Q&A: Immigrant discusses Black History Month, learning to 'see' one another

Sunday , February 19, 2017 - 5:00 AM2 comments

MARK SAAL, Standard-Examiner Staff

In honor of Black History Month, the Standard-Examiner’s question-and-answer sessions with members of the black community continues. Today, a conversation with Nicola Corbin, an assistant professor in the communication department at Weber State University, in Ogden.

Corbin, 38, was born in Georgetown, Guyana, a tiny South American country that is probably best known for the murder/suicide poisoning deaths of 918 people in 1978 in Jonestown. She immigrated to the United States when she was 16 years old, and after undergraduate studies at Seton Hall University she worked at a newspaper for five years. She eventually went back to school at the University of Georgia, where she received her doctorate in mass communication.

Corbin began teaching at Weber State in July 2013. She says she was “blown away by the natural beauty” of Utah, and while completely unfamiliar with Utah when she arrived, there’s “not a bad thing I could say about my experience here.”

• RELATED: Sisters share thoughts on Black History Month, theater and activism

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

STANDARD-EXAMINER: Talk about what Black History Month means to you personally, and what it should mean to all of us.

NICOLA CORBIN: When we talk about Black History Month, for all intents and purposes, we only talk about five or six people. And very often they’re black men. And so we hear all about Martin Luther King, and we sanitize Martin Luther King, and we offer the “I Have a Dream” speech, and we don’t talk about the real issues that were faced. We don’t talk about the reception people had towards him now. We have this very angelic vision of this martyr, this is what we teach children over and over in schools. We don’t have much conversation about Malcolm X; we won’t talk about him. So we pick and choose what is black history, and we check that box and we move on.

So while my idea of a Black History Month is that I think it’s good, I think we need to push ourselves as educators in schools to go far beyond the four safe people to talk about. … I’m sure you probably ran a story about “Hidden Figures” — if you haven’t, I think you should — and the impact of even telling that story that we did not know: That there were educated black mathematicians, black women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) who helped to put folks on the moon. We didn’t know that story. Imagine how many other stories we missed.

S-E: Are there things that people of all races can do to celebrate Black History Month?

CORBIN: My thought is that you really examine your own circle. How many people outside of my range of comfort do I speak with? And then this extends way beyond race. … So on a personal level, I would challenge folks to think about your own circles. I can tell you I grow from having conversations with my students. I’d never had interactions with LDS culture, the LDS faith. I saw them in Guyana. That was actually my first Caucasian person or white person I saw, was in Guyana on my veranda, and they were on their bicycles with their white shirts. I was about 8 or 9, and I’m like, “Ooh, a white person.” That’s what I see on TV, you know? So it’s a very different perspective. But coming here, I went to the library and I found some books. I didn’t know anybody personally to talk to, so I went and found some books. If I’m going to be interacting I need to have some understanding about the culture that I’m coming into. You can’t be so arrogant as to assume that your way of seeing the world is the only way. So I would challenge folks to talk to somebody who’s different, whether it’s a different religion. And you don’t have to agree with every single thing they say.

Want to watch the full video of the Standard-Examiner’s conversation with Nicola Corbin? Check it out on our visuals site.

S-E: What sorts of things stand in the way of real understanding between the races? What can be done to improve that understanding?

CORBIN: I think in the United States racial categories are more amplified than they are around the world, so we’re having a conversation more so about race here. Even though we have a conversation about race in other countries, I think it’s more amplified here.

On a personal level, I think it’s fear, but I think there’s some enablers to that process. There’s some enablers such as media representation and the ways that reinforce those particular fears and play on the basest parts of our character or our inclinations. Which is why there’s always a conversation about “How many different stories are we telling?” I heard someone saying — it was so true — that no one ever looks at a white male and pigeonholes them into one stereotype. Because why? We have seen white males represented in the movies, in magazines, as the sex symbol, or the hobo, or the bank robber, or the executive. So when we have these many, many representations, we’re not pigeonholed into this one story from a cognitive level. And so that’s where the argument for me is. … My argument is, it’s not that there aren’t folks who are criminals, but it’s when we only see them as criminals.

S-E: We’ve gone from a black president to a white one some have accused of racism. Talk about whether you think we’re making racial progress as a nation.

