COPLACDigital: Constructing Identities and Making Sense of our Surroundings.

Course Description: In the light of increased sensitivities towards global threats, people are afraid of strangers. This course aims to give students the time and tools to reflect upon the meaning of “strange.” How is strangeness constructed? What is strange in one place at one time may not be considered strange elsewhere. How do we identify ourselves as being part of a particular culture and nation? What is familiar and what is alien to us and why? Through discussing these questions we can identify and explore larger issues, drawing from our respective local cultures. Course materials include film and short philosophical and literary texts. Students are welcomed from a wide variety of disciplines. They will venture out into their own communities to find local examples of strangeness and familiarity in the form of images, places, legends and stories, sayings, and history and see how the local fits in with larger narratives. This research will be used to create digital projects of “making strange” that will be part of the COPLACDigital site and provide a resource for thinking through the issues of strangeness.


Learning Contract

                                                               Learning Contract


                                                        Mana Abdi & Donald Hutchins


                                                    Drs Yvonne Franke & Janet Wesselius

                                                        Making Strange in America

                                            A COPLAC Digital Humanities Project

                                                                Mission Statement

It is our goal to further our understanding of the American perspective of strangeness by analyzing and engaging various aspects of “normal” and “alternative” cultural forms. We will actively observe and reflect on the inter-workings of our daily routine and their socio-cultural implications, and then will immerse ourselves in alternative manners in order to compare the perspectives. Afterward, we will compare our findings and deduce the similarities and differences, and extrapolate a deeper lesson relating to strangeness in our culture. For example, the two of us have different religious views. We will analyze our own individually, and then will explore an alternative or alternatives; then reflect on our experience. We will then bridge our experiences with the underlying lesson/moral/findings/etc. By first framing our pursuit in our personal realm, we set the standard by which we can measure strange. Our alternative, then, exemplifies key aspects of both perspectives, which brings out the strangeness in them both; allowing us to focus in, quantify and qualify those qualities. From there, our experiences will be meshed, in a sort of peer-review, where the common particulars will ideally provide us with a universal foundation for understanding the phenomena of “strangeness”.


Our research will entail interdisciplinary collaboration, potentially including faculty, student, and community members from our campus and the surrounding areas. We will also utilize course materials, personal and campus resources, including but not limited to campus databases, library stacks, personal experiences and materials, and audiovisuals(i.e. art or media). We may also employ a journalistic style interview to obtain information, which may require the use of audio recording and/or word editing resources. Further, we may also utilize video or audio in various forms(music, art, video, podcast, etc.), which would either require audio/visual recording and editing software or permission from the owners of original materials. As we move forward, some resources may change and ideas for easier alternatives may arise that alter the route we take to achieve our goals.

24 Feb 2017: Learning contract due; “Who’re You?” exercise(pick your brain for starting points)

This piece contextualizes who we “are” since no one truly knows us– possibly including ourselves.

27 Feb – 5 Mar 2017: Outline and draft “You” from before college– highlight points of strangeness

6 – 12 Mar 2017: Brainstorm and collaborate for “College Strangeness” exercise

13 – 19 Mar 2017: “College Strangeness” exercise; alternatives, interviews, and results

This exercise refers to degree that our expectations pre-college were/were not met throughout our service.

20 – 26 Mar 2017: Bridge pre- and post- college Strangeness– “what does it all mean to you, for you?”

27 Mar – 2 Apr 2017: Begin meshing/peer-review process; begin to illustrate or highlight universalities

3 – 9 Apr 2017: Conclude and finalize research findings; condense information in business report format

10 – 16 Apr 2017: Finalize report and findings; be sure data is organized and placed properly

17 – 25 Apr 2017: Final editing/instructor feedback (presentation?)

