Culture and art are intimately tied with the creation of identities. Our academic studies and reflections on culture can be deeply personal. In NU’s third Racial Literacy Pop Up event, presenters shared their expertise related to poetry, art, and museums. The emphasis of white cultural perspectives can obscure BIPOC experiences, even when they are supposed to be centerstage. Nicole Aljoe, Professor of Africana Studies, studies eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Black Atlantic Literature and introduced the panel, noting when BIPOC culture is purposefully featured in art and culture, the last few centuries look very different. Panelists discussed ways to decenter whiteness, focusing on the ways that a lack of cultural representation perpetuates bias and inequitable access and participation in institutions, and the ways that diverse people’s perspectives and representation can transform institutions into something more equitable.
Gloria Sutton, Professor of Contemporary Arts, reflected on positionality and its relationship to her scholarship. Borrowing from Patricia Hill Collins and Kimberly Crechshaw, positionality describes how identity (gender, race, class) relates to the perspectives we hold. Powerfully, Sutton remarked, “my own lived experience continues to serve as my radical pedagogy.” Eunsong Kim, Professor of English, followed a similar vein in her remarks. Growing up, she loved reading, but books by white authors made up the majority of the reading material recommended to her. She astutely links this to majority-white run libraries -people simply referred her to authors that they knew. A powerful piece of both scholars’ narratives is the impact of BIPOC art and literature on their contemporary work – and the need to ensure that incoming generations have access to a wide range of authors and artists.
Culture plays a huge role in identity formation. Melissa Pearson, Teaching Professor of English, posed the question of how this impacts individuality? Pearson teaches introductory writing courses, and so she is often the first exposure students have to NU. At the start of each semester, Pearson works with her students to create a community agreement. The agreement focuses on how talking about race can be uncomfortable – like we’ve mentioned in previous reflections, sometimes it’s important to feel that discomfort. Pearson and her students work through these difficult conversations as they engage in their reading and writing assignments.
Recently in academia, there has been contention over cultural appropriation. Often there are many conversations during Halloween – a holiday famous for taglines like, “My culture is not your costume.” Five years ago, Rachel Dolezol was exposed for posing as a black woman. Today, we’ve seen a reemergence of these discussions as more professors in academia have admitted to impersonating a culture that they themselves were not born into. Academia has monetized marginalized identities to such an extent that BIPOC cultures now have become symbolic of individuality and expertise. In 2015, Andrea Smith falsely claimed Cherokee heritage. This past year, Jess Krug (Jess la Bombalera) was revealed to be manufacturing her latinx ‘accent’ and past. All three used these impersonations to access communities, scholarships, and resources they otherwise would not have access to.
Dr. Pearson gave her own interpretation of these trends in a post Pop Up interview. Pearson remarked, “You do more harm focusing on someone else’s victimization and not on your own positionality.” One of the more troubling aspects of appropriation like this is that it paints BIPOC groups in only one or two dimensions, creating a narrative seen by outsiders as the only one BIPOC individuals can inhabit. This might be the stereotype of an angry black woman, or a subservient Asian woman. Narratives like this are intensely harmful to communities. As an English teacher, Dr. Pearson is very aware of the danger of telling the single story– something she tries to impart upon the first year students who go through her class. Instead, she advises white people to look more into their own responsibility, “I want to see white narratives of racism by white people…it’s the non-interrogation of white culture which leads to situations like this.”