Podcast featuring Dr. Bjorn Mercer, Program Director, Communication, Philosophy, Religion, World Languages and the Arts and
Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson, Faculty Member, English
Many different things can contribute to a person’s sense of identity including culture, location, ethnicity, religion, and more. In this episode, Dr. Bjorn Mercer talks to APU English professor Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson about the concept of intersectionality, which allows people to understand how their own identity can change based on differing circumstances and why it’s so important to be open-minded in order to understand other people’s identities and backgrounds.
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Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Hello, my name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer. And today we’re talking to Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson, Assistant Faculty of English in the School of Arts and Humanities. And our conversation today is about intersectionality. And welcome, Jennifer.
Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: Hi Bjorn, thanks for having me.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Yeah, definitely. This is a very interesting topic. It’s very now, and I don’t mean to disregard that or anything like that, but it’s something that I think people need to understand and toget behind, which can help a lot of people understand current issues, current, just their fellow neighbor, just so many different things. And so I’m going to go and jump into the first question is: Can you explain what is meant by the intersection of culture and identity?
Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: So I think what’s going to help people most is actually understanding what culture is and how it affects identity. So in the very simple list of terms, culture is a word for the way of life that groups people—meaning the way they do things.
So excellence of taste in the fine arts and humanities is known as high culture, and having an integrated pattern of human knowledge belief and behavior outlooks and attitudes starts to inform a society. So as we start to look at the ideas of the intersection of culture and identity, you also have to understand what an intersection is. And a lot of people have never really heard of it or don’t understand it.
Kimberly Crenshaw, who is a law professor and a social theorist actually first coined the term in 1989 in her paper “Demarginalizing the intersection of race and sex.” And what she said about intersectionality, is intersectionality allows us to understand the ways that multiple forms of disadvantage can cause obstacles that might not be understood.
And so that sounds like a lot of huge and heavy topics and it kind of is. But what it starts to look at is the different identities that you possess. So since you’re talking to me, I get to use myself as a great example. So I’m an assistant professor, I’m also a mother, I’m a daughter, I’m an aunt. So I have all these different forms of identity that inform people who they think I am in that moment. And how that starts to inform your culture is how you feel accepted in different activities that you do.
So, one of my biggest examples of this and I had to laugh about it a little bit. I was at a writer’s conference and what you get at writer’s conference, and especially if it’s a romance writers conference, which I love, it’s a great group of people there, they tend to have a little bit of a pushback if you teach writing, or if you teach English.
And I understand that some people get nervous, they think they’re going to be judged because it’s what I do for a living. So I smiled and went and introduced myself and they asked what I did for a living, and I was like, “I teach Zumba,” which is also true. I wasn’t lying. I am a Zumba instructor, but I figured it would be a little more welcoming, and we would have better conversations, and we did until lunchtime.
And then they were offering cheesecake for dessert, and it does weird things to me so I asked for a fruit plate and all of a sudden, everybody looked at me, they’re like, “Oh, so the athletic one doesn’t eat cheesecake.”So by trying to fit in, I actually ostracized myself in a way that I never saw coming and I thought it was funny. But it’s that kind of intersections.
However, what we find is that misunderstanding of how people have different identities through different cultures makes it hard for people to exist in spaces comfortably. For example, when I teach in a class what I have found over my years of teaching is I always have Black females come to me, not as a professor at all. They come to me for life advice, relationship advice, scholarly advice sometimes, but they see me, they see representation and they figure I’m a safe space to talk to, which is awesome and that’s great.
However, where it becomes a disadvantage is when you are teaching and you’re writing and trying to publish, and you’re trying to do things to help advance your career, having this extra pot of students come to you to give them advice and offer them solace and shelter is not something necessarily that the Dean sees.
So it’s not something that I can necessarily write up an annual review that, “Oh, I have all these students that come and talk to me that I, you know, mentor.” And so in some regards, my annual review may look a little lackluster, like I’m not doing as much because that is not something that the Deans see that comes onto my plate, if that makes sense.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: No, and that totally makes sense. And one of the things you said early on was a certain component of a person that’s not understood by others, I believe was that correct?
Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: Correct.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And I think that is one of the things about intersectionality that really hit home with me is we all live in the bodies we have, and we’re born that way, we have nothing to do with it. But at the same time, we all were born into a household, and to a locality, and to a culture which then responds to those bodies.
And we have nothing to do again with the bodies, but the culture around us is the culmination of everything that everybody else has done throughout their history and the past. And so, you know, the far past might seem like a distant memory, but it’s still living today.
And so I’m always amazed how people are completely unable to understand the experiences, the lived experiences of others. And to me, that’s one of the things about our intersectionality that is so important is just don’t judge, just listen, and to see what people have lived, because whatever you’ve lived actually might not be universal.
And sometimes people don’t realize that their lived experiences is unique to them, unique to sometimes our culture, is sometimes privileged, sometimes tragic. I mean, all these different things that are wrapped up in culture and then also wrapped up in intersectionality.
Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: Absolutely. Some of the best experiences that I’ve had, where I forget, because my favorite saying is “You think as you do.” So automatically, you’re situated with how you think, because you kind of assume that everybody should think like you, because that’s how you think.
But I come from an adoptive family. So I have a sister who is from South Korea, I have two other sisters that were born in different places around the US. Me and one sister are both biracial. My other sister has physical disabilities. So we came from kind of a very melting pot family.
But coming back to you think as you do, my next youngest sister, who’s two years younger than me and I were out at a party, because that’s what you do when you’re 20. And this guy came up to me and I had known him and he’s like, “Man, I’m totally in love with your best friend.” And I had to like close my mouth and then understand he didn’t understand she was my sister because she was Korean, and we look absolutely nothing alike. He didn’t know that we were raised up together.
But that was one of the moments that really drove home to me, that this experience that I have is nobody else’s. And that’s when I started looking into it a little bit more of how do you function in these spaces. And even more so how do you function in spaces that don’t necessarily want your brown body, but they want your intellect?
That was the start of my learning about looking into intersectionality and why it’s so important for people to understand sometimes the best thing you can do is close your mouth and listen before offering anything else up.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Oh, completely. And I think in the current political environment and just talking, you know, we’re recording here in December of 2020, so the election occurred and nobody’s listening to each other. And honestly, politically nobody’s listened to each other for a full generation and it’s particularly heartbreaking.
And even if you go back to political history, people oftentimes don’t listen to each other anyways, but luckily in the US things typically get done. And when I say, typically you get done, the roads work, the water is mostly clean here in Michigan. The water is mostly clean.
Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: I live close enough to Flint to know that’s not always true.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Yeah. That’s why I always have a qualitative mostly. You know, and so, and that’s one of the good things of the US, things mostly get done. Like the political corruption is hidden, luckily, and the average person doesn’t have to suffer too much, but always the caveat. There are many, many people who, who then do suffer.
And so this leads me to the second question is what are some of the ethics that arise from identity? And of course, ethics is always a very tricky term because ethics, the cultural norms, ethical norms change depending on the generation, and they vary depending on who you are, where you are and what color you are.
Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: Right. And a lot of times it not only comes down to color, but it comes down to the frameworks of times, and places, and the labels that are associated with them. So identity is so fluid is the best term I have for it because nobody sees you the same way.
So I have many identities. Again, it comes back to is my identity being professor, is my identity being mother, is my identity being instructor? And I would hope that I carry the same set of values, ethics, and morals through each of those positions, through various methods of practice.
But it also depends on place, because I can’t always have a relaxed attitude if I am in teaching in a physical building that I can if I’m teaching online. Then that’s just the understanding of safety, of safety that’s around, of safety of students that I am there responsible for. But understanding even rhetorical identities makes the interesting idea of your identity being set into a place, a little stronger.
And so, I think one of the ideas that I carry with identity is something that I’ve said to my kids often and my children are biracial as well. They’re very, very light-skinned and their identity is as white young men until I walk in the room and they call me mom. And all of a sudden their identity morphs, it absolutely 100% morphs and I’ve seen it. And thankfully, most adults are really good about covering shock up, but parent teacher conferences show me [a different type of change due to identity.]