26 April 2017: Last day of class: Presentation(?)

Dear Ignorance,

Dear Ignorance,

When you hurl words like“to go back your country” or where you are you from, “originally” at me before any introduction or greeting, I wonder if you hear yourself. You hear how in less than thirty seconds you have made me realize that I am not part of this country and there will never be a time when you will ever think I have compromised enough to fit your definition of “American.” The word compromise might sound strange to you because you never demanded of me directly. The dictionary definition of compromise is to settle a dispute by mutual concession but I never saw you give up anything so that we can both coexist. You have asked me to take off my Hijab and get rid of my accent because my Hijab somehow made you uncomfortable and my accent made it hard for you to understand me when I talk.  I agreed. Then you ask me to straighten my hair because it’s too curly or nappy for you to accept that it is someone’s definition of beauty. I once again agreed. That was not enough so you ask me to lighten my skin by bleaching it because being black and having a dark skin is apparently something to be ashamed of; although you are the first in line every time we come up with something new. After all of this, I often find myself thinking about when will the compromises be enough? How many do I have to make before you feel I qualify to be considered “normal American.” When will I be getting my diploma telling me I have now graduated and is accepted into your normal American or was that just one of your many lies.  I wonder if you even realize there is a big difference in being African and African American. You probably don’t because you never had to. I wonder if you know the difference between being an immigrant, an asylum seeker or refugee. Now that I mention these things, you are probably wondering which category I belong in because with your narrow-mindedness comes with your inability to look beyond yourself and find that there “are normal Americans” that could easily fall into these categories.  You are probably now very curious as to which categories I fall into. I will tell you because I am a true believer that we should educate all. I am a refugee. Now that  I mentioned that, the other immediate though you probably have is, where you vetted? This might be hard to believe but the answer is yes, for almost three years. The average is two year, so rest assured. You see, as a refugee, I literally had no choice but to come here because the only time a person leaves their home is when home won’t let you stay. As British Somali poet Warsan Shire put it in her poem “Home.”

          No one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark,

         You only run for the border, when you see the whole city running as well you

 neighbors running faster than you breathe blood in their throats,

When the boy you went to school with who kissed you dizzy behind the old tin factory is holding a gun bigger than his body( lines1-4).

You will never meet a refugee who will tell you otherwise. So next time you have the urge to yell at me with your hateful  I want to you to remember a couple of very simple things. I want you to remember I would not be here if I did not have to. Remember that although I am here I will not compromise where there is no actual compromise.  I will not take off my Hijab or get rid of my accent so that you can feel comfortable. I will not straighten my hair because I enjoy that my hair is curly and your straightener can’t tame it even if it tried. I want you to remember all of these but most importantly I want you to remember that I do not want to fit in your definite of what it means to be an American.



Shire Warsan. Home is the barrel of the gun. Youtube Video, 2;51. Posted by “Paultje Piraat.” May 30th, 2016,

Don’t Ask!

Dear Institutions,

Next time you feel that we are only good enough when you need us to make you look good and you come knocking at our door, please don’t. We more than just a poster child for you. As hard as it for you to believe not all people of color are the same. Any individual of color you meet will never be able to speak for all people of color and you would have known this if you would have just done your basic research. When you find out that I am African, don’t ask me to showcase my culture for you because my culture is not for you to enjoy. Don’t approach us when you are making a video or taking photos so that you can put on your website and claim your “inclusive” “diverse” when you spend the least amount of money on diversity-related events. Don’t disguise tokenism as trying to be “inclusive” when we constantly face systematic, xenophobic and Islamophobic racism on daily basis and when come to you for aid, you look the other way and pretend like it not happening. Don’t ask us to be your token when you let your frat boys and girls have “black face” parties and they face no consequences. Don’t ask me to attend events so that you can use me to make yourself look good in front of the board of trustees. Don’t ask because we see right through the photos, video and the colorful words you use that that you are not seeking to make your institutions more inclusive, you are just trying to mak yourself look decent. Do not ask because people of color have been Institution’s  guinea pig for far too long and we are done.


Akeem Olaj & FreeQuency – “Keep On Token” (Southern Fried). Youtube Video,3.09. Posted by “Button Poetry.”December 4th, 2016,



The Average Black Girl

As a Black Muslim woman being in an academic setting of any sort is always strange. It is 2017 but people still equate intelligence to the color of someone’s skin. I go to a school where there are about twenty-five or so black people so most of the time I am the only black person in my classes. I have lost count of the amount of time I said something in class or to people and people look surprised that I could form an intelligent coherent sentence that they would come up to me afterward and feel the need to congratulate me.They look at me as if they could not believe that I was actually intelligent enough to think that deep. Often people feel the need to pat me on the back saying, “you speak good English.” I often have the urge to tell them that their remark is not a compliment rather an insult and the correct grammar is “you are well spoken” not “you speak good English.” I often wonder if they ever imagined saying that to a white student and realize how they would have sounded. As poet Ernestine Johnson put it.

