Challenging Assumptions about Identity

Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad and NPR host Bill Littlefield

A seemingly simple word, “identity” is a complicated concept – one that the Middlesex community considers during weekly senior chapels, regular Spectrum Dialogues, and at annual events such as the Diversity Symposium. “Some people have a privilege of not being reminded of their identity on a constant basis,” noted Director of Multicultural and Community Development Pascale Musto, opening the 2017 symposium on March 3. “For some, identity is a reminder of the otherness with which they are treated, and for others, identity means a lack of acceptance by society.” In addition to gaining a deeper understanding of “identity,” he hoped the weekend might forge “a path to empathy and accepting the identity of others to help foster a stronger community here at Middlesex and beyond.”

On Friday evening, the School welcomed Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, the first American woman to compete in the Olympics wearing a hijab. Ms. Muhammad was interviewed on the Wood Theatre stage by Bill Littlefield, well-known host of National Public Radio’s sports program, “Only a Game,” produced weekly by WBUR in Boston. Keeping his part of the program brief, Mr. Littlefield left plenty of time for audience questions.

Ms. Muhammad grew up playing many sports in her hometown, always altering her uniform to cover herself appropriately and incorporate a hijab. “I spent a lot of time at Modell’s,” she laughed. But once her mother glimpsed a fencing practice – particularly the head-to-toe gear – she told her daughter, “I don’t know what that is, but I want you to try it.” Joining the high school team, Ms. Muhammad excelled as a sabre fencer and joined the prestigious Peter Westbrook Foundation, which further supported her training. As an undergraduate at Duke University, she was a three-time All-American and the 2005 Junior Olympic Champion; since 2010, she has been a member of the U.S. Fencing Team. Last summer, she realized her Olympic goal, earning a team sabre bronze medal in Rio.

Along the way, Ms. Muhammad has unfortunately encountered people who have told her that she doesn’t belong in fencing because of her race or gender or religion. When concealed by her helmet, however, she found, “It was just about my skills.”

Poised, inspiring, funny, and unpretentious, Ms. Muhammad readily fielded questions about her Olympic experience, her work as a sports ambassador for the U.S. Department of State, her clothing line (Louella), and her future goals. In her many endeavors, her intent was clear: to serve as a role model for young people and change the negative narrative about Muslims in America. “You can serve yourself, or you can serve others,” she said. “I choose to serve others and make sure others have the opportunities I had.”

Working to counteract preconceived notions of identity in a different and unique way, Saturday’s featured guests explained how they use game design to challenge stereotypes and cultural assumptions. Representing the Tiltfactor Lab (directed by Dr. Mary Flanagan) at Dartmouth College, social psychologist Gili Freedman and designer Max Seidman described the lab’s process, which begins with choosing an issue, such as gender bias or bystander behavior. After studying the psychological research on that subject, they brainstorm to create an “intervention” – that is, an entertaining game that will promote learning and, hopefully, result in positive changes in attitude and behavior.

“No one will play a game about gender bias,” Dr. Freedman said, “so we try to make it fun, and people will play it without knowing the goal.” For example, empirical studies of Tiltfactor’s most popular card game – Awkward Moment, geared toward the underserved middle school population – have shown that students were three times more likely to think of scientists as being women after playing. One game that Middlesex students got to play, called Buffalo, focuses on stereotypes by asking for famous names associated with two-word combinations, some more expected (“flamboyant pop star”) than others (“nerdy athlete”).

Whether crafting paper, digital, or urban games, both speakers stressed that “the little things” matter. “The way you draw characters is important,” Mr. Seidman observed. “Whether people are supposed to work together or not is important. You have to be vigilant when designing and watch for bias, like having five characters and making three of them men.” Combining this attention to detail with its behavior-changing goals, Tiltfactor aims to “improve the world,” as Mr. Seidman said – a worthy ideal for Middlesex’s Diversity Symposium.

Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad and NPR host Bill Littlefield

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