Q&A with Wall Scholar Tara Mayer

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The Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies (PWIAS) caught up with Tara Mayer, a 2019 Wall Scholar and Professor in the Department of History at the University of British Columbia, to discuss her research on racial identity, cultural conditioning and epistemology, as well as her ideas on multiculturalism and Justin Trudeau, and her upcoming International Research Roundtable on visual literacy.

The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

PWIAS: How would you describe your research to someone with limited knowledge of your field? 

Tara Mayer: I'm a historian, and my research focuses on 18th and 19th century South Asia. I examine how people understood their identities, and how identities were constructed in the colonial context. So not only European identities but also various Indian identities or South Asian identities. I also look at emerging ideas of race and gender in the 18th and 19th century and how those ideas play out in the colonial context.

And I look at material culture as a marker of identity, specifically what people wore, what they consumed, what they ate, what they had in their homes, and how these material things not only reinforce existing identities but actually actively construct a readable or identifiable identity for others. 

These centuries were a very fluid, shifting landscape in which identities were in flux and shifting constantly. As opposed to the way that we think about identity and race now, as something that is genetically fixed and stable. A huge part of that is caused by power dynamics. 

PWIAS: Can you expand on the idea of fixed identities vs. fluid ones, and how that relates to the idea of multiculturalism? 

Tara Mayer: Europeans in the 18th century understood their identity as a composite of many different factors; notions of civility, or politeness, education, decorum, and dress were part of it. As was where you were born and what accent or dialect you had. Skin color wasn’t the only significant factor in determining race. But parallel to that, in the 18th century, Europeans were classifying and ranking different groups of humans in the same way that they were doing to the animal world. 

There was the sense of Europeans being at the top of a particular hierarchy and yet having that status be comprised of many different things that were objectively fluid or instable meant ideas about race in the 18th century were anxiety laden. For example, someone leaving England at the age of 17 and traveling across the world and residing in the south seas or in India over several decades might speak differently, dress differently, look differently, eat differently, behave differently. And so race was not seen as something to sort of take lightly but something to safeguard and protect. 

I think that multiculturalism has been celebrated as a triumph of something that is hugely romanticized. I myself am mixed race, and often, mixed race people are seen as the ultimate embodiment of a post-racial era. And I think that that can be really myopic. It excludes all the ways in which these racial hierarchies are still embedded within our society and the ways in which multiculturalism continues to produce these anxieties around the loss of culture. 

PWIAS: Seems like this topic is very relevant when we consider the current media cycle. What is your take on the recently released photos of Trudeau wearing brownface?

Tara Mayer: Right now we are all really struck by these images of Trudeau in brownface and blackface, and these performances of different identities are so central to the work that I do. Part of it is asking who has the ability to put on different identities and who doesn't. There's a tremendous degree of experimentation, crossing over, and moving between different registers visually, culturally, linguistically, and socially in different circles. 

But that doesn't go in every direction. I think that what we need to keep an eye on when we're looking at images like this is which people are in positions of power to do this. People who are in positions of relative authority use that as a freedom for this kind of experimentation and, what is very often, mockery of communities of color and the cultural traditions in those communities in ways that reduce the complexity of authentic cultural experience, heritage, and histories of struggle to costumes that can be put on or taken off at a whim. 

PWIAS: What does the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies provide that you are looking forward to?

Tara Mayer: I recently read that that in conferences about 90 percent of the most interesting, spontaneous, and dynamic exchanges happen over meals, as opposed to when you are reading your 20-minute paper and being questioned about it. And so I think that what is so exciting for me about being here is the tremendous scope for those kinds of spontaneous, non book ended conversations where you don't feel as though there is a start and end point of what you're going to be discussing.

PWIAS: Can you tell us about your upcoming International Research Roundtable at PWIAS titled Visual Literacy: Seeing, Making and Reading Images across the Disciplines?

Tara Mayer: We live in a historical moment in which the average person consumes and ingests more images than ever in human history. And so our ability to engage critically with what we're seeing is incredibly important. 

Additionally, as a historian who works on the margins of my discipline, the sources that I use require literacy when it comes to visual material. It’s something that over years of teaching I have found that students lack entirely, but I've become aware that being visually literate means many different things depending on which discipline you're in. 

In economics it might be the ability to read certain graphs or charts, in history it might be the ability to look at portraiture, or photographs, or sketches and diaries. And so I suddenly realized that there's this potential to ask people from different disciplines what being visually literate meant for them within their field and what that might mean for research more broadly.

I've partnered with Dominic Lopes, from the Department of Philosophy, who works on aesthetics and visual perception. We’re bringing together people who are artists, journalists, art historians, curators, as well as people who are doing data visualization from the Faculty of Sciences and the Faculty of Medicine. 

In addition to just to geeking out with academics at the Peter Wall Institute for two days, we're also going to be hosting a public event with photographer Sheila Pree Bright. Her work creates a direct line between viewer and subject and disrupts mainstream narratives about African-American communities and activists.