The conference “Thinking Its Presence: Racial Vertigo, BlackBrown Feelings, and Significantly Problematic Objects” was held at Pomona College from March 30 through April 2. Presenters used interdisciplinary approaches such as poetics, film and archival studies to explicate the reverberations of trauma and racial vertigo, critical race theory and social justice.
A vast conglomeration of distinguished academics, authors and 5C students attended and presented in the conference’s 40-plus events, including panels, performance workshops, screenings and readings.
Pomona English professor Prageeta Sharma founded the conference series “Thinking Its Presence: Race, Creative Writing, and Literary Studies” in 2014.
“The conference came [from] my desire to bring the lenses of reading and thinking together and to celebrate BIPOC scholars by making them primary,” Sharma said.
The conference series was named after the eponymous book by Williams American Studies professor Dorothy Wang. Advocating for a method of poetry reading that mirrors the kaleidoscopic complexities of existence, Wang argues that aesthetic forms and social contexts are inseparable.
The late cultural theorist Lauren Berlant described cruel optimism as a condition in which “something you desire is actually an obstacle to your own flourishing.” The object, e.g. institution, ideal, fantasy, becomes “significantly problematic,” promising harm regardless of whether the subject stays attached or disconnects from the problematic object. Yet this profound damage can be a means for equally impactful healing. Pomona English and Africana studies professor Valorie Thomas terms this phenomena racial vertigo.
“I took a couple of themes of people I admire and I brought them into conversation,” Sharma said. “I wanted to celebrate the thinking around me and build a thesis statement to keep community happening, [in the hopes that] people come with what they have to bring.”
Dr. James Lee, UC Irvine Asian American Studies professor, spoke in a panel titled “If Care Were the First Learning Objective.” Lee discussed how cruel optimism manifests itself as harmful rhetoric in the form of predictive outcomes, such as the notions of the model minority and the American Dream. He also discussed how institutions harm disabled and chronically ill individuals.
Audience members then envisioned what an academic institution that cared for its marginalized population would look like, leading to debates over whether it is even possible for institutions to create environments capable of care.
“Genetically, I’m Asian, but I’ve spent my entire life in Idaho, which is like 95 percent white. So I feel weirder in a group of Asians than in a group of white people, but I’ve never actually considered delving into that and how that might have affected me. This conference opened my eyes to people processing what vertigo is, and I had not even paused to consider it.”
Sam Pedley PO ‘23 valued the conversational structures of many of the panels.
“I’ve learned so much, not as a teacher to student [dynamic], but rather teaching as sharing and being human,” Pedley said.
Beyond the reimagining of pedagogies and institutions, in “Writing Mourning,” a tribute to Black and brown luminaries Urvashi Vaid, bell hooks and Kamilah Aisha Moon, speakers used postcolonial theory to reconceptualize death as a dynamic condition, illuminating the concepts of social and spiritual death.
Education and healing were not mutually exclusive. On the contrary, many events bridged the personal and theoretical in some fashion.
Nurlan Gnadinger PZ ’26 appreciated the reflective aspects.
“Genetically, I’m Asian, but I’ve spent my entire life in Idaho, which is like 95 percent white. So I feel weirder in a group of Asians than in a group of white people, but I’ve never actually considered delving into that and how that might have affected me,” Gnadinger said. “This conference opened my eyes to people processing what vertigo is, and I had not even paused to consider it.”
Drawing inspiration from Santería, an African diasporic religion, and the ideas of Black queer feminist icon Audre Lorde, Nigerian-American writer Hannah Eko led the closing ceremony. She conceived of racial vertigo as “unmetabolized trauma,” and told the audience to courageously enter the vertigo, with the aid of spiritual grounding and pleasure, in order to access the source of emotions, robbed by vertigo.
For Shreya Kamra PO ‘23, Eko’s ideas aligned with her academic pursuits.
“The talk with Eko was really similar to my senior thesis project. I’m looking at how neuroscience can be leveraged for self empowerment,” Kamra said. “Some of the practices that Eko mentioned about grounding and somatic healing … are definitely helpful in managing other mental health experiences.”
Throughout the conference, aesthetic approaches and reflections of lived experience did not function as mere crutches for theoretical inquiry. Rather, theoretical inquiry embedded itself into the presenters’ art and speech.
“I hope that we as speakers and faculty have shared what students might need to talk about,” Sharma said. “It might be a seed of something that [one] experiences in [one’s] own sociality.”