Positionality: Cracks in the American Conciousness

Mallory Brander
May 26, 2022

I know most people don’t exactly think of the study part of study abroad first and foremost. But, one of the more enlightening experiences that I had this semester happened as a product of my twenty-four student seminar titled “Introduction to Gender and Sexuality Studies.” Admittedly, as a social and economic justice minor, I arrogantly thought to myself “I’ve taken tons of intro gender and sexuality courses, how different could this really be? And while the theory has remained similar, this course has proven to be anything but repetitive. Though many of the readings and definitions were ones that I had previously familiarized myself with, the diversity in experience that I heard from my exceedingly global classmates had me interpreting the topics in an all-new way.

Most recently, we were discussing reflexivity and positionality as it is concerned with feminist epistimology. Positionality, as defined by Sandra Harding, is “an epistemological tool of feminist standpoint theory. The basic premise is that each person enters research work with their own individually shaped experiences—both cultural and personal—and specific social, political, and cultural identities.” Our tutor asked us what about our own positionality might affect how we partake in the production of knowledge. After a brief silence, I raised my hand and stated the fact that, “Americans are taught that every thought worth having has happened, if not in America, then in a way that Americans can digest it. We think that our point of view is the only point of view.” As an American, it’s all too easy to fall prey to the ethnocentric elitism of U.S. rhetoric. Even as someone who winces when associated with my obviously American roots, I can’t help but be steeped in the idea that our way of doing…well everything, is the right one.

My tutor went on to agree, reflecting on an interaction that she had in her graduate-level international relations course. She laughed over the fact that, during a conversation about Nationalism, her American classmate was critically incapable of separating the idea of Nationalism and racism/xenophobia. And while this is often a product of nationalism in America, that word has a very different meaning in many other countries and cultures around the world. She simply couldn't wrap her head around this linguistic barrier that he had so firmly cemented in his mind. This got me thinking about not only the confines of culture, but of language as a whole.

What first got the ball rolling on this thought, though, was a caffeinated rendez-vous that I had after my gender seminar with three of my peers—all psych majors who had just finished their third year theses. One, a girl from Vienna whose father’s work led her to grow up all over the world, the others: a boy and girl from Turkey who grew up together in a small beach town. My Austrian friend brought up the fact that, in German, there’s only one all-encompasing word for sex, the act of having sex, and gender. I was reminded of Faucault’s quote that “language is not a neutral tool” and began to ruminate on the thought of not even having the language to express how you experience your own identity. The Turkish boy chimed in with similar sentiments about Turkish. 

In yet another conversation I had with my yogi co-worker from Poland, she and I discussed her master's thesis. She explained to me that she had to read her work through once for clarity, and then once more to check her language, as she was required to write in English, her second language. I told her that I thought that was hardly fair and she simply said, “I mean, I signed up to take the class in English so…” To this I pushed back and asked, “But do you feel like you can expand on your ideas as fully as you could if it were in your first language?” To which she replied, “definitely not.”

In the same vein, just yesterday, I had a conversation with a Dutch boy to whom I asked, “Do you think that you can fully express yourself in English?” He went on to explain to me that he’s “a different person in English.” As a largely mono-lingual d*uchebag, I was wholly perplexed by this notion. He went on to tell me, “everything shifts when I speak English, the humor, the intonation, the directness. I’m much more myself when I’m speaking Dutch.” This statement honestly bummed me out because I thought to myself, well… I’m making you speak English right now… 

This finally brings me to a conversation that I had in a Dutch bookstore with an American student that I study with here and will keep anonymous…for reasons that may be obvious in a second... As we both fumbled through the pages of some brightly colored books he exclaimed, “Why are all of these in Dutch? Everyone speaks English here anyway.” With an accompanying eyeroll I responded, “Not every thought worth writing down happened in English, man.” And to my dismay, he responded, “Yeah but all the ones worth reading were translated to English anyway."… So, I guess these are just an aimless collection of linguistic expounding. The moral that I took from these experiences, though, is that Americans need to reassess our positionality and stop assuming that every thought worth having happened in a way that will be completely and easily digestible for us.

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Mallory Brander

<p>Hey everyone! I'm Mallory, a 20 year old originally from Tulsa, Oklahoma. I'm currently a junior at UNC Chapel Hill majoring in Business and minoring in Social and Economic Justice as well as studio art. I'm a people person who loves all things travel so I'm beyond ecstatic to be studying abroad in Amsterdam this spring!</p>

Home University:
University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill
Tulsa, OK
Business Administration
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