Open your Identity Box(es): Question Bridge as Tool for Democracy

Article written by Lauren Hall, a graduate student in the dual MAAA/MPA program at SPEA. During the school year Lauren works as an Engagement Assistant for the IU Cinema. She is the Co-Founder of Indy Pulse and is an alumna of Teach for America-Indianapolis. This summer she is interning with The Phillips Collection in Washington DC. Contact her at: lauren.marie.hall44@gmail.com

Who are you; what is your purpose?
Question Bridge Participant

These two questions trigger purposeful dialogue about the “Individual Condition.” Three main ideas surface from Question Bridge participants’ responses, that our sense of who we are: 1) changes over time 2) depends on our context 3) derives from our roles in society and our relationships to others. Sounds like pretty basic stuff right? On the surface, maybe, but when we think about the impact of language and media-representations we realize the challenges that we all face.

In our attempts to balance our desire to contribute to a vastly diversifying-global society, yet remain comfortable in our skin, we grapple with our sentience and pragmatism as human beings.  For example, we don’t want to be just a number, yet we yearn for authentic relationships to our communities. We value our own stories; yet want to take part in larger, more collective stories.  Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that everyone wants to be like Marquez and earn a Noble Prize for a book they’ve written; a book that is published at a rate only second to the Bible, and is internationally praised for representing the author’s distinct literary heritage. That kind of achievement is rare. A vast population of people takes stake claim Marquez’s work as a part of their cultural identity.

Language and media-representation—the stories we tell ourselves, and the stories we glean from others—have profound impact on our sense of self. This means that determining our individual condition, our “place-in-the-world,” is challenging—especially for our young people. Think about it, present-day youth are told that the world they currently live in is so new and different—so technologically advanced, connected and diverse—yet it is all they have ever known. This is difficult to make sense of.

So what does this have to do with Question Bridge?

QB encapsulates the centrifugal of conversations happening across many sectors in society (e.g. business, education): how do we validate individual, or cultural, uniqueness yet aggregate ourselves into a democratic, equitable, productive society? The first step is to make sure that, as democracy requires, each person affected has a say #NoTaxationWithoutRepresentation. My task, with the TPC Education Department, is to help educators across the U.S. incorporate Question Bridge (this rad transmedia art project) in their lessons, so that they can use QB to facilitate conversations with their students about these challenges in a modern democracy.

The aforementioned Individual Condition module is one of three that I’ve chosen from Question Bridge’s pretty stacked line-up of intense-conversation-starting topics. To clarify their purpose, QB creators don’t just want to start conversations. They’re cognizant that starting conversation matters—ideas, after all, impact how we view and create our world; but also, QB creators strive for us to engage in: reflection, action, and change. Currently, their videography work focuses on Black males because:

by creating an identity container (e.g. “Black” and “Male”), then creating a way of releasing the diversity of identities and thought within the container, we can break the container. Question Bridge strives to make it more difficult to say, “Black Males are___.” If we succeed in deconstructing stereotypes about arguably the most opaque and feared demographic in America, then the Question Bridge model can work to overcome limiting assumptions about any demographic. (Question Bridge, “Artist Statement”)

*Note: this quote is a little heady (one reason why I love QB), so if you need a reread swap the word “container” for “box” in the first paragraph.

Basically, QB creators want to identify, and then explode, the boxes of unchanging stereotypes that exist in American society. In the status quo, groups of people (what QB calls “identity groups”) are talked about or for. Instead, QB disrupts this by providing individuals the space and platform to express themselves. The diversity of QB respondent’s makes us all realize, and hopefully respect, the diversity within identity groups. I’m pumped about this, and you should be too. With daily headlines that reverberate the legitimate hysteria about Police brutality—which many people say was sparked by the legacy of the Rodney King beating video, proceeding court decision, and resulting LA Riots—QB’s focus on Black males is super on point.

