Students speak at annual TEDxBrandeisUniversity event
TEDxBrandeisUniversity featured six student talks on topics ranging from hair and race to war and education.
Brandeis hosted its third annual TEDxBrandeisUniversity showcase last Thursday in the Shapiro Campus Center Theater. The speakers were R Matthews ’19, Nakul Srinivas ’21, Ben Greene ’21, Shaquan McDowell ’18 and graduate student Abeer Pamuk COEX '20. This show comprised the youngest array of speakers for a TEDxBrandeisUniversity event to date.
The event began with a video explaining the concept of TEDx. While there are annual TED talks in Vancouver, TEDx is the name given to gatherings sponsored by the TED company which focus on the community local to the gathering. Following the tradition of TEDx, this event was a mixture of live and pre-recorded talks, emphasizing how, as the video said, TEDx furthers a “global conversation of our shared future.”
The first recorded talk was by professional speaker Julian Treasure, who gave tips for effective communication. He argued that the “seven deadly sins” for speaking were “gossip, judging, negativity, complaining, excuses, embroidery and dogmatism.” The path to speaking well, according to Treasure, comes from a focus on honesty, authenticity, integrity and love, or HAIL. Next, Treasure discussed the mechanics of voice and the composition of the vocal register (the range of tones in a voice), timbre (the quality of a voice) and prosody (the rhythm of a voice). He concluded the talk with a vocal warmup that exercised the vocal range.
The second pre-recorded talk was played after the intermission. Rita Pierson, a teacher of 40 years, discussed the importance of forming relationships with students. She explained that when teachers say, “They don’t pay me to like the kid,” she tells them that kids will not learn from a teacher they dislike. Pierson discussed ways to connect with children, stressing the importance of positivity and warmth. She explained that teachers must become good actors, suppressing their private feelings for the good of the students. Pierson explained that she once gave a 20-question quiz, and awarded one student a two out of 20 with a smiley face next to the grade. She explained that the student got an F, but seeing “minus 18 sucks the life out of you,” while “plus 2 meant that “you ain’t all bad.”
Matthews discussed how prejudice against dreadlocks originates from a lack of understanding of what they really are. For example, he has heard many people express the belief that dreadlock wearers do not shower — an idea that he was quick to deny, saying, “I use shampoo like a normal person.” He explained that dreadlocks occur when hair is tangled and allowed to grow out. For black people with kinky textured hair, he explained, dreadlocks are a natural occurrence when hair is grown out.
Matthews discussed his own relationship with dreadlocks. He said that as a child, his parents would give him frequent haircuts to prevent him from developing dreadlocks. He decided to grow dreadlocks in college, but was conflicted about his choice, knowing it might endanger his career prospects. He explained that the act of wearing dreadlocks is still legally grounds for job refusal. Even in schools, Matthews said, students have been sent home for wearing dreads or have been forced to cut them off to participate in school activities.
Although dreadlock wearers are stereotyped as being lazy or disreputable, dreadlocks take an enormous amount of work to maintain, Matthews said. While they have been worn throughout the world for various cultural reasons, he explained that for African Americans, the practice originates predominantly from Jamaica. Dreadlocks are an important part of the Jamaican Rastafari religion because of their resemblance to a lion’s mane, Matthews said.
Matthews explained that the stigma behind dreadlocks is a symptom of the ideology of respectability politics, which deems dreadlocks unprofessional. He argued that this implies that Black people themselves are not respectable because their hair naturally grows in dreads. Matthews concluded his talk by calling for the audience to normalize dreadlocks, and to “challenge [our] ideas about what it means to be respectable.”
Srinivas argued that while religion is sometimes seen as being “archaic” and “backward” in regards to social equality, further examination of Hinduism in particular reveals unmistakable LGBTQ themes. He started his talk by recounting his confusion as a child when at an airport he saw a daughter with two mothers. Srinivas explained that he was confused because the books he read did not have LGBTQ relationships, but his brother, an avid reader of Hindu mythology, found the lesbian relationship completely normal.
Srinivas gave a broad overview of the structure of Hindu mythology, explaining that Hinduism consists of three central gods: the “Trimurti” of Brahma, Shiva and Vishnu. These gods also have female counterparts in the “Tridevi” of Saraswati, Parvati and Lakshmi. The Tridevi are sometimes viewed as simply the female versions of the Trimurti, combining with the Trimurti to create three androgynous deities. In addition, these three gods have avatars, or human versions of any gender. In one story, for example, the god Shiva had a relationship with Mohini, a female avatar of Vishnu.
According to Srinivas, his brother’s favorite character is Shikhandi, who was born a woman but raised as a man. Srinivas said that this gave Shikandi a kind of superpower because as a woman, her opponents would be reluctant to harm her.
