Tess Chakkalakal, visiting lecturer of English, presented a lecture entitled “What it Means to be a Minority” on Feb. 21 in Griffin 6. The speech, third in the four-lecture series “Through Our Eyes,” was organized by the Black Student Union as part of the ongoing events of Black History Month.
Focusing her lecture around the term “minority” and its connotations, Chakkalakal began with a reference to an article entitled “Where the Minorities Rule” by Gregory Rodriguez. The article discusses the numerical change of minorities, and in particular Latino-Americans, from a minority group into a majority.
Last year in California, the nation’s most populated state, the census bureau reported that the white population officially became a minority. As a result of the findings, the San Diego City Council decided to delete the term minority from government documents and dialogue, “arguing that the word was outmoded and demeaning.”
After reading this, Chakkalakal was bothered by the idea of striking the term “minority” from public use, asserting that the removal of the word suggested it bore a negative connotation.
“What is the negative association with the word?” she asked. “Why was a declaration [of the removal of the term from city documents] needed? Was this a misunderstanding, a misrepresentation of what is meant by a minority in the United States?”
This negative implication contrasted with the positive connotation Chakkalakal observes within her own field, 20th century American and African-American literature.
“Here [in academia] we have a positive branch of analysis of minority discourse,” she said. “In the study of minority literature, we find a whole other story with amazing possibilities.”
At Williams and other private colleges and universities, being a minority offers privileges such as the allocation of money for the celebration of BHM and lectures related to black and minority issues.
“There is something to be gained from retaining the term. It is not a cramped space, but a space you can think from,” said Chakkalakal.
She said she was struck by the opposite reactions to the term by the general public and academic community, questioned academia’s role in defining the word and wondered how the academic notion of minority provoked such negative responses in the outside world.
In the discussion following the lecture, one student noted that academia was, in fact, a minority in interpreting the term itself.In response to this comment, Chakkalakal could not offer any input into how academia should change its use of the term or whether it should make attempts to influence how it is used outside of its arena. According to Chakkalakal, the definition of minority has not been established and exists only in the future.
“The minority is not predicated on racial, ethnic or sexual differences,” she said, but should be determined on a case-by-case basis depending on the issue in a democratic nation.
“The existence of a majority logically implies a corresponding minority,” she added, and therefore the “minority needs to act conjunctively with the majority.” The notion of a minority provides this segment of the population with a platform from which to speak and have the majority listen.
Chakkalakal stressed the importance of the conversation that should occur between the minority and majority and asked again why the San Diego City Council saw the need to retract the term “minority.”
To explain the importance of the concept of minority, she discussed the sci-fi movie “Minority Report,” a Steven Spielberg production starring Tom Cruise that is scheduled to premier June 21. Set 80 years from now, Tom Cruise is a pre-crimes division police officer who is pursued for a murder he will commit in the future. His only salvation is the one report of the three that proclaims his innocence. According to Chakkalakal, the movie reveals the power of the minority to change the future.
In concluding her lecture, she asked where the possibility for conversation existed when the term minority evoked both positive and negative associations.