Ignite Talk: Hacking Diversity, Part 1 – How Do We Define Culture?

Back in June, I participated in an experimental journalism unconference called Spark Camp. The conversations were great and the other attendees were amazing, but one of the highlights of the conference were our ignite sessions. An ignite talk is when presenters agree to create a five minute talk on any subject, accompanied by twenty slides that advance automatically every 20 seconds. This was a bit nerve-wracking for me, since I’m an extemporaneous speaker by nature, and it takes me about five minutes to get warmed up enough to relax (and to slow down my naturally quick speech pattern.) But it turned out fairly well. Took me a while to get into the rhythm though. I decided to do my first ignite talk on Nirvana and how we define culture, since I spent most of June working on the Spin article out in this month’s issue (More on that later). So here’s the video – transcript after the jump:

So, I’m writing this piece for Spin on Nirvana, Nevermind, and the Death of Cultural Angst, really focusing on the 90s. And one of the cool things about writing about Nirvana is that I generally don’t get asked to do so. I write about race, I write about gender, I write about class. So most people don’t peg me as someone who felt really strongly about Nirvana or any other rock movements – despite the fact that I was a black girl growing up in the suburbs. So Nirvana had a very interesting cultural effect on me and people that I knew. One of the big things was the fact that Nirvana was an anti-racist, anti-sexist band. Their liner notes from Incesticide* , after they started to get super popular, they put in this note that was like “If you don’t like women, blacks, or gays, leave us alone.” A really, really bold move. But at the same time, we wonder is Kurt Cobain really and truly as iconic as we say?

He’s important to note in our culture, but whose culture exactly are we talking about? How do we define culture? How do we define this nebulous “we” that makes up American culture?

For me, a big part of my culture was Tupac, and more broadly, hip-hop culture. N.W.A., Notorious B.I.G, all these people also dealt with cultural angst in the 90s. They also talked about society. They also talked about racial struggle, state violence. And yet, they aren’t seen as universal. TLC was part of the beginning waves of hip hop feminism. Back in 1992, they were rocking condoms, as a way to promote safe sex, they were talking about being the girls they wanted to be. That was culturally significant and important to me. But is that reflected in the wider culture? It’s even things like magazines that matter. Did teens in your area read Word Up magazine, like my friends? Or did they read Tiger Beat?

Where is your place in the culture, and how do you define it?

People try to say “this is the 90s” or “this is the 80s” – but whose culture are we talking about?

I interviewed Mimi Thi Nguyen for my article, and she described herself as a punk turned academic. And she talked a little bit about being completely off the corporate radar in the 90s. She was just like “Why? It didn’t mean anything to me.”

So on one hand, you have these things that were extremely iconic, that we form connections around. But at the same time, we have people who were around in the same time, same era, who got completely different messages – if they felt that this was important at all. And so, we start looking at these questions of movement, this question of culture. And how do we define it.

As media makers, we are in charge of shaping these perceptions. The voices that we leave out are the ones that help us determine what our culture is. We are the ones that are leaving this record, this documentation, for ages and ages to come. And so, when we leave people out, when we start erasing voices that don’t fit the narrative that we think they should fit, we start missing these large pieces of the puzzle. And over time what tends to happen, is that we’re so used to writing from one perspective, this thing Edwidge Danticat calls the single story**, that you forgot that other stories exist. Right? So then we start getting more holes, and more gaps in our cultural narrative.

The thing that people forget to understand is that the idea that culture will be nebulous, and can be something hard to define is actually a good thing. It’s a huge benefit for America. We are not homogenous and we aren’t supposed to be homogenous. We weren’t founded in an homogenous way, and we are supposed to be diverse and reflective of that in our media and our culture. And those of us who are arts and culture makers need to reflect that. If not, we just have incomplete sketches of who we are. And when we go to look back, and we wonder about things – like “What was Nirvana’s impact on the queer community?” – we can’t get that type of information, because we never thought to record it.

So the idea becomes how do we talk about our differences, and yet still talk about our culture?

How do we make room for every single person to speak?

And again, those of us who are in this room have access to some of the highest levels of media. We are the culture creators, even if we don’t have as direct of an impact as others do, we are still part of this field.

And one of the things I notice a lot when we talk about diversity, when we talk about these ideals, is that “I don’t have the time. I can’t work this other thing into the story. I can’t figure out how to make this diversity angle work.” As if diversity is this handcuff around you, instead of something that’s actually a benefit, instead of something that’s actually freeing. Because if we were to look at the world, through all of these different prisms, we would realize that the onus is off of us to provide the one definitive experience that will define out culutre, and instead we can start to talk to each other. We can start to understand each other. We can acknowledge that we are carriers of information. And we can acknowledge that every time we leave out a story – though we can’t get to it right then – but if we acknowledge that it’s missing, and we each work a little bit extra each day to start weaving in new narratives, things that we haven’t seen, articles we haven’t thought of yet, we will truly become one nation, under a groove.

*Was talking too fast. In the clip, I say insecticide. Corrected here for obvious reasons. Also, what they actually said is in the link, women, people of color, or gays, not specifically black folks.

**This was a misattribution. The writer who actually said it was Chimamanda Adichie, in her TED Talk.

Fun fact: The founding editor of Punk Planet, Dan Sinker, was in the audience. He is also the person behind the super popular @MayorEmanuel twitter feed.