The month of December is a time of the year that means many different things to many different people. For societies that use the Gregorian calendar, the month signifies the end of the year, while multiple religions celebrate holidays during December. These are all great practices, but problems arise when proverbial toes start to get stepped on.
As a student at the University of Connecticut who was raised by a Catholic mother and a Jewish father, it quickly became clear to me which parts of my identity would be more represented at school. UConn claims to be a secular school, and yet it was impossible to miss the abundance of Christmas trees that appeared in buildings like the library or the soundtrack at Whitney dining hall that featured all Christmas music. Sure, I saw the occasional mention of holidays like Kwanzaa and Chanukkah, but not nearly to the same extent.
Obviously, this is not solely a UConn issue. When I went back to the town I grew up in, I was greeted by a well-meaning Instagram post from a local activist group entitled “How to Respect Other Holidays Like Hanukkah.” That word “other” is what inspired this article.
As we hopefully move toward a more culturally responsive society, I keep noticing things like this. It is impossible to truly promote the representation of all cultures while simultaneously uplifting dominant ones and othering marginalized ones.
From this main issue stem two sides of the same coin: The positioning of dominant ideas as default in society and tokenism. The two often come hand-in-hand, as they do in the Christmas example. Putting the words “Happy Holidays” over imagery of Santa Claus and Christmas trees doesn’t make it any more inclusive, it’s just acknowledging that other cultures exist while choosing to only highlight one.
Making sure that attempts at inclusivity don’t end by reverting to the dominant default is a practice that needs to happen in all facets of life. For example, handicapped spots in a parking lot are great, but if the building the lot is attached to has no accessibility, the job is only half done.
Another example, and this one’s a little more personal for me, came from one of my classes. In a lesson on how to support students with disabilities, the visual materials for the class included multiple color-coded graphs. Ironically due to the nature of the lesson, I was unable to understand the graphs because I am colorblind. Luckily for me, my professor had created a space where I felt comfortable voicing my inability to interact with the material, and she was very helpful once I did so. This exemplifies two strategies that can be used to dismantle dominant defaults: Actively listening to those negatively affected and being willing to learn and adapt for the future.
A great example of how giving people from marginalized backgrounds a platform to challenge dominant defaults comes from the field of medical illustration. Black medical student Chidiebere Ibe began creating medical illustrations featuring Black people last year, a practice that has never been the norm. Obviously, healthcare is beneficial to all, so having reference images that don’t simply default to white people is greatly important for advancing equity.
As with many other issues, education is a solid answer to this problem. Defaulting to dominant ideas is a symptom of choosing not to be informed on matters that do not directly apply to oneself. Actively making the decision to better inform one’s actions is a way to move toward a society where the concept of what’s normalized and what’s “the other” can be discarded.
Representation is an issue that must be dealt with holistically. There’s a difference between memorizing a few key talking points and actually taking the time to understand the identities of one’s peers, and those who are affected by a lack of understanding are the first to notice that difference. We’re all part of a society that has been built on dominant narratives related to race, religion, gender, sexuality, ability and a myriad of other intersectional identities, and it’s very easy to accept those dominant ideas as the norm simply because of how long they’ve been in place, but that’s exactly the reason that we must resist that.