October 11, 2011

Reflections on the auto-ethnographic essay


Detroit Free Press Headline U.S. Kills Bin LadenOn the morning of my first drive into Dearborn to begin my internship at the Arab American National Museum, the ether was aflutter transmitting the news of Osama Bin Laden’s death.  The day was May 2, 2011, and only hours before my morning commute had the news broke.

The chatter on the radio ran the rhetorical gamut of expressing satisfaction, pride, aversion, and disdain. Needless to say, I, as a Palestinian American preparing to assert my ethnic identity more strongly and politically than I ever had before by stepping into the museum as an employee, felt like I could vomit. Between the nerves that come with starting a new gig, stepping out of
my comfort zone of graduate school (never thought graduate school and comfort could be in the same sentence), wondering whether or not I was even Arab enough to be worthy of working at the museum (this sensibility is the result of a childhood taking place in a predominantly white, all-conservative Midwestern suburb, where it was best for my family and I to act as white-washed as possible), and my swirling head filled with Osama Bin Laden commentary, my mind was in full-throttle, get-me-off-this-ride protection mode.

This perfect storm of identity confrontation and rampant news coverage made for a moment that, in my grad-school-driven mind, seemed perfect fodder for an auto-ethnographic essay by a media and cultural studies scholar. While I was at first excited to begin writing down my ideas and turn them into an auto- ethnographic tour de force, questions of ethics began to quiet my fantasies of grandeur. These questions began as soon as I realized how connected and reliant my experience was with my new-found colleagues (and, later, friends) experiences. Without  outing” their dissenting, consenting, or a mixture of  both opinions on the excitement, for lack of a better term, of that day after the death of Osama Bin Laden, my experience would not make sense; and because the inter-subjective grapples among myself and my colleagues, who are mostly Arab American and all highly in-tuned to Arab World politics, are completely interwoven with my experience of that day, I feel that cutting out some conversations (or overheard conversations) would be a superficial representation of my experience that day.

Ultimately, this made me reflect upon the auto-ethnographic essay (and other ethnography broadly-speaking) as a form of knowledge itself and troubling ethical questions it posed for me in this moment.  Never before had I felt so strongly about wanting to turn this day’s experience into an essay, yet at the same time never before had I felt so challenged by ethical concerns of
disclosure and privacy.

Alas, as a budding academic striving to also work on public scholarship, I write, edit, and re-write my notes and journal entries from that week, contemplating my conundrum of having my feet in both the academy and non-profit cultural institution.

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