On good culture, bad culture, and New Kids on the Block

Look, I don’t have any hobbies. I write. I read. I cook. I don’t knit. I don’t play hockey. I don’t brew my own beer. So when someone asked me what I love, other than books, I said, “I love culture. All kinds of culture.” And I realized that this, above all else, has been the driving force behind all of my professional (and some personal) decisions.

I can sing the entire Les Misérables soundtrack. One day, I would like to tour a series of Latin American churches. I wish Donna Tartt wrote faster. I will watch Chris Pratt do anything. Even if he was filmed eating a hard-boiled egg.

This all-consuming love for culture is something I come by honestly. My sisters and I grew up in a household that revolved around television and magazines and hair care products. We woke up in the middle of the night to watch any royal wedding that was being broadcast. We threw Oscar parties. We danced in the kitchen to Duran Duran. For years, I never questioned this, but then a couple of years ago I was asked a very specific question while I was talking to someone about writers’ festivals: “How do we get people of colour to engage with culture?”

I knew what this person meant. He wanted to know why, at literary or visual art or classical music events, the crowd was almost entirely made up of white people. Why are there not more people of colour at the theatre or the slam competitions? Why are they not interested in cultural engagement?

At the time, I accepted this as a fact, because it is, sort of. My events draw more people of colour than most, but even so, the audience never reflects the real diversity of our Canadian cities. The most diverse event I ever took part in was probably still 75% white. But if we look closer at the issue, it’s far more complicated than just the numbers.

I grew up in a family where immigration was recent memory, where my grandparents and parents spent much of their time outside the home constantly trying to prove that they belonged here. It’s an exhausting process to come to a place and spend so much of your life studying and learning and parroting the place back to itself. There’s a reason my given name is Jennifer, the most popular first name for women in North America of all time; my parents didn’t want to give anyone an excuse for excluding me.

Popular culture–the soap operas, the fashion magazines, the celebrity gossip, the hockey fandom–is a way in. For my grandfather, it meant listening to CBC Radio all day long. For my mother, it meant learning to bake the perfect sponge cake. For my father, it meant listening to Chuck Berry and dropping his accent as soon as he could. For my older sisters, it meant perming their hair and never missing an episode of Dallas. And, for me, it meant taping New Kids on the Block songs off the radio and, later, sending love letters to Beck. These were all ways that we engaged with popular culture. These were the things we talked about at the office, when we applied for a mortgage, whenever we walked into new situations where we were the minority.

Over the years, I’ve come to understand that there is a distinction between popular culture and what critics or gatekeepers would call “good” culture. As an author of literary novels, I’m professionally a creator of good culture, of the sorts of things we want our children to study. Mozart. Abstract expressionism. The difference between a sestina and a villanelle. As a human though, I’m a relentless consumer of popular culture. Rihanna. Lipstick. Youtube videos of dogs teaching babies how to crawl.

Now, when I consider the question of why people of colour don’t engage with culture, I know that this is a loaded issue. It’s a privilege to listen to John Cage or eat molecular gastronomy because, if you do, then you are immediately interested in something the majority of the world has never had access to or studied. It means you don’t need to relate to the masses, often because you’ve been a member of that majority your entire life.

So, the truth is that people of colour actually do engage with culture, but it’s often popular culture, the stuff that makes us feel like we do belong, even if it’s superficial or fleeting. The person we’re talking to may think that immigration is a terrible thing, but if we can engage with him or her on the season finale of Game of Thrones, then it’s a small victory, one more point for us in the never-ending game of Who Fits In. It’s not that we don’t care about music or theatre or performance art, it’s that these interests often dovetail with the very human need to be included, and therefore manifest in our engagement with tabloids, hot dogs and The Fast and the Furious.

So the next time you’re sitting in a meeting, organizing a cultural event, remember that inclusion starts with context. What kind of content will make people of colour feel like they belong? Has your content been focused on a certain kind of culture that feels more like a barrier? What can popular culture, and its audience, teach us?

And perhaps, just perhaps, watching Deadpool isn’t a waste of time. You might just learn something.

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