And intrinsically what ends up happening, especially with parent teacher conferences, they end up learning that I’m an educator. So all of a sudden it doesn’t matter what their cultural identity is anymore, what they understand is, “Oh, your mom’s an educator. You can’t actually get away with anything. She’s going to be on top of it.”
But it’s that notion of identity that I think comes back to our first question with intersectionality, it’s why people don’t listen. People have a very firmly rooted sense of their identity, of their culture, of their ancestry and of their place.
And some people are not willing to give up that very rooted notion of this is who my lineage is, this is how I’ve been informed to be, and I’m not going to give that up. And a part of that is it’s comfortable. You get real comfortable being in this spot and knowing who you are and the real challenge of allowing yourself to grow and experience doesn’t always come without a lot of hard work and change.
And one of the bigger things as well, and 2020 is terrible for this, and I’m very disappointed, it has zapped travel down to nothing. And a lot of times I found the people that are most resistant to change have never, ever traveled, and not just like, “Oh, they’ve never gone to Europe, but like going to another state” hasn’t really been in the purview.
So identity is these ideas that you carry within yourself of knowing who you are. And honestly, as an adopted person, that sense of identity has always been very different for me because I’ve understood that I am adopted. I chose not to pursue who my birth parents were and then had my sense of identity rocked one more time where I was in downtown Detroit. And they had casinos built a while ago as to revitalize the city. And I was there with my husband for our anniversary and an older lady walked up to me, stopped me dead in the face and looked at me and she’s like, “I know you’re not my granddaughter.” She’s like, “But you’re definitely my family.” And so then I’m freaking out. I’m like, “What?”
So my sense of identity, then again pushed me back into, “Right, but you’re an adopted child. So yeah, you, you actually do have a biological family out there, somewhere running around.” But it’s those unsettling moments that I think actually allow us to grow a little bit and explore this identity of, “I’m not this one person who does this one thing, I’m actually very multifaceted.”
And learning how to be interested and examine other cultures as a point of they’re not only valid, they’re relevant. And understanding this new set of ways that people do things is the only way you do grow, and you do open your mind to experiencing new things instead of staying small, staying sheltered, and quite frankly, I think being afraid. Because you might find that the glory that you think is your family lineage may not be as glorious as it is common, and most people just don’t want to be common.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: No, it’s true. And one of the things that you said just really hit home with me is some people don’t want to leave wherever they are because it’s comfortable. And, and honestly, for humans to be consistent and probably grow, they need comfort, honestly. They need to have a job that’s consistent. They need to have a relationship that’s consistent. They need to have safety that’s consistent.
But one of the things that allows you to grow is then is interacting with people whom are not like you. And that can mean a lot of different things. It could literally just mean that, you know, for one thing, you’re a Democrat and you’re interacting with a Republican and, you know, they’re the same skin, whatever, just different ideas, that’s great.
But then there’s other ways in which you’re interacting with people who are from different parts of the country, you’re interacting with people whom are a different color. You’re acting with people whom are from different countries and you instantly then have to go beyond what you know, and what you believe and try to understand them.
I’m like, well, it’s not that simple, but you know, people love to really talk about simplistic answers to really complex things. And just one of the real, realdisappointments in American history is really coming to grips with slavery and then generations of not addressing that problem.
Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: My personal take on that, again comes to a comfort level and where people actually see themselves and not wanting to be just a common person, just someone. And I think part of that comes from the failure to accurately teach history.
And so, so many conversations that I’ve had with truly wonderful people and they were conversations and they weren’t heated arguments, but talking about how plenty of American families that were in the South, who hold so tightly to this notion of being superior and they had not been enslaved people. No, but your family still was picking cotton for the plantation owner, you were just making a couple of nickels a day instead of having been enslaved.
And I think part of that stubbornness is people holding onto the idea of the American dream. If you work hard enough, you can be in the top, you can be the billionaire, you can have all of these things.
And not being able to see that the generational wealth that those in the top have had and have kept, and have managed to propagate, you know, with tax payouts, they don’t have the generational wealth any more than the poor Black families anymore, than the poor Asian families. You’re actually in the same boat, but they have a hard time reckoning and reconciling that because they’ve been sold this dream of you can do better.
