A large crowd of students and faculty gave a standing ovation to Georgetown University sociology professor and social critic Michael Eric Dyson after he addressed them at SUNY Fredonia’s King Concert Hall on Thursday.
Dyson talked as part of the college’s annual Maytum Convocation Series. He spoke on the impact of culture on minority self-image, a topic to fit in with this year’s convocation theme: Raising cultural awareness and building global relations.
“Cultures embody the aspirations of the people who make up that culture and sometimes those ideals and aspirations work against the best interests of some others who don’t find themselves necessarily affirmed in the broad reach of those cultures,” he said.
Dyson said that a culture has an impact in shaping what a person thinks about themselves in the form of “cues.” These cues either affirm or deny one’s basic humanity and how they view themselves when compared to those “in the mainstream.”
“In American society, we often have dominant culture imposed upon people who come from minority traditions,” he said. “Culture … has the power to impose upon you a sense of greatness or it can deprive you of a sense of significance.”
Dyson referenced various examples to explain his point, including the George Zimmerman trial, the political notion and “blanket judgment” that poor people do not work hard enough and numerous suicides of gay teenagers. He said minorities find themselves fighting against what the public views them as, even when they are not explicitly discriminated against. In other words, norms cannot exist without some sort of exclusion, which can even be seen amongst people in the same minority group who try to bend to the will of the majority.
“The very fact that they don’t fit into the norm, what is dominant, suggests somehow that they are either inferior or don’t measure up,” he said. “We do this regardless of race or class or color. Even as we have changed our laws, the folklore, the mythology, the culture of American dominance suggests that even when the laws change, the perceptions don’t.”
SUNY Fredonia President Virginia Horvath praised Dyson’s visit and said he had spent time with student groups and staff after his speech.
“He was gracious and warm with them,” she said. “His use of pop culture references helped them understand his message of how culture works. It also challenged them to question their own roles in today’s culture and how they can shape it, giving it some perspective in their lives. He definitely resonated with them, as seen in the standing ovation they gave him.”
Dyson is a host for a news talk program on National Public Radio, where he “delivers thoughtful analysis of today’s biggest stories and topics ranging from pop culture to race relations,” according to a SUNY Fredonia press release.
Saundra Liggins, a English professor at Fredonia, echoed Horvath’s sentiments.
“He delivered a great speech that was informational and inspirational,” she said. “He made sure his point was relevant to students and his use of pop culture icons, such as Jay-Z and the Kardashians, made the way he was talking much more accessible to them. He was able to reconfirm for me the importance of diversity, not just on a college campus, but the world. Without diversity, we are missing out on all the different ways we contribute to society.”
Liggins said she teaches African American literature, which shares a connection with Dyson’s message.
“Not a lot of students are exposed to it, but I hope I’m contributing to a sense of diversity teaching how African Americans experience life in this country,” she said.
Dyson concluded that while culture can hinder, the beauty of it is that it is malleable and can challenge narrow beliefs, which can be seen in the election of an African American president.
“Our narrow beliefs are a prison, but our open minds are a horizon to new pathways,” he said. “When we do that, then the self-image of minorities is strengthened and America becomes a greater nation because we live up to the meaning of our creed, ‘E pluribus unum:’ ‘Out of many, one.'”
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