OCCU hosts panel on combating the single story at Sewanee

Panelists Dr. Jeffrey Thompson, David Johnson (C’19), Jasmine Huang (C’21), and Dr. Emmanuel Asiedu-Acquah. Photo by Sarah Marhevsky from the Office of Global Citizenship.

Alicia Wikner
Executive Staff

“Representations” is the Organization for Cross-Cultural Understanding’s (OCCU) year-long project spearheaded by their president Mandy Moe Pwint Tu (C’21), an international student from Myanmar. Following a poster campaign which highlighted quotes on representations, last week it kicked off with its first event in a series of many with the panel: “Combating the Single Story.” The panel featured Dr. Jeffrey Thompson, Dr. Emmanuel Asiedu-Acquah, Jasmine Huang (C’21), and David Johnson (C’19).

Starting off with a shortened version of Chimamanda Adichie’s TED Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story,” the audience was given a brief look into what exactly “a single story” means. In her words, it is “the unintended consequence [that she] did not know that people like [her] could exist in literature. So what the discovery of African writers did for [her] was this: It saved [her] from having a single story of what books are.”

While introducing the panel, Tu touched on her own experiences of combating the single story as an international student having come to Sewanee, which has a rather homogenous cultural presence, and her desires as this year’s president of OCCU.

“I don’t expect this project to change every single-story narrative that exists in Sewanee. All I’m hoping is to start a conversation. This is what the panel discussion is about: getting us to talk…not only for multicultural students, but for the university as a whole,” Tu said.

The first question of the evening was, “How do we perpetuate single stories? What single stories have you heard about yourself, and which ones have you perpetuated?”

Huang described her difficulty growing up as Asian-American in the American South and how other childrens’ racist comments about her parents led to a lot of internal conflict for her as a young girl. “Growing up in deep, American south…there are weird stereotypes about Asians. It was really hard seeing how my parents coped with that. As a child, you see your parents at the center of the world. So when you see others disrespect them, it becomes really hard,” she said.

Huang continued, “It wasn’t until later that I began to understand what these racial issues meant, and how they would affect my family. When I was young I thought it was just an attack on my family, but when I grew up I realized it was about my cultural identity.”

Photo by Luke Williamson (C’21).

Johnson talked about how his identity as a black man has subsequently shaped his world view. “My story is rooted in my race. Not because I want it that way, it’s just the life that was bestowed upon me,” he said.

To Johnson, it’s not necessarily negative to have had a race-conscious framing of his life, as he explained he “[is] often reinvigorated because I see the systemic trials people of color have faced. I also see it as a beauty, because we have been able to persevere. The color aspect has been the framework of my story, unfortunately. My color is usually what guides my thoughts and my visions.”

After that, the focus of the panel shifted to the classroom and what professors can do to foster classrooms that welcome these stories.

Thompson, who teaches art history, explained his wishes for the students who take his classes. “[I want] to instill in students a critical approach to how representation occurs. On one level, the single story is helpful because it establishes a baseline upon which [the critique] can be built.”

He added, “To give students license to put themselves in a critical position…I find that to be an opportunity for other voices to enter into discussion or establish a critical or inclusive position in the classroom. To leave the classroom with tools. To perhaps even critique that dominant viewpoint.”

Asiedu-Acquah, professor of International and Global Studies, who came to America to continue his studies before turning to teaching, is particularly aware of this added dimension to the classroom whenever there is an international student present. During his time as an international student, Asiedu-Acquah said, “Language was not an issue for me. But there are other things in the classroom I found challenging. I came from a culture where discussion was not really [a part of education].”

This difference in cultural experiences is something often unnoticed by professors and students alike. To combat this, Asiedu-Acquah suggested that professors take a more active role in the integration of international students.

“[In America] I had ideas, but I was unsure how to debate and contribute to discussions. It took my professor to gradually bring me into the conversation. If you’re an international student, my advice is, over time you build the confidence to contribute. As a teacher, you should be looking out for them and find ways to bring them in,” he explained.

The OCCU has more in store for the Representations project as the year goes on; the next part of Representations will be a photo project later this semester, as well as an event focused on conversations about representation.