Eastern Michigan University scholars filled the student center ballroom Tuesday evening for the first Honors College Star Lecture with speaker Heather Neff, an English professor and director of the EMU McNair Scholars Program.
“Race is generally understood as a socially constructed system used to classify individuals according to physical appearance and genealogical descent,” Neff said.
There are a long list of awards that Neff has received over the years for her teaching skills including the EMU Alumni Association’s Teaching Excellence Award and the Presidents’ Council 2007 Michigan Distinguished Faculty Award. As a specialist in African American Literature, Neff spoke about how Americans view skin color based upon social, political and economic foundations.
“In the U.S., the greatest social divider is race,” Neff said to the nearly 300 that attended. “My identity as a black person determined how I thought about the world.”
Neff used her experiences in the Caribbean and Europe to realize cultures from around the world exhibit vastly different interpretations of race. The lecture strove to make students question their concepts of different races as well as their own.
Neff mentioned W.E.B. Dubois’ concept of double consciousness, a sense of conflict that African Americans feel when aligning one’s identity to a country that doesn’t see all citizens as equal. Neff said she felt an internal struggle as a result of claiming to be an “American,” yet dealing with racism. Quoting Du Bois, she described this as “being at war within one body.”
“It’s an anger that many people are struggling with on this very campus,” Neff said. “The black part of me was often rejected by the American part of me.”
However, Neff said the struggles and pain of the inner turmoil can equate to a strength that’s present in the character of those who have experienced “double consciousness.”
“I was strong, because if I wasn’t strong, I would not be here today,” Neff said.
During the hour and a half lecture, the speaker also touched on other topics that are relevant to college students.
“Most of you will graduate with $20,000 to $30,000 in debt,” Neff said. “This is a scandal in the richest country in the world.”
Neff also mentioned how she received her Ph.D. in at the University of Zuerich in Switzerland because of the higher education opportunities that were available to all citizens.
“In Europe, universities are free,” Neff said. “The tax dollars they collect from people are given back in the form of education.”
EMU sophomore and social work major Brandie Bentley said the lecture brought up important topics that need more discussion in today’s society.
“I think this is a conversation that needs to happen more often, because a lot of people aren’t aware of the reality that’s really going on,” Bentley said.
Neff had students partake in different exercises that included listing attributes they’d use to describe themselves. There were role-playing questions regarding how ethnic backgrounds are viewed in this country as well.
Some students said they were enlightened about the variety of subject matter throughout the lecture.