Ennobling “media as mediator,” QB takes the inventive possibilities—unleashed in the modern mass-communication, tech age—to empower all identity groups to articulate their self-determinism, their freedom.  Communicating the diversity within one’s identity group creates a counter-narrative to the simplistic, unproductive, stereotypes that compartmentalize us. As a white woman, I want to be known for more than minivans, yoga pants, and skinny vanilla lattes (for more on this, ask me about my spoken word poem entitled “White Chick”).

Can anyone truly “speak for all the people of [their] racial group?” Question Bridge’s answer: No. But they can expand what is understood as an opinion that someone from their identity group can have. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the famous Nigerian author, warns us of “the danger of a single story.” The more stories we have about ____x______ identity group, the less likely we are to overgeneralize and stereotype their group. Thus, next time we see someone from that identity group, we are keener to listen, or ask, instead of assume.

As you’ll notice when watching QB videos, the question-response format elucidates just how different each Black male is: their experiences, beliefs, and voices demonstrate the vast spectrum of difference within their too-often-assumed-to-be-the-same identity group.  Unapologetically, QB affronts assumptions about Black males. These monolithic assumptions aren’t just bad for race relations and justice in America, they also extinguish democracy.

This massive video exchange of questions and answers creates a platform for free expression and the broad sharing of previously isolated, or seldom heard, insights.

They can confidently claim their race and gender in a way that is authentic, even when it challenges stereotypes. (Question Bridge, “Introduction Module Teacher Guide”)

Point being, if you or I walk down the street and see someone; then place this person into an “identity group” box—based on race, gender, sexual orientation, hometown—not only are we being too-quick-to-judge, we’re also inhibiting the give-and-take required of democracy. If we assume that one’s identity group tells us all we need to know about this person, we will never truly listen to them.

Democracy requires dialogue, requires an acknowledgment of our dynamic and complex humanity. Without recognition of the spectrum-of-difference within an identity group, we become cogs. We are left to be consumers of over-simplified media representations of people who do not share our identity. Frankly, one could argue that it’s just as, maybe even more dangerous to let the media define our own identity group—Orwellian 1984 anyone? It is messed up to think that assumptions of a person’s opinions, desires, motives, and visions for how our society is best structured can be determined by their identity-affiliation. Our democracy cannot depend on such static, automated judgments. Our democracy cannot exist with such marginalization of voices. Our democracy cannot flourish in such silence.

Media plays a big role. Media manipulates our understanding of all identity groups. Let’s be real, the media aims to create profit or power. It also often opts for sound bytes that present issues in either/or binaries. Research demonstrates how ingesting these over-simplifications bias us. Media plays a powerful role. It affects our likes and dislikes and even our expectations of, and behavior towards, others (e.g. The Doll Test, done in the past and present). Problematically, the influence of media can instigate negative perceptions—perceptions that overgeneralize, or that are based on falsity. (*Important to note, social media is often motivated by power or social profit, so it too can incubate these challenges to democracy.) Question Bridge upends this inequity. It puts the power back in the hands, and words, of the people. Ultimately, QB aims for their project to be used by all identity groups as a vehicle for democracy.

How, you may ask?

QB directly challenges the power of media in its “Power of Communication” module, which centers on media representations. Every identity groups’ portrayal in the media is limited. The compartmentalized versions of an identity group can never fully express the diversity within that group. So, as one QB respondent attests, cultivating a “strong sense of individuality” is critical. Plus, as another Black male advises, “you can choose to rise above.” Because, another important theme to notice, is that many respondents want to affect positive change. One Black male affirms, “I’m trying to create a better world using whatever resources I have.” Another response emphasizes Question Bridges’ fundamental goal of uniting Americans around shared desires: “I want better for myself, I want better for my community, I want better for all of us.”

Ponder for a moment: what happens in society if we all assume this? If we assume that we all want better for ourselves, our community, and for our society? Does this assumption diminish or enhance our democracy?