And I think that’s the insidious thing about systematic racism that people don’t talk about and maybe don’t actually understand. And a lot of times, I’ll hear people say, “Oh, well, the system is broken.” No, the system works exactly how the system was designed to work. What’s broken is that people don’t understand that when things are set up against women, against minorities, against people who don’t tick certain boxes, that the people who benefit from those systems will never seek to end it because they’re comfortable with it.
So, easy example of being pulled over driving while Black, people say it all the time, I’ve experienced it. And my adoptive mother who is white, who is my mom, that’s the only mom I have she has never, ever experienced that. And I had to sit her down as an adult in my 30s and explain, “No, this is a real thing.” And she’s like, “Well,” I was like, “Mom, it happened to me.” You know, I said, “it happened like six months ago. And the cop came to my [car] door, hand on holster, hand on holster.”
What I was doing is I was going to a holiday party in a very wealthy, very white affluent neighborhood. And he flat out told me, he’s like, “We don’t see your kind here.” Showed them the invitation and everything, but, and not that my mother is a horrible person at all, absolutely not. She quite frankly was open enough to adopt children from all over the globe and definitely wants equality for everything.
But I think that comes back to our earlier conversation where if you don’t experience it, somehow it’s not real. It’s something that happens to somebody who is intrinsically doing something wrong. So if you’re misbehaving, of course, you’re being called out on. But the concept that just killed her was her daughter was going to a faculty Christmas party that she had been invited to and still went through the scare of a cop coming up to her window, hand on holster.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: That’s reality. And that’s, I think a lot of people don’t realize that I’ve never been stopped. I’ve been stopped once because it was a holiday and people usually drink on that holiday and I swerved a little and the cop said, “Hey, you swerved.” I’m like, “Actually I wasn’t drinking.” So, you know, he let me go. Now I was stopped one other time whenmy license plate was expired. Besides that, no I’ve never been stopped.
It’s one of the things that I wrote about in one of my early blog posts in which I described in my blog was called Anonymous Bjorn, because I quickly realized that one of the blessings and one of the privileges that I have had in my life is that I’m anonymous. And although that makes it sound like I’m not special, just like you were saying, people want to be special, but it has allowed me to navigate this world without ever being noticed.
And that allows you to live though. And unfortunately, you know, say if I was a Black male, like you had said, just driving, you’re stopped while Black, or if you’re going into a business, people could be suspicious. And why? Literally just because of the skin.
And it really makes me think of a great story that I heard Eddie Glaude Jr. say/ Eddie Glaude Jr. the very, very famous Princeton professor about his son being at a park, just doing a research project. And some cops came by and said, “What are you doing here?” And he said, “I’m just doing a research project.” I think he was at Brown or something.
And here this highly regarded professor who has written such amazing books, got a call and he was just rocked that my son could have been shot because as the son said, the cops came, “What are you doing?” The second cop behind him had his hand on his holster.
And of course my question is I could easily as say a white male, be like, “Why would…No. That, that doesn’t happen? That’s never happened to me. I don’t know. I don’t know any of my friends who’s that happened to.” But then that discounts what actually happens with people. And so going back to understanding what other people’s lives are, it’s just listening, listening to what they have gone through and realizing that, yes, this does happen.
To follow up on the ethics of identity, one of the things I’d like to tell people is, and I got these stats from census, so the US government census, is let’s see, income summary of 2017 to 2018 is the white, non-Hispanic, because of course the census had white as including Hispanic for many years. The median household income was about $70,000 for white non-Hispanic, and for black was $40,000. So that is a difference of $30,000.
And so when you talk about like a starting line in the game of life, so the Black household is already 40% behind and that’s on average, taking the culmination of everybody out there and then this is where people are. And then Hispanic was $51,000, Asian is $83,000, the Asian population, as a demographic is the most successful.
And then people in poverty, I think this is very fascinating. 2018, of course, everybody can go to census.gov to look at these. The white people on poverty is 8.1% and the Black is 20%. So if the Black population is about 2.3 times more often in poverty, that will have real-world consequences.
Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: And I think part of the problem that people don’t see necessarily, because ,again, they’re not there, is when you have communities. I’m going to use Buffalo, New York as an example. And I was just watching a small documentary on it, where they had had all the factories, they had a bunch of workers and it got polluted, things kind of went out, and they’ve rebuilt it fairly successfully. It’s a beautiful place to be.
However, when you talk about Black families living in poverty, here’s part of the reason why 90% of their police force. So the taxes that the community payers that go to paying for the police force do not live in the community. Which means they take all of the taxpayers money, which helps schools, which helps hospitals, everything else, and they take it outside into a different community and invest it in their very predominantly white communities, which then give, the tax money to their students’ schools.So you’re literally displacing the income that should support the schools and moving it out, and that’s for retirement and pension and everything.
And that’s just one example of, yeah, you can come work in this place and you have the advantage of having a full-time job, you have a salary, you have healthcare. But you take all that benefit and you leave it in a different area that is a little more comfortable for you instead of the city saying, “Well, if you’re going to be a cop here, you have to live here.”
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And that reallymakes me think of Ferguson. When that occurred, and was it Michael Brown? I apologize. I can’t remember off the top of head. When Michael Brown was killed and then the riots protests, and then I guess you’d call them riots occurred in Ferguson, a deeper dive at the Ferguson police department really showed that it was predominantly white, which was policing a predominantly Black community.
And it’s one of those things where that came about and it’s like, well, did you think it was going to be a perfect idealic situation where all these white cops who don’t live in Ferguson, as you were saying, come into an area like Ferguson and are policing?
And one of the simple police reforms that’s been floated around for a long time has got a little more traction in 2020, is just, like I said, have the people who live in their community police their community. Simple. And you know, one of my things when it comes to police reform, and I’ve had a few former cops on the podcast where there’s a lot of pushback from police unions about everything. And so that’s one of the obstacles.
Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: Well, they could start also by making it a four-year degree. The amount of education is truly not there and that’s not even a personal opinion that is looking at the training parameters globally. Globally, the most minimum education I believe is in Germany and that’s two years. But in the UK, in Japan, it’s four years.
Although I will say my relationship with my hometown police department is good, partially because I’m a fiction author on the side, and I had questions that I needed answered that I was fairly certain if I put into Google that would have a SWAT team coming to my doors. So I made it a point to meet with the chief of police and the fire chief to get some answers and they thought it was hilarious.
But, I can say our police department, the majority of people actually do live in our community and not to say our community is perfect, but they’re present, their kids go to school with my kids. And personally, I feel like there’s less danger of a negative incident happening because they know the people in their communities to an extent.
Not to say that there’s not going to be incidents happening, that’s ridiculous, humans are humans and emotions are emotions. But from my purview, knowing who the chief of police is seeing him out at football events or school events, actually makes me feel better that I am now dealing with a person who sees me a little bit more as a person, not just, “Oh, here’s some black woman that lives in the community.”
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Right. No, completely. And, you know, police reform. And, again, like any topics and especially this topic, it’s so complex, it’s so complex. And the number one thing that has to happen is there has to be political action with us, but even political action, that’s just not to be too pessimistic, that doesn’t do everything, it has to come from the community. And so the next question is how does community inform identity and how does intersection into new communities alter one’s perception of identity?
Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: So hopefully if it’s being done well, the community is showing who is accepted within the bounds of community. Or showing you who is not, which is sometimes the harder place to be. But having a robust community that accepts new ideas and is open enough to understand that one way of doing things is not okay.
So one of the reasons we picked the location we were at is, I grew up not far from here. So I was aware of what the community was. It is about a half an hour south of Flint. So having easier access to a larger city, where there is a little more integration of culture was necessary for me. It wasn’t just, “Oh, it’d be nice if it was there,” it was necessary because representation does matter. I do need to see people who look like me, I do need to have conversations.
But we wanted an area that I would feel safe raising my kids, knowing that they would have a variety of classmates not just racial, but class-wise, education-wise, learning things from different people. And that started my identity as, I guess, this little suburbanite person where, yup, I’ve left my door unlocked and not thought twice about it, you know?
