Wheaton joins together to discuss cultural appropriation

On November 9, Wheaton faculty hosted a Teach-in on cultural appropriation, after a series of recent club events sparked by the Halloween blackface incident. The Teach-in covered four topics: the history of blackface, privilege, intersectionality, and the ongoing topic of cultural appropriation. The event was held in the chapel, with every bench packed to capacity.

The talk began with an introduction by Professor Dolita Cathcart in which she focused on the importance of the event and on the need for Wheaton to band together as a community. “The Wheaton bubble is a microcosm of the world we live in, and it is hurting,” she said. “Critical thinking is even more important outside the classroom… we have created a place of willingness to think and consider.”

Four speakers followed Professor Cathcart, each speaking to a different aspect of the overall conversation.

The first speech was given by Professor of History Kathryn Tomasek, who gave a short talk on the history of blackface in the American context. She began her lesson by discussing Thomas Rice, the first person to wear blackface, and his contribution to the popularity of blackface in pre-Civil War America. “He made his living making fun of slaves,” she said. “It is important for all of us to understand the centrality of cultural appropriation to the discrimination and devaluing of African Americans.”

The next of the speakers was Professor of Sociology Karen McCormack. In her speech, she focused on the topic of defining and understanding privilege, saying that “privilege is the unearned advantages of a dominant group,” and that “the greatest white privilege is the belief that there is no white privilege.”

McCormack concluded by discussing how to recognize and use privilege in a positive manner.”It is my responsibility to elevate those around me who don’t have the same privilege,” she said.

The next speaker was Professor of Biology Bob Morris. Morris elaborated on the reality of privilege, noting his own realization early in his 15-year career at Wheaton that the “daily lived experience [of Professors of color] was different from my own.” Morris went on to say that “ignoring privilege does not help.”

The final speaker, Professor Kate Mason, spoke both for herself and for Abigail Cohen, the leader of disability services at Wheaton. Intersectionality was the focus of Mason’s speech. “Racism and racial identity don’t exist in a vacuum,” she said. Representation of minority groups based on “claims about the body” are “often used to keep minority groups ‘in their place’,” she said, noting that “physical features [are used] as proof of their natural inferiority.”

Mason concluded by stating that “intersectionality is the theory, coalition is the practice.”

The concluding speaker, Professor of Psychology Peony Fhagen, spoke about cultural appropriation in a general sense, stating that “the dominant culture exploits… minorities.” She went on to say that “culture and cultural markers are used as a form of property” in a capitalist system, and that we need to exchange “respectively, as equals.”

After the final speaker, attendees were asked to disperse into small groups for further discussion. These groups then reconvened in the chapel for a final debriefing and discussion, where many students shared their impressions and feelings in the wake of their small-group discussions. Many were hopeful about the future, though students and faculty alike expressed their desire to keep the conversation going.

In the hours following the teach-in, the Center for Social Justice and Community Impact hosted a screening of the movie Bamboozled, which highlights the history of blackface and ongoing racism in today’s society. Students, community members and faculty held a discussion after the film where many individuals stressed the importance of the conversation being held and the need for its continuation.