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Cultivating A Knack For Cross-Cultural Understanding

When I was an undergraduate student at the University of Minnesota in the 1990s, during the height of conservative efforts to repeal affirmative action, I often found myself the lone Indian-American attending demonstrations by minority-student groups to save it.

I used to also be the only non-Black person at the Africana Student Center because it was the best place to study (the couches were comfortable!). But in my interactions with African-American students, I found it interesting that so many of them were surprised by my association with other minority students, particularly Blacks and Latinos.

That’s because there is a perception that South Asian Americans too often try to emulate Whiteness, and as a result, disassociate themselves from other communities of color. I have to admit my experience is a bit exceptional. I owe a lot of my racial outlook to my father, who lived in mostly minority areas in Toronto and southern New Jersey before I was born.

After college, I realized I had a knack for fitting in with different ethnic and racial groups, and that I should use that knack to help foster better cross-cultural understanding. I tried to use my journalism skills for that purpose.

Now, nearly a decade and a career switch later, I’m teaching Black students about the African-American experience in mass media. As I prepare to teach this course, I have recalled many of the conversations I’ve had with friends and fellow educators on whether non-Blacks are qualified to teach courses on the African-American experience.

I used to agree with many of my friends that White people shouldn’t be able to teach Black studies courses, but as I grew older, I realized that was a hypocritical position to take. After all, should that mean that Black educators cannot teach European history courses? Or that Hindus cannot teach courses on Islam or Christianity?

In drawing up the syllabus for a course called African-Americans and the Media, I tried to be sensitive to the idea that I have had some similar but many different experiences with media and popular culture than my Black students. I’m using this course to expose students to the various discourses about Blackness in popular culture and I also want to share some of my research, which focuses on the cultural production of Black masculinity.

Still, I have to be mindful of discourses about ownership, particularly who has the right to teach Black studies courses at a university that is more than 95 percent African-American. In my interactions with students, I hope to embrace my scholarly authority yet appreciate my Otherness in some of the provocative discussions that are bound to take place in class.

It should be an interesting course, especially since a number of my students are keen on pursuing graduate studies in mass communication. I hope I can give them a fresh perspective that will resonate with their experiences, yet give them a different outlook on the conceptualization of African-American identity in media.

At the least, teaching this course will probably invoke some flashbacks to my days at the Africana Student Center.

Dr. Murali Balaji is an assistant professor in the Department of English and Mass Communications at Lincoln University.

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