TEDxMarshallU Looks at Identity From Various Angles


Courtesy of TEDxMarshallU

TEDx’s speakers gathered on stage.

Rafael Alfonso, Content Editor

“I was a small sprinkle of pepper in a big bowl of salt,” said Marshall alumnus RaShad Sanders at the fifth annual TEDxMarshallU event on Feb. 25. Sanders and seven other speakers delivered TED-style talks on the event’s theme: complexities of identity.

For his talk, Sanders told the story of how and why he changed his name from RaShad to Harold after moving from Detroit, Michigan to Huntington, West Virginia.

In Detroit, Sanders described how he grew up surrounded by people who looked and thought like him as a Black man or, in his words, “in the majority.” He described how he only had one white friend in school, but the community “never really thought of him as different.” 

“Moving from Michigan to West Virginia,” Sanders went on to say, “gave me a crash course in being in the minority.”

After moving, Sanders noticed how few to no students who looked like him played sports like tennis and baseball, and he spoke on being called a racial slur for the first time while in West Virginia. In response to this social pressure, Sanders decided to go by his legal first first name, Harold. 

“They might think Harold is a white guy,” Sanders said when explaining his predictions to how job interviewers might react to seeing the name Harold instead of RaShad on an application. 

By the end of his talk, however, Sanders described how and why he changed his name back to RaShad from Harold, a decision that helped him reconcile conflicting aspects of history and identity.

“I’m just a current product of my minority and majority experiences,” he said. 

Ashalia Aggarwal, another Marshall graduate and a first-year student at the University’s Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine, also touched on her racial identity in her talk; however, she focused more on her experience being diagnosed with leukemia at the age of five and the resulting hospital stays she grew up with. 

Aggarwal explained how she “had to grapple with my identity through books” during her time in and out of hospitals. One such book she highlighted during her talk was “Fairest” by Gail Carson Levine, a novel about a princess named Aza—whose physical appearance reminded Aggarwal of herself as a young woman of Indian and Hawaiian descent. 

The comfort and clarity she found in reading inspired Aggarwal to establish her own non-profit, The Giving Palm, which provides books for hospitalized children. Later in her talk, she described giving a book to one of her first patients and the excitement that patient expressed in seeing a book about a character that “looks like me.” 

Audy Perry, executive director of the Heritage Farm Foundation, related his talk to children as well as the accuracy of the labels educated versus uneducated. He explained that those without “little letters” after their names, like M.D. or Ph.D., still have a wealth of knowledge surrounding their life experiences and the problems they’ve had to solve. 

Building on this, Perry challenged the use of asking children, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Instead, he proposed asking, “What problem do you want to solve?” 

“When you find the problem you want to solve,” he said, “it is usually a beautiful marriage of something you’re good at and something you’re passionate about.”

Meanwhile, Dr. Razan Khan, a Toronto-based pharmacist and MU School of Pharmacy alumnus, provided a different way of connecting with people and the many facets of their identity: the acronym BE NATURAL.

BE stood for “bring energy,” which Khan connected to research from the American Psychological Association and other studies that supported the benefits of engaging with others. 

NA stood for “never assume,” which led to anecdotes about Khan having his assumptions subverted after getting to know people more, like a hedge fund manager he met on a plane or a family from Tennessee. 

TU stood for “talk with understanding,” a skill he said requires that, “You really need to know what’s going on.”

RA stood for “reflect authentically” because “sharing your authentic self helps immensely” in the process of understanding others, he said.

Lastly, L stood for “learn their truth,” which Khan described as an active choice that helps to validate the other person’s experience. 

“The assumed singularity of others isn’t real,” he said towards the end of his talk. “People aren’t one dimensional. They’re multi-faceted.”

Kathleen McAuliffe, adjunct professor at the University of Miami who teaches about the human microbiome and environmental journalism, also talked on the different factors of a person’s personality, albeit from a more biological perspective. 

She explained how the microbiome of harmless bacteria living in a person’s gut can influence their brain in a variety of ways, including their mood, weight and possibly their personality. She referenced studies done on mice to illustrate these effects, such as when mice exposed to bacteria from the gut of an overweight twin also became overweight; meanwhile, mice exposed to bacteria from the skinnier twin remained skinnier. 

She explained how researchers are currently looking into the relationship between the gut’s microbiome and diseases like depression, ALS and Parkinsons. This research has already resulted in various kinds of bacteria-based treatments for those afflictions, McAuliffe said. 

“The person you call I is really we,” she said as something for her audience to consider at the end of the talk.

On the other hand, Dr. Hilary Brewster, director of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Marshall, took a more outward approach to finding herself. Brewster’s talk described her various travels from New Zealand, Cambodia, Vietnam and more. She explained both the benefits and difficulties of traveling alone—how “it forces you to consider your value” because “you have limited time and, presumably, limited money.”

She told the story of breaking her vegetarianism to eat insects like ants and tarantulas in Cambodia. She also talked about how she “had to wheel and deal my way through the corruption of the visa processing center” after losing her phone, wallet and passport in Vietnam. Over the course of most of her stories, though, Brewster described the people who helped and accompanied on her travels—many of whom she never saw again. 

“Who are you when you say goodbye to people you’re never going to see again?” she said in conclusion of her talk.  

Sassa Wilkes, the first visual artist-in-residence at West Edge Factory in Huntington, also found himself through community. His talk described his project, titled “100 Badass Women,” wherein he painted 100 influential women from throughout history and how that ultimately led him to coming out as transgender. 

Wilkes said he started the project at the end of “that dumpster fire of a year,” 2020, while quarantining. He started with Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, whose death initially inspired the project. What motivated him further into it, however, was the support and conversation started online after he uploaded the portraits to his website, Wilkes said. 

He described how those conversations, which dealt with a variety of topics like substance abuse, gender roles and the research into the various women he painted became what Wilkes looked forward to the most. He said that the support he felt from the community built around his project helped him share the truth of his identity, his “authentic self” as he said.

“I realized I do want to show up,” Wilkes said. 

The last speaker of the night and award-winning performer, Carmen Mitzi Sinnot, also used art to find herself and communicate the hardships she endured to do so. 

“Art and community recalibrated my consciousness,” Sinnot said. 

She told and acted out the story of her leaving central Appalachia and her family to go to New York to pursue her dreams of becoming a performer. However, the entertainment industry “didn’t have space for complex identities either,” she said. 

Sinnot then described a period of feeling directionless, depressed and rejected. Her talk tied this back to her experience growing up as a young woman of Black, white and Native American descent and the lack of belonging she felt among the different social groups in her public school. 

This period ended, however, when counseling inspired Sinnot to find her absent father, a Vietnam War veteran, in Hawaii. 

“Seeing him face-to-face was amazing and devastating,” Sinnot said. 

Learning more about her father’s own hardships and later finding him further inspired Sinnot to write her own one-woman show, “SNAPSHOT.” 

From there, her talk described how she became a performing artist with an emphasis on social change in her work, and she explained the impact art can have on social injustices. 

TEDxMarshallU is an annual event now sponsored by the Honors College. Several Marshall faculty and students helped to organize the event, whom Dr. Brian Kinghorn (the event’s organizer) compared them to the Chicago Bulls of the 1990s in terms of their quality.