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Whitewashing vs. Comparison

December 15, 2009

When running across negative representations of other cultures while teaching, we’re often inclined to whitewash those others. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard people say that authentic forms of Islam are truly about “peace,” and a few have suggested that the stuff about killing infidels is not actually in the Qur’an.

These are what I would consider examples of whitewashing. Unfortunately, the move toward the construction of an “authentic” form of a religion is extremely dubious, and the claim that there’s nothing about killing in the Qur’an is easy to fact-check and confirm—it turns out that there are some nasty bits in there.

When I’m tempted to whitewash, I try to resort to comparison instead. If I have Christian students objecting to the more violent forms of Islam, I point out that there have similarly been violent forms of Christianity—the crusades provide a convenient and well-known example.  If I have Christian students offended by the nasty stuff in the Qur’an, I point out that there is equally nasty stuff in their own scriptures.

To summarize, rather than say “they’re basically good, just like us,” I say “they’re basically covered in warts, just like us.”

Obviously, this us/them rhetoric only applies if your class is homogeneous—if my college had diversity to begin with this might not be an issue.

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