They say I’m not the average black girl because I’m so well spoken

Poised, full of etiquette, a white man’s token

You know I remember my ex’s mother telling me, “I didn’t know how I was gonna react when he brought home a black girl, but I like you because you talk so white. (lines1-2)

I wonder if they realize I speak more than four languages. I wonder if they realize it only took me less than three months to learn English and by the age of fifteen, I have completely memorized the whole Quran. That the only reason people feel black people can’t be intelligent is because the white men made sure of it for more than 245 years.


Ernestine Johnson Performs ‘The Average Black Girl’ on Arsenio Hall Show.Youtube Video, 4:36.Posted by “Ernestine Johnson.” April 14, 2014,


If you hate it so Much, Than why are you here?


High school is strange in every way possible. I think most high schoolers can agree with me when I say everyone hates it.It gets, even more, stranger when you are Somali girl who wears the Hijab who decides join the cross country. As someone who came to the United State relatively young I never really viewed myself as “other” because I have been around others just like me. Joining a sport that is mostly dominated by white females quickly made me realize that I indeed view as a  “stranger.” Before joining the team I knew that I live in a white state and the people I was interacting with have properly never interacted with people who look like me, but I went in thinking that no matter what happens,  surely they know I am human first and foremost. The fact that most people saw me as a stranger in the sense that I do not fit the typical description became very obvious when an official completely skipped me over because “I did not appear like a runner even though I was wearing a uniform. This was the moment that I realized that there might some truth to why my did not me to join the team.  I loved running and cross country was and continue to one of my favorite sport but I often wonder if it was worth it. If it was worth constantly feeling lonely because there was never another person who look like me let alone have the same beliefs. It was worth dealing with the constant microaggression of racism, Islamophobia, and the xenophobia that followed me everywhere I went.  If it was worth constantly having to defend everything I stood for.  If it was worth being ostracized from my own community because they saw me as the “bad” apple. There are days the answer to these question is because nobody should have a deal with people who are hateful and often choose to remain ignorant. No, because I often look at people and expect the worse even though I try every day to see the best in them. No, because this experience left me having a hard time thinking about the word home since I never felt home anywhere that I have been. No, because I was constantly told I was not good enough to be part of something and after a while, I began to wonder if I  would ever be good enough. But there are always days when the answer to this question is yes because I have learned more about myself in those four years than any period of time in my life.

   I have learned that my struggle was nothing special, in fact, it was far from remotely being special. There were and are countless Muslim refugees who are making their own path unapologetically even though every day they have a deal with people that they constantly telling them that they are not good enough simply because they do not fit the “normal” American description. I learn that this is precisely what I  want these people to see. I  no longer had the desire to succumb to their definition of what being an American means. I have already compromised enough and I no longer had the desire to assimilate and destroy the remaining things that made me, me!


Women of the World Poetry Slam Finals 2016 – Emi Mahmoud. Youtube Video, 3:32. Posted by“Poetry Slam Inc.” March 30, 2016,


Who are you?

My name is Mana, and I am just like any other twenty-something junior who sometimes feels she has figured out what she want from life and the next second will be freaking out because she is afraid it won’t work out that way. I am just like any other college student who would rather binge on Netflix for good portion of my day than do any of my assignments. I like to believe that I hate injustice and bullied no matter who is being done to. Though I have been vegetarian for almost seven years, I will do anything to avoiding having to eat vegetables and or fruits. I just don’t like them. I consider myself outgoing, vocal about the issues that I find important, stubborn and most importantly always testing the boundaries of what is considered “normal. All of this combined with my faith and being a Somali is who I am but this is rarely what many people assume of me.People never really afforded me the luxury of using me who I am rather they ask their favorite question  Where are you from? As a practicing black Somali Muslim woman I am usually not that surprised by this question but I often find myself wondering what made them ask this specific question instead of the many others that they could have ask. Being asked where I am from has now become a normal routine of how people start a conversation with me and I am always left with some question of why.

