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Communication, Slippage and Contact Zone

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Communication, Slippage and Contact Zone


Slippage has happened to you. Slippage has happened to me. In fact, slippage has happened to every single individual in some point of its life. Slippage may be a word, an action, or a single subconscious thought. It may be so trivial a slippage that the person who slips does not even realize it. Whether intended or not, slippage always creates gaps.

What is slippage, then? Slippage is an offensive involuntary behavior that reveals the subconscious non-understanding of our mind. It always happens within a contact zone, where people with different backgrounds and cultures meet. In another word, slippage can be seen as one of the truest response someone has towards another culture/background. This unintended offensive response originates from our ignorance and refusal to understand. This unintended offensive response reaffirms the imaginary gaps between people. This unintended offensive response creates gaps.

June Jordan has described an encounter in her article Report from The Bahamas where this claim is best supported. In the article, Jordan met a white Jewish boy during her stay in the Bahamas. They were having a good time, till the Jewish boy express that “He does not need financial help outside of his family.” (Jordan, 43) It was a slippage. To Jordan, this sentence deeply wounded her pride as a mother, for she too had a son, but she could not support her son’s tuition on her own. The Jewish boy, of course, was unaware of Jordan’s financial situation; nor had him paid attention to Jordan’s pride as a mother. Even though the Jewish boy did not mean to hurt Jordan’s feeling — he probably did not realize he was doing so — Jordan stepped away from him, thinking they have already “moved away from each other.” Had the Jewish boy not slipped, he and Jordan might have been good friends. In this contact zone between different economic backgrounds, slippage creates gaps between the two.

In a contact zone between different races, slippage may create even bigger gaps. Nkechi, a Bryn Mawr College student, was harshly harmed by a slippage when she was working on a project in a village. When Nkechi was working, a villager (white) told her that she (the villager) does not like to be with “people who looks like you.” Nkechi could not endure such a comment and left her project (Cohen). It’s hard to tell if the villager meant to hurt Nkechi, but it’s clear that the villager did not at least try to understand Nkechi’s race or Nkechi as a person. Nkechi could not help but felt hurt. In this contact zone where the Black and the White met, slippage again creates gaps.

This is slippage. Slippage is originated from our differences, and slippage is exaggerating our difference. Take the Jewish boy as an example: because he slipped, Jordan thought there was an unovercomeable difference between them that they have to step away from each other. When Jordan used the word “difference,” however, what she felt might not be an actual “difference” —— she might be feeling the “non-understanding.” By the word “difference,” Jordan was conveying her sense of gaps between the Jewish boy and herself. Because slippage is originated from the rejection of  understanding the difference, it is creating a larger gaps between people. Had the Jewish boy not slipped, Jordan would not have felt the “difference.” The two of them might find more similarity from each other than they would actually find themselves “different.” Had the white villager taken the time to understand Nkechi and Black people, she may be able to appreciate them and start to realize their similarities instead of the difference in skin color.

Slippage originates from people’s differences, and it exaggerates the differences. The actual differences in people’s background create different a understanding of the same world. When people only understand their own story, they slip. When they slip, those who they hurt realize the difference between “they” and “us”, hence gaps is created. Gaps in term creates even more misunderstanding that leads to more slippages.  There is a circular relationship between slippage and differences. However, all it takes to break this circle is a little willingness to understand and communicate.

Communication is always the key in contact zones. In contact zones, problems and gaps generate from people’s differences; communication closes these gaps. When slippage happens, the one who is offended can express and explain her/his discomfort while the one who slips can learn from it. A more comfortable communication would be established, and the two would now understand more about one another. Slippage, therefore, may decrease. 

In an ideal situation, these processes will happen. However, in real life, sometimes people are not as friendly as they should be, and it is hard to tell who are the understanding friendly individuals. But it is always worth trying out who could be friends. Jokes and plays are the innate mechanisms we can use for “testing possibilities of encounter”, as Deborah B. Rose said. Jokes can always decrease tension in the conversation; therefore, one can always playfully explain his/her discomfort in a slippage to avoid any further harm in the contact zone relationship. If the person who slips is willing to correct himself/herself after the joke, he/she is willing to close the gaps in the contact zone. If he/she does not willing to correct herself/himself, he/she does not worth the energy closing the gaps for. Either case, the key in contact zone is always communication.

Communication removes non-understanding. What else do we need our mouths for?

Work Cited

Cohen, Jody and Anne Dalke. Chapter 8, "Slipping." Steal This Classroom: Teaching and Learning Unbound. New York: Punctum Books, forthcoming 2017.

Jordan, June. “Report from the Bahamas, 1982." Meridians 3, 2 (2003): 6-16.

Rose, Deborah Bird, Stuart Cooke and Thom Van Dooren. "Ravens at Play." Cultural Studies Review 17, 2 (September 2011), 326-43.


- 5th paper