But that allowed me that to live in the identity, that my home is a secure home. I don’t worry about people breaking into our home. We don’t have a huge crime statistic in the area. So that just brought me a level of comfort.
Now, intersection, yes, I am in the handful of people of color and being from the not politically correct group that I am, I laugh with my girlfriends that we actually do make up the cultural identity of our area because one of our girls is Vietnamese and another one of my girlfriends is Mexican and other is Chilean. So we just kind of laugh like, “Oh yeah, here we represent all the culture,” which is not in the least bit true, but just friends having some fun.
But it also does make me aware that things in this area are very much set up for white Christians in the area. I live in the land of a thousand churches. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. But for the longest time, I’d look and be like, “Oh, here’s a Catholic, here’s Greek Orthodox, here’s Methodists, here’s three Methodists, here’s a Baptist.”
And it really made me wonder, and one of my girlfriends is atheist. I was like, “How do you feel being here knowing that the understood norm, like the expectation really is when most people see you they automatically assume you’re a Christian?”
And she just kind of stared and she’s like, “We just don’t really talk about it. And because I’m who I’m.” And I was like, “Well, don’t you feel oppressed by that? Isn’t that like, weird that you can’t just honestly say that’s just not my thing?” And she’s like, “It really doesn’t bother me. Everybody just assumes I am. So I leave them in their assumption and I walk away. I take it knowing the truth.”
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: No. And those are all excellent observations. And I think for the people of that community whom say, you know, are white or adhere to some form of Christianity or whatnot, they oftentimes won’t even think that they are the majority or that these are the norms that are projected out because it is just part of them and as part of the community that they interact with all the time.
And that’s why intersectionality is important is just for people to understand that whatever’s normal to you, is not normal to other people. And I like that you brought up the religion thing because, you know, luckily we live in a time in a country where you don’t have to adhere to the dominant form of religion. Now, whatever religion you are, go for it. I don’t care.
But history, of course, is littered with countries where you had to conform to the dominant religion or else it could be a death sentence. I mean, literally. And so it allows youto navigate a world in a potentially different way.
And as you were talking about living in your area, and so I had an interesting experience of growing up the minority in a city in the US but still being white, I didn’t have the experience of being a minority in the US. I only had that experience in El Paso, which is a wonderful and vibrant city. And honestly, people get along. It’s a really great place although people will oftentimes make fun of El Paso.
And it was just one of those things that, you know, everybody should have that experience of living in a place where you are not the majority, or you should live in a place where even like your faith is not the majority.
And it really forces you to look at things differently to see how you interact, to see how you behave. So when you go back to where you are, you’ll hopefully understand not only yourself, but other people. And again, be more open, be less judgmental. And I think like we’ve talked about people just aren’t, they’re comfortable with whatever they have. And it’s very difficult to just go beyond that.
Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: I think there’s a lot of like fear. I keep coming back to people do not want to feel less than. And it’s really hard to, I think, take that leap of faith as you will, and go and see something different because you might not like it. Or you might decide, “Oh my gosh, they’re doing so much better than I am,” and then it feels like personally affronting.
But you know, race or religion aside, especially since this podcast is audio and people don’t get to see me, I’ve self-identified as a Black woman, I cannot tell you how many times, because of my name and because of my speech, I do not resonate with people as Black until they see me. They’re like, well, you know, of course, one of the most offensive things somebody can ever say is, “Well, you don’t sound Black.” Okay. Okay. Well, I don’t sound Black to you, but you know, looking in the mirror, I sound like me.
And maybe it’s not always feeling less than it could be that actually people are really afraid to like go out and try something and accidentally offend somebody. I suppose, if I’m very optimistic, that’s how I’m looking at it, is they’re just afraid to be culturally inept.
They have to understand that systematic racism isn’t the wealthy areas that tend to be more white don’t allow outlier area schools to come into them. That’s not necessarily systematic racism. Systematic racism is having the minorities offered less money when they start a career. You know, having somebody come to look at let’s say, lacrosse players, which get really great scholarships, but lacrosse is a highly specialized sport that usually shows up in private schools only. So kind of looking at how money is put out there.
