a bizarre and upsetting incident happened to me this week. on Sunday (the 1st day of our school week), upon walking to work- the academic building where department offices and classrooms are located- i was met in front of the doors by my supervisor, our dean of faculty, L. we are friendly; this term we’ve had regular downton abbey viewing get-togethers. L told me he had something he needed to talk to me about and pulled me aside to a bench away from the offices and others. he then told me that some faculty members had approached him last week and told him that my new haircut was upsetting them. they feel offended, he told me, and told L that they ‘couldn’t look [me] in the face’ anymore. it took me a while to understand that the intimation was that the longer hair near my ears- the one concession to femininity in my current hairstyle- evokes ‘peyot’ (something like this), and therefore, signifies Judaism. this is why they feel offended.
L told me this because he ‘thought i should know’; in case i observed different reactions to me, i would understand why, i guess. he didn’t suggest i change my haircut, but neither did he condemn their opinion or action. my reaction at the time was ‘I would never have thought of that’. after our conversation, i went upstairs to my department office and told a few of my history colleagues; they were quite upset and labeled the offended colleagues’ reaction as bigotry. since then, i’ve had conversations with other faculty that i’m close to about the incident. many were shocked or dismayed, much like my own reaction. some seem willing to shrug it off- “people will have strange opinions, but you don’t have to let it bother you”- and others were angry. one of my friends invited me over for drinks and reminded me that i’m in an arab country. this is Jordan, where close to half the population is of Palestinian descent, and many people carry resentment towards Israel for its policies, actions, and their refugee status. I understand this perspective, but i don’t follow the reasoning that adults who might have these opinions can’t bring themselves to look me in the face because of my haircut.
obviously, you don’t have to like me, or like my hipster hairstyle, but to be offended by it is strange to me. for one, i’m obviously not an Orthodox Jewish man. i’m not Jewish either, although many of my friends at home are. But to be Jewish is not be Israeli, and even to be Israeli is not necessarily to support the actions of the Israeli government. can’t adults who teach at an international school be expected to understand this discrimination?
the more bizarre and personally offensive action, though, is the fact that the offended faculty members (there were two) spoke to my supervisor, seemingly with the expectation that he would tell me to change the way i wear my hair, or at least share with me their opinion. this i don’t get. how would it ever be OK (legitimate, professional, reasonable) for a dean of faculty to tell a faculty member that their appearance was offensive to someone on staff? yes, i know this might be understandable if the said faculty member was wearing mini skirts or had a cannibis leaf on their shirt, but a hairstyle? that evokes a denomination of a religion that they don’t subscribe to and possibly hate? as an American, this comes a little too close to workplace harassment for me.
i know i’m not in the US and employment law is different here. but i also feel that, at an international school, it’s even more important to set and maintain a standard of respecting diversity. i think it behooves the administration to be active leaders on this front: to model acceptance and understanding and to respond strongly to anything that subverts these ideals.
this is not the only incident of bigotry or cultural condemnation that’s occurred in the past few weeks. L told me that last year there was an issue with a teacher not shaving her armpits; some teachers complained about that. a few weeks ago, a staff member said that students returning from a trip to Israel had been ‘brainwashed’. in the same time period, a class was discussing a novel that included rape; the teacher made a comment about the female character’s short skirt and wanton attitude. students in my classes have made remarks about asian students’ intelligence. about a month ago, one of my students drew a swastika and wrote ‘KKK’ on the board before class; he also wrote “X is a Jew” on another student’s paper. I spoke to the student’s mother and the student apologized, but in a school in the US he might have been suspended or expelled.
i’m not sure how to close this. some of my friends on the faculty feel righteous on my behalf. others suggest i move on. a middle way, i think, is to plan with some of my colleagues a diversity workshop for staff, couched in the guise of preparing for a similar one for students in the fall. i’m thinking scenario-based discussion and formulas or standards for tricky responses would be the format. i’m excited and interested to work on this.
i’m not giving up on the school, the faculty, or the admins, but i am saddened that some staff are too similarly reactionary as the students and that there could exist this culture of short-sighted thinking.
the school is the nearest thing to my home here in Jordan; i want to be confident that it is a good place to be.