The LGBTQ theme continued with Greene, the next speaker. Greene, a transgender male, discussed how people can become better allies for transgender people. His first tip was to never stop learning. Greene explained being transgender by comparing gender to chairs. People sitting in the cushy armchair of gender are classified as cisgender; they are entirely comfortable with the gender they were assigned at birth. In contrast, people who experience gender dysphoria — discomfort with their gender assigned at birth — are sitting in high, uncomfortable stools.
Greene furthered the analogy by explaining that there are many different chair preferences and that choosing different chairs is simply a matter of getting up and going over to another chair. It does not have to be dramatic or disruptive. This analogy was the basis for his next tip: “There is no chair police, and more specifically, you are not the chair police.”
There is a biological basis for the transgender experience, Greene said. Scientists recently discovered that a region of the brain called the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis (BST), which is larger for males than females, corresponds to the individual’s own perception of their gender. For example, transgender men have a BST that resembles that of a cisgender man rather than that of a cisgender woman. However, Greene did not stay on the topic for long, admitting his relative lack of knowledge. This brought him to his next tip: “It’s okay to not know everything.”
In the last segment of his talk, Greene discussed his own experience being transgender. He explained that he underwent a difficult journey to reach the happiness and confidence of his current TEDx speaker-self. He realized that he was transgender in high school and came out during his senior year. After surviving a car accident, he decided that coming out was not as scary. Greene said, however, that after he came out, he struggled with suicidal thoughts. He confided in a friend, but the friend told Greene’s parents, who took him to a hospital. In the hospital, a patient who overheard his story told him, “As long as you stay true to who you are, everything is going to be alright in the end.” Greene said that this gave him the energy to keep going, and with the support of his family and friends, he is now “standing in the light.”
Greene’s final tip was that while it is important to ask trans people questions about their experiences, it is also important to make sure the trans person is okay with answering these questions. He explained that not all trans people are comfortable talking about their experiences being trans, and people must take into consideration their relationship to a trans person before asking sensitive questions about genitalia or surgeries.
McDowell explained during his talk that shifting perceptions of race highlight the fundamentally baseless nature of racism. He grounded his talk in two rhetorical questions: “How many of you view your race as determining your identity?” and “How many of you believe your race is accurately determined?”
While researching his genealogy, McDowell discovered his fifth-great-grandmother, Elizabeth Scott. Scott had mixed African and European ancestry, but she was white-passing, he said, with “free-flowing hair.” She was born about a decade after the census was established in the United States in 1790, and every 10 years, her racial classification would shift between white, Black and mulatto.
McDowell explained that when Black people were slaves, white Americans were relatively comfortable with free Blacks. This comfort allowed for the easy mutability of race. After the abolition of slavery in 1865, however, the concept of race became more rigid in order to maintain white dominance. McDowell explained that people have been conditioned to believe that they can know about a person just by viewing their skin color, a belief which he said is clearly false.
Pamuk, the final speaker, discussed her experience growing up in Syria. When Pamuk was four, her mother defied social norms by getting a divorce. Around the same time, Pamuk had fallen in love with a picture of a dress in a magazine. With her mother’s help, she spent months recreating the dress in time for her birthday. When Pamuk told her mother in delight that she was “flying,” her mother responded by saying, “Only girls are born with wings. Don’t let anyone clip your wings.” At four, Pamuk did not understand what her mother meant, but she would later understand when she learned of the stigma surrounding her mother’s divorce, which was an obstacle in Pamuk’s application to Aleppo University. Fortunately, she was accepted despite this stigma.
The Syrian Civil War struck in 2011 when Pamuk had just finished her first year of university. She first experienced it as guns in the distance, and then as a nearby explosion, scaring her and her family “to death.” As the war spread, Pamuk’s mother convinced her to move to Lebanon and stay with her aunt. On January 15, 2013, a few months after the move, Aleppo University was bombed. Pamuk was worried for her family, who lived near the explosion, but she soon found out that while her family survived, four of her friends were killed.
Pamuk said that after the bombing, she decided that she “wanted [her] bachelor’s degree more than [she] wanted [her] life.” She returned to Aleppo that year to finish her degree and start her career in humanitarian work. Pamuk explained that one night, just before her graduation, she decided that her next dream would be to go to New York City. She stood before the window of her dorm, candle in hand, imagining that she was looking out of a skyscraper. Pamuk applied and was accepted for the competitive Atlas Corps fellowship. She got a visa to live in New York on her 24th birthday, 20 years after wearing her pink dress.
Pamuk moved to New York City in 2017. In a brief overview of her time in the city, Pamuk said that she bonded with her host parents, got goosebumps standing by the window of a skyscraper and even met President Barack Obama. She concluded that the experience of realizing her dreams again and again despite the conflict going on in her home country is how she “won the Syrian War.”
—Editor's Note: Nakul Srinivas ’21 is a staff writer for the Justice.