One of the differences that COVID has taught, and because I’m a college professor and have college professor friends, oh yeah, I am extremely, extremely privileged because when my child needed a tutor for algebra, I didn’t have to wonder if I had enough money to buy a tutor how could I do this tutoring? I swapped services with a colleague and said, “Tutor my kid in algebra, and I’ll tutor yours in writing.”
And that’s a privilege and I understand that 150%. But I also took that knowledge and tagged my friend and said, “Here are these schools in Flint that I know. These seniors are going to need some help.” And so that allowed me to think, okay, at least I can now give back and do some virtual tutoring systems with these communities that do not have access.
And I think that’s kind of where the conversation needs to start happening is ,you may not understand all the ways that systemic racism shows up, but there is a way to change. There is a way to make the playing field a little more even than to just kind of say, “Well, I can’t do anything about it cause they’re like 90 million miles away from me and I can’t do anything.”
I think people can make the change by asking some of the harder questions, by examining do I have these practices that are uninformed? And I’m not saying, go rush out and try to make multicultural friendships and force them into your life. But you can do things like take a class, or goodness knows, YouTube is out there everywhere, look at a different culture, look at a different religion, look at something that kind of shakes you to the core a little bit.
And it doesn’t mean you lose your identity. It doesn’t mean you lose your ethics. It doesn’t mean you lose your culture. But what it does mean, is you lose some of the biases that you might have firmly put into place about how other people do things.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I think so often people and individuals too, but especially the media, they like to distill things down to very simple answers. The reality is that nothing is simple and there’s very few simple answers. And even if like, you know, the answer was like, “Oh, let’s just give everybody a bunch of money.” That’s not going to fix everything. And so with our last question is how do culture and community intersect? And we talked about this a little more. Is there anything you’d want to add to that?
Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: I think the big thing is, again, it comes back to having these intersections of, it’s not just one blanket statement. So, I go to our city council meetings, which I don’t know if they’re happy to see me or not, or if they just kind of sigh, cause I bring things up. But one of the things, they were revamping our downtown, because they like to proudly say, “We’re a bedroom community.” And at one point I was like, “Well, why is that a good thing?” They’re like, “What do you mean?” I said, “A bedroom community means that everybody here goes elsewhere to work and then comes back here at night.” I was like, “Don’t you want a community where people want to be here? Like they want to do things and you know, shop and have outings and whatnot?”
You know, and slowly, actually, our community has started to transform into, oh yeah. So I’m not going to take credit for that happening. I’m sure I was a voice in many. But you belong to your community under multiple IDs. You are a taxpayer, you are a resident, you hopefully are a voter.
But you know, if you have kids, you’re also a parent and you are beholden onto those teachers to give them support in various different ways. You go to your religious centers and you interact there, you go to your local gyms and you get to interact there. So your identity continues to be fluid in different spaces.
But hopefully if community is done correctly and I think it takes work is you actually acknowledge the diversity that you have as a selling point. It’s not just, “Oh, you know, we have the land of churches,” which we do, but that even looking at the positive of that, yeah, we’re the land at churches, but I’m pretty sure we cover almost every denomination, plus we have, I’m probably going to misinterpret and that’s going to be a mosque, Hindu mosque. I believe it’s Hinduism. I drive by it going to the gym. But they’re there and I have never seen hateful graffiti. I’ve never seen any sort of like backlash for that being there.
And I know we have a very healthy Jewish population and I’ve not seen backlash against them. So it’s diversity kind of done right in my mind of, okay, there are other religions and maybe they’re not the dominant ones, but they’re not being hindered either. They’re not being ostracized for being different.
So, lately we’ve gotten a new Middle Eastern restaurant, a new Korean restaurant. And I bring this out and some people are going to be like, “Yes, so what?” So the other thing we have like 50 million diners of Americana food. So I was extremely excited to see Middle Eastern food come in, so I didn’t have to drive out and get it.
Communities have to be open enough. And a lot of times, again, I think there’s that fear that closed borders of, we need to know that people who look like us and people that represent our ideals are here, instead of understanding, if you’re going to have a bad person, it’s not necessarily a skin color, that’s a bad person. It’s not necessarily an aberrant religion that’s a skin person. It’s not a monetary thing that makes a bad person. It’s somebody’s particular situation that if most people probably had gone through the same thing, they might end up a bad person.