If we start with this assumption, we come closer to realizing that we almost never know the whole story about any one group of people. Instead, if we focus on democratic dialogue and collaboration, we can create a better society for everyone. Don’t get me wrong, informed reader; I’m not saying that we’re all dumb or living under rocks. I know that many of us already navigate the world, and interact with each other, under this assumption. Unfortunately, too many of us still don’t. Even if we think we do carry this assumption, it’s vital (yet difficult) to do this all of the time. The challenges we must overcome to create a truly representative and equitable democracy are complex. Creating a better democracy takes big and small acts. So, instead of fearing all of the unknowns about people we don’t know or understand, we must commit to contributing to being part of the work required for better.

Some might say that I just doled out a heavy expectation; I just assumed that all of us have the time, energy, and capacity to deeply engage in the process of democratization and better-society building. Though, yes, I hope more of you do take up this charge, it doesn’t have to be so intense, nor so difficult. Basic citizenship, being an informed voter, committed parent, and/or friendly neighbor are a big help. We can all meet QB’s basic calls to action. They call us to become better listeners. They call us to think differently, and reflect on our snap-judgments. They call us to commit to bettering our self, families, and communities so that—together—we shape a better world for all of us.

There are even lower-lift, easier options to upholding this call regularly. For example, it can be as simple as watching purposeful television. We can engage in the democratizing process of listening and learning about others’ experiences and stories through great examples like Parts Unknown with Anthony Bourdain.

In Parts Unknown Bourdain goes to places throughout the world and, yeah sure, talks about food; but he also asks enough questions of his foodie tour guides for viewers to garner a better understanding of that place’s history and its people. By venturing to different food spots, asking questions, and listening well, Bourdain unravels stories about the individuals who work, and sacrifice, to make their society more equitable, freer.

One of my favorite episodes of Parts Unknown takes place in the U.S. This episode revolves around L.A. and heavily incorporates the Rodney King LA Riots. If you’re like me, when you think about the riots you automatically think of African-American and Black Americans getting pissed-as-heck, for good reason, and then demonstrating their felt injustice. The story that doesn’t get told invokes the L.A. Korean community as its protagonist. While police forces protected wealthier suburban areas, the Korean community was left vulnerable. Korean property was ransacked by angry rioters—to the point that they had to assemble what one of Bourdain’s tour guide’s terms a “Korean Army” just to protect themselves and their livelihoods. For emphasis and imagery’s sake: there were shopkeepers-turned militiamen dotting the top of roofs carrying tools foreign to their chosen trade: guns. There are many untold stories like this, in every aspiring-democratic society. The key for us democratic-hopefuls is to listen, learn, and act so that we create a more equitable society in every exchange we have with one another. That is QB’s most basic call to action.

At this poignant moment in America—when names like Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner have become household names—we have a choice to make. Our choice is similar to the one Robert F. Kennedy articulated in his speech (that I mentioned in another blog post) on the night of Martin Luther King Junior’s assassination. RFK pledged that we can move in the direction

of greater polarization—black people amongst blacks, whites amongst whites, filled with hatred toward one another. Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did…to replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land with an effort to understand, have compassion, and love.

But, given that RFK wanted to promote democracy over division, he continues that

we have to make an effort in the United States. We have to make an effort to understand, to go beyond these rather difficult times. My favorite poem by my favorite poet is Aeschylus; and he once wrote:

“Even in our sleep pain which cannot be forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom, through the awful grace of God.”

What we need in the United States is not division. What we need in the United States is not hatred…is not violence and lawlessness, but is love and wisdom and compassion toward one another, feeling of justice towards those who still suffer in our country—whether they be white or whether they be black.

And RFK was right to stay positive, yet realistic…

we can do well in this country. We will have difficult times. We’ve had difficult times in the past and we will have difficult times in the future.

But the vast majority of whites and the vast majority of black people in this country want to live together, want to improve the quality of our life, and want justice for all human beings.

So, don’t let QB’s work, nor my words, nor RFK’s words fall lightly. Take up the charge: listen, ask, and try to understand. Let your voice and your authentic listening contribute drops in the ocean that ripple into tides necessary to make real-and-lasting change in America.

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