Walter Thompson-Hernández, multimedia journalist and current doctoral student at UCLA, visited Occidental College Monday, March 27 to discuss his research, which aims to bridge the gap between academia and photography and popular culture. Thompson-Hernandez’s lecture explored the historical framework of brown and black relations including anti-black sentiments within the Latinx community. Thompson-Hernández sought to highlight the experiences of Angelenos facing issues of racial classification and assumed singular ethnic identity.
The Latino/a & Latin American Studies department at Occidental College and the Institute for the Study of Los Angeles (ISLA) co-sponsored the Blaxicans of LA lecture in Fowler 202. As a part of their spring speaker series, Professor Raul Villa, department chair, explained that the event is a part of an educational and promotional campaign to bring awareness about the stdy of Latinxs across the hemisphere to Occidental. According to Villa, Latinx representation is an important component in a global education.
Three years ago, Thompson-Hernández started the Instagram page Blaxicans of LA to address the complexity of intersectional experiences — especially those of “Blaxican,” a combination of African and Mexican heritage.
Professor Jeremiah Axelrod, ISLA director, recounted meeting Thompson-Hernández about a year ago at a Blaxicans of LA photography exhibit at Avenue 50, where he first invited Thompson-Hernández to come to Occidental.
“As soon as I saw his exhibition and got the chance to chat with him about it, I thought, ‘Wow, we need to get this guy to campus,'” Axelrod said. “One of the whole points of our institute is to pop that Oxy bubble and to try to get from the community on the campus.”
As he described the experiences of his subjects, Thompson-Hernández painted a landscape of Los Angeles’ racial relations between black and brown communities and the future of American multiracialism. Thompson-Hernández explained that academic literature focusing on the complexity of intersectional experiences is unique compared to that of the average person.
“[The Instagram page] was started for people who aren’t in academia. People who could maybe understand what I was doing in a clearer way by looking at an Instagram account than they could by sending them this huge, esoteric academic paper I had just written,” Thompson-Hernández said.
Thompson-Hernandez’s lecture also unpacked notions of anti-blackness within the Latinx community. He explained that anti-blackness is perpetuated in Latinx communities because it consists of pre-migration erasures of blackness and post-migration adoption of U.S. perceptions of black bodies. Through his work, Thompson-Hernández seeks to challenge the black and white binary that dominates the way Americans think about race and multiracial identities, and the way they are perpetuated through institutional backings.
“Most multiracial experiences deal with white and something else. [With the Blaxican identity] there’s no way to identify with whiteness in any way. You’re talking about representing two of the most aggrieved races in this country, arguably. Folks overrepresented in our prisons and underrepresented in leadership and positions of prominence and wealth,” Thompson-Hernández said.
Thompson-Hernández explained a real, sometimes violent, tension existing between the two communities.
“There is a certain way we have to think about what it means to be a person of color in this country and how so many of the different forms of oppression impact us,” Thompson-Hernández said.
One experience presented was the story of Memo, the host of a prominent underground party in Los Angeles, Night of the Blaxican. Thompson-Hernández read out Memo’s narrative of originally rejecting his blackness and strongly identifying with his Mexican heritage and then gradually reaching a love for both parts of his identity. According to Thompson-Hernández, “Blaxican” has come to serve as a term that reclaims the past, honoring both sides and intricacies of those identities.
Looking to the future, Thompson-Hernández considered the United States’ changing, increasingly multiracial landscape. According to Thompson-Hernández, ideas of beauty aesthetic dominate mainstream narratives of multiracial identity. Through the beauty lens, genuine conversations about multiracial identity often fail to be impactful. In contrast, by focusing on real people Thompson-Herández uses his photography and research to challenge this model.
“I’m trying to present and take photos in a way that honors people’s experiences in a way that really shows the complexity of the human experience and all its different iterations,” Thompson-Hernández said.