And I think that’s the first set of blinders that people really have to take off, is that if you don’t understand Black culture and community, there are plenty of texts at this point that you can educate yourself. There are tons of videos that you can educate yourself.
And so really the call to action of anything would be educate yourself first. Really stop operating out of a place of fear and understand that everybody is intersectional. It’s not just a Black female thing, it can definitely be a white male thing, it could be a Chinese male thing. Everybody’s got these intersections because we’re not rooted in just one place.
You grow, you learn, you explore, you do things. We have to have intersections. And I know some people kind of take it personally. Like they’re like, “Well, it kind of excludes me.” Well, to be honest, if I only intersected with people like me, I’d be a very lonely one person because nobody else is going to ever be directly just like me. So we’ve got to learn to embrace all these little micro differences that we have, but understand it leaves us so much more to look forward to because it leaves us open to trying anything.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And I completely agree, because as a country, there’s so much creativity and so much diversity here, and diversity in many different ways. That is the strength of the US potentially. And it has been the strength for a long time, but it could be even more. And, if we just get to know our neighbors, which I always talk about, just get to know your neighbors.
A lot of times ignore the political machinations that are going on in DC, because that’s a different beast. But the people around you and just get to know them, just like we’ve talked to understand who they are, where they’re from.
And number one, don’t be judgmental, nothing about judgment ever helps unless you’re an actual judge. But on the personal level, just get to know each other. And I always say, there’s no better way to get to know somebody than through food and through music.
And you know, if recently a restaurant opened up that for Michigan might’ve been rare, but now it’s there, go eat that food, talk to the owners, listen to the music and you’ll understand them a little more. You might strike up a conversation that will completely surprise you.
And at the same time get to know like how did you make it to where you are? A lot of people arrive in a place haphazardly, and then they make the best of it that they can. But at the same time we’re all part of the same community. And we’re all part of communities that intersect, and so we need to make our communities the best possible communities that we can.
Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: My favorite story about my own personal growth, which is short. I learned to be a much better person when my first child hit two. Toddlers are erratic. For people who’ve raised them you know. But one time I remember it vivid as the day, he just was furious with me and his little baby indignation.
And I was like, “What do you want?” And he’s like, “STO.” I’m like, “St- what?” I’m like, “You want food? You want soup?” He’s like, “no sto.” And I was like, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.” And he put his little hands on his hips and he looked at me and he’s like, “M-R-P-X-Q, STO,” because he had heard his father and I spell things out. And I spent the most frustrating half an hour offering this little boy everything under the sun, and I was ready to scream and cry and kick things because I was so frustrated.
He finally grabbed me by the hand and he led me over and we had barstools and on top of the bar was the toy that he wanted. So “sto” was a stool. He wanted to get up on the stool, which he wasn’t allowed to do by himself and get his toy.
And for me, it kind of clicked at that moment of, “Oh, I kind of get it.” I understand that now when you don’t have the language, you don’t have the skills to communicate, and you don’t have the understanding what the other person is. And I like to think it actually made me a lot better of a person, a lot better of a parent, my patience increased a million times with my college students and with my kids, because it finally, the lesson finally kicked in of you don’t actually know what’s going on.
I have a student coming to class who may have just had a domestic dispute with their partner, or I have a student coming to class who hasn’t eaten all day. So you don’t get to sit in a place of judgment anymore because when, when it was flipped on me and I was frustrated and helpless, it was that lesson of, Oh, okay. M-R-P-X-Q, sto, got it.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Absolutely wonderful. A story I can say that I’ve had the exact same experience with my kids. When they were toddlers, there’s nothing that requires you to be more patient than trying to understand whatever they’re saying.
Well, it definitely thank you for being here today. So today we were talking to Dr. Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson, assistant faculty of English in the School of Arts and Humanity. Our conversation was about intersectionality. And any final word Jennifer?
Jennifer Fisch-Ferguson: Thank you for having me. I loved the ability to come and wax poetically about my thoughts.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Excellent. Thank you. And of course, thank you for being here. My name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer.