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Outside the Classroom

amanda.simone's picture

The D.C. suburb in which I grew up is commonly known for its aging white hippies clad in tie-dye, its enthusiastic environmentalism, and its year-round Sunday Farmers’ Market full of free-range, fair trade, organic, vegan, local, and not to mention expensive fare. However a few years ago, a new nonprofit formed to start a second farmer’s market for a different part of our community. This summer market recruits more diverse vendors, many of whom are immigrants who grow produce in their suburban yards or have started their own food businesses. And it also caters to a different demographic. The shoppers are mostly immigrants too, hailing from Latin America and Asia. Those with SNAP and WIC benefits, formerly known as food stamps, can double their government food and nutrition assistance tokens by using them at the market.

In ninth grade, I began volunteering with the Crossroads Farmers’ Market, co-leading a cooking club for elementary schoolers in which we used fresh ingredients from the market. During the summers, I spent many Wednesdays at the market running a kids’ table with produce-related crafts and games. For lunch I would alternate between Nancia’s Antojitos, El Sol pupusas, and spicy Indonesian dishes. Nancia always worked the grill in a tank top which quickly became damp with sweat, making me thankful that I only had to sit in the hot sun and muggy air and not stand in front of an additional heat source. I never pitied Nancia though, not in the way that I felt bad for the Indonesian women who stood in front of their hot stoves in the thick summer air in black hijabs.

When I found the stereotypical trope of Islam’s oppression of women weaseling its way into my thoughts, I had to check myself. I am almost certain these women cover their heads by choice. Although choice itself is complicated, limited, and almost never autonomous. Anyways, who am I to judge and speculate? Orthodoxy in my religion also summons women to cover their heads. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but think about the oppressive imposition of the veil in Iran during the Islamic Revolution, and the subsequent movement of women rejecting the headscarf as political protest. I knew that that political history probably had little relevance to these women’s religious identity, but I still wondered, would these women like to remove their headscarves too, if not just to cool off?

Though this cultural encounter was observational and impersonal, I quickly learned to examine my expression of feminist ideals and to never assume other women express their desire for equality the way I do. Yes, we are all women, but that does not mean we necessarily desire the same things when it comes to advocating for ourselves. I rebel against gender oppression by wearing less, by embracing my body hair, by using my appearance as a public statement. But that is inherently tied to my cultural upbringing, and that does not mean every woman uses her appearance the way I do. Many Muslim women use the headscarf to assert their feminine identity, their cultural identity, to make public statements as well. As a woman, I felt a concern for these other women, but my concern was probably unnecessary, and unhelpful. I incorrectly assumed a linear connection and projected my desires for these women unfairly, failing to recognize the complex intersectionality of womanhood.

My encounter with the Indonesian vendors was possible because the market is a contact zone if there ever was one. Mary Louise Pratt’s criteria for this social phenomenon, as described in “Arts of the Contact Zone” are clearly met (34). Yes, it is a social space where cultures meet and clash. My favorite example: the constant bickering between the elderly eastern European immigrants’ and the Salvadoran mothers over the best way to tell if vegetables are ripe. And yes, there are (and there were) asymmetrical relations of power. I was buying the food from the Indonesian vendors; they were selling. I was born here; they were not. I am white; they are people of color. I am American; America ceaselessly attacks their religious identity.

The problem was that I forgot the arts of the contact zone, or perhaps I forgot I was in a contact zone. Pratt would notice that I erred when I thought I was in one of Benedict Anderson’s “imagined communities” that she described (37). When I incorrectly assumed homogeneity, I believed that my ideas were directly applicable to the women I was buying lunch from. But, as Pratt writes, we were not playing “the same game” and I should not have assumed that “the game is the same for all players” (38). I would like to believe that the women and I have the same end goal of feeling like we have achieved equality, but we each are playing by different rules imposed by ourselves and our societies. This is where my privilege of living in a hyper-liberal town comes in, allowing me to present myself basically however I want, and where their religious and cultural practices come in, affecting the way they present themselves – to what degree I do not know.

In the ideal contact zone, we would suffer the same amount, taking turns being in the hot seat. Unfortunately, I found that real world does not work the way Pratt’s successful classroom contact zone seems to. At the market, there was no one to facilitate the curriculum of experiences so that “no one was excluded, and no one was safe” (39). In the real world, I am safe. I will not be prejudged or deemed suspicious the way people in scarves are. And in the real world, they might often feel excluded because of their religion or citizenship or language. I know that materials in their children’s schools may not be in the language they speak at home. They may never know that there is a PTA meeting on Thursday because the fliers that come home are in English.

My hope is that their children are growing up in contact zone classes like the ones Pratt and her colleagues designed, learning the skills to navigate cultural encounters so that they can make positive interactions and gracefully face challenges in their lives. My experience is a testament to the fact that many of us are still learning the arts of the contact zone, and the application is still a little rough.



Works Cited

Pratt, Mary Louise. "Arts of the Contact Zone." Profession (1991): 33-40.