CORBIN: I hear these conversations that I think are a little problematic: Folks have conversations as if we’re back when I couldn’t even go to a drinking fountain. I had a conversation with a student whose grandma was writing her memoirs. Her grandma grew up in a different country, and then came to the United States at a time when we had the Jim Crow laws. And she was told “You can’t drink from that fountain because you’re going to catch something,” and she couldn’t understand it.

That’s one of the things that I think with President Trump’s election and the election cycle, it did bring up some things that were simmering underneath, that we should be talking about. And I think there is hope for us, because we’re having the conversations.

All of us have biases. I think the first step is to acknowledge it — that yeah, it is possible. I’m not going to say I didn’t have preconceptions about Mormon people, based on the one TV show: (whispering) “Oh, they have many wives.” But I also recognize because of my own experience that that’s one perspective and it’s dramatized for TV — that doesn’t necessarily represent all LDS folks.

S-E: Thinking about Utah, Where do you feel race relations stand here versus the rest of the country?

CORBIN: When I moved to Utah, one of the things I think I was really struck by is the effort. I think Utah recognizes where it is in terms of diversity. And really, in terms of Weber State, I think they do try, in very concerted ways, to work at diversity. I think the very visible and intentional way that Weber finds ways to make sure that they’re addressing it in a public way and show their commitment is important.

One of the other things that’s very unique to Utah, which I had to learn, it’s this culture of politeness. Everybody’s so nice, and everybody smiles at you, in ways that at first I was like, “Why are you so nice?” until I understood that it’s a cultural thing that happens. They frown on aggressiveness, and even the definitions of aggressiveness — it’s a wide range for somebody who’s lived in New York and folks are like, “I’m going to tell you what I mean, and that’s it.” And that was a little bit of a rub for me moving here, because I would prefer you be aggressive and tell me what you mean and I know where you stand.

S-E: So, land of the passive-aggressive?

CORBIN: I cherish authentic interactions, and I will be loud. I will laugh loud, and live big, in a place where quietness — particularly in women — seems to be prized, and modesty. And I stick out, and so you have to make a decision on what you’re going to be.

S-E: Any advice you’d give on how we can heal the racial divide in this country?

CORBIN: All of us need to listen. Listen. … I think we already have the tools, quite honestly, that we need. I think first it needs persistence. Nothing happens overnight. The United States was founded on protests. We don’t like to talk about it because it makes us uncomfortable (but) the thing is not to disregard people’s voices.

It’s like I tell my students. They complain about Black Lives Matter, but I’m like, “You know, folks had the exact same response to the Civil Rights movement. You do understand that they called Martin Luther King a terrorist?” The same categorizations of Black Lives Matter? That happened before.

None of us wants to go back (to the way it was). All of us would be appalled if we went back to segregation and Jim Crow.

S-E: If you could wave a magic wand and make the world the way you’d like in terms of all the things we’ve talked about, what does that world look like to you?

CORBIN: I want us to see each other. There’s this thing in pop culture circles where people say “I see you.” These things come and go, but what it means is, “I get where you are coming from.”

The other thing is I want us to move beyond binaries. I want us to include “and” more so than “or.” So it’s not “Black Lives Matter OR Blue Lives Matter.” It’s not. People who want more police reform and some attention to some systematic things when it comes to policing — particularly for black men — do not want police officers to die, either. It’s not “or.” It’s “and.” … You know it’s not a zero-sum game. It never is. But we always have to frame it, because it’s simple and it’s easy. But life is messy and complex and I want us to acknowledge that it is and it’s gray and there are no easy answers.

S-E: Anything else you’d like to add?

CORBIN: Folks who are in the communication business — journalists or reporters or public relations practitioners — we are all a part of shaping what happens not only by the stories we tell, by what stories we tell, by who tells those stories, where they are told, how they are told, how many stories are told. And I’m totally ripping that off of (writer) Chimamanda Adichie — the danger of a single story. Because it’s not something that we should approach it as there’s something out there that we’re just simply reflecting, like a reflective theory of culture. We are part of that process as well. And we influence lives with what we do. … Representation matters. We are just as culpable, and we should be thoughtful.

Contact Mark Saal at 801-625-4272, or msaal@standard.net. Follow him on Twitter at @Saalman. Friend him on Facebook at facebook.com/MarkSaal.

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