The fact that people ask me where I am from is not the problem or the strangest part of this situation but rather it the fact that these people ask me this before they find out anything about me simply because of the way I look. There are more than 3.3 million Muslims living in the United States and a good portion of these people are born here and are just as American as any non-Muslim individuals. This appears to not matter because even in 2017 the religion, skin color, and gender still of an individual still determine if someone is good enough to be American. The other strange thing k about this conversation is the fact that the process of otherization and dehumanization is happening and often it is done by people with good intentions. I don’t mind people asking where I am from, in fact, I love when people ask me where I am from because it gives me the opportunity to talk about being born in Kenya. The problem with some of the people asking is that they are often asking to confirm their assumption about me being a foreigner which is the result of us vs them mentality in the United States. This often leads to the dehumanization of immigrant and or anybody who appear “different”. Their  lines of questions and inquiries makes having a  “normal “ conversation however that may be defined, incredibility difficult because they make seem like they are not able to have conversation just like they would with anybody who does not look like me talking to just another regular human being without making the conversation about the fact that “I appear different from the rest.” Whenever I am in this kind of situations the phenomenon of dehumanization of people who look like me is often apparent because many of this individual don’t interact with us in the stander of “normal” human interaction. For example, I have recently watched the movie “Get Out”(2017) and there were many issues the movie tackled but there is this one scene where the boyfriend(Chris Washington) of the girl(Rose Armitage) is talking to her dad and he keep on bring up about the fact that he would have voted for Obama for the third time if he could. The problem here is not that Rose dad liked Obama that much but he was dehumanizing Chris by showcasing his own believes that a person who looks different from him could not have “normal conversation” with him. He thought by gearing the conversation toward something Chris can understand he was extending a hand of unity when in fact he was showcasing that he thought Chris is inferior to him. My constant experience of being asked where I am from as if there is no way I could possibly be an American is eerily similar to this in many ways.  “Nice” liberals who insist of their non-racism while not actually engaging or regularly encountering any actual Refugees, immigrants and or Asylum seekers yet continue to ask a question that they really don’t want to know the answer to.  

As I have mentioned before, I don’t mind people asking me where I am from but I have been in this game for long enough to know the difference of who is asking because they are genuinely curious and who is asking just to confirm all the assumption that they have about me. I have to stop being offended or taking things personally because over the past couple of years I learn what it means to not easily connected with any particular community. I have learned how to stand up for myself when hateful comments and threats get out of hand but I have also learned what it means to walk away and ignore because I found it to be frustrating and time-consuming.  I’ve found comfort in knowing that I exist where I am, always between communities, always between places.



Making sense of the strangeness

In the process of making sense of the strangeness that surrounds us, one must ask what is being “normal American”  and proceed to ask is that the normal that they want to be part of. Depending who you ask, whether they be female, male, old, young, black, white religious, atheist, Republican, Democrats It is guaranteed that one will get a variety of different answers. In this guarantee of a variety of different answers is also the things that often lead us to create categories such as “Us vs. them” mentality, Social norms, and most importantly the ability to impose an identity on others. The “Us vs Them” mentality prevents us from expanding our horizon and circle of people. Social norms are designed to make us feel comfortable with the positions that society made us believe we belong in. Granted the severity of this differentiates but as human beings we all have the tendency to fear what we do not know so imposing identities makes feel better about our placement in the world. At any given time someone is being asked to separate, conform and accept by others and often these demands are being done by people who genuinely believe they are doing what is in our best interest and this is the problem.We pretend that we know people even though we realize as human being we are incredibly complicated. No two souls could ever have the same stories so if we want to better understand all the things that appear strange to us, let’s first be okay with the fact that strangeness is normal. Hopefully, by normalizing the things we find strange we will be able to not demand other to separate, conform and accepted things the way in which we perceived them to be “normal”.  In doing this project I realized that I’ve found comfort in knowing that I exist where I am, always between communities, always between places.