant narratives circulating in the discursive spaces of the mass media” (Watt, 2011, p.64). From that moment onwards, I was no longer just another Canadian.  I spent a long time trying to reconcile that fact.

As a Muslim woman of colour, growing up post 9/11, Watt’s article is profoundly insightful. She details the ways in which media portrayals work to silence and objectify Muslim women by creating narratives of otherness. “Exclusionary practices may be inflicted solely on the basis of what someone looks like, before contact is ever- if ever- established” (Watt, 2011, p. 67). We often take the purported “truths represented in popular cultural sites for granted, passively and unquestioningly consuming the narratives of otherness [we see] and [hear] there (Watt, 2011, p. 64). By failing to engage with and unpack such narratives, we help further stereotypes and half-truths of individuals who have been excluded from the conversation. This is particularly dangerous because “much of what we learn about others we learn through the visually oriented mass media” (Watt, 2011, p. 69). “Stories matter and how we tell them matter more” (Tupper, 2012, p. 153). It is imperative, “to understand,” as Watt reminds us, “the other in relation to- rather than apart from- oneself” (p. 69).

One way we can begin deconstructing notions of otherness is to seek out and engage in conversation with those we have categorized as “other.” I appreciate it when people ask me questions about why I wear the hijab or why I fast during the month of Ramadan. When I am included in the conversation, not only can I help dispel common misconceptions, but provide a human component to the stories. Watt calls on us to “examine our personal histories of seeing and how they are bound up with larger social, political and historical processes” (p. 68). Moreover, as Donald makes clear, “it is an ethical imperative to see that, despite our varied placed based cultures and knowledge systems, we live in the world together with others and must constantly think and act with references to these relationships” (p. 7). These interrelationships then foster new narratives that work to empower ourselves and others.

In conclusion, “most people are,” as Watt (2011) stresses, “largely unaware of the ways they are being educated and positioned by the media because their pedagogies tend to be invisible and absorbed unconsciously” (p. 64). We are consumers of information. Therefore, how might we develop the necessary mechanisms to critically unpack that information? In response, Watt’s article pushes us to “make connections between bodies we see in mass media, material bodies we meet in our everyday lives, and our social relations both locally and globally” (p. 67). Because, what is the alternative? Are we ok with perpetuating divisive narratives of us versus them? “Ignorance must not be used,” Tupper warns (2012), “as an excuse for maintaining the status quo” (p. 152). So, how might we begin to deconstruct dominant narratives that work to other, other people?


Donald, D. (2009). “Forts, Curriculum, and Indigenous Métissage: Imagining Decolonization of Aboriginal-Canadian Relations in Educational Contexts.” First Nations Perspectives, 2 (1), pp. 1–24.

Parsons, S. C. & Brown, P. Educating for diversity: An invitation to empathy and action. Action in Teacher Education, 23 (3), 1-4.

Tupper, J. (2012). Treaty education for ethically engaged citizenship: Settler identities, historical consciousness and the need for reconciliation.  Citizenship Teaching & Learning. 7 (2), pp. 143-156.

Watt, D. (2011). From the streets of Peshawar to the cover of Maclean’s magazine. Journal of Curriculum Theorizing, 27 (1), 64-86.