North Central College student Abigail Van Hook speaks at TEDx about racial identity

Feb 27, 2015

North Central College student Abigail Van Hook ’15 spoke at a TEDx event about how heritage and culture play roles in shaping racial identity.

Van Hook was one of six student speakers selected to make three-minute presentations Feb. 13 at the inaugural TEDxNorthCentralCollege event. Topics were inspired by the theme “Changing the World for Good.” Van Hook’s talk was titled “Unpacking My Baggage: Reframing Racial Identity.”

Van Hook, a global studies major from Lincoln, Ill., framed her presentation on research she conducted during a study abroad experience in Ghana, Africa.

“If you’re ever in Ghana you’re probably going to hear a word, ‘oburoni.’ It essentially means white, or a foreigner,” she said. “It’s not mean, it’s not derogatory; it’s completely cultural.”

Van Hook explained that although she is half Taiwanese and half Zimbabwean, she has identified herself as white.

“I’m also adopted, so my parents, my grandparents, my cousins and my aunts and uncles—they’re all white,” she said. “I’ve lived a very white life. I’ve had the white privilege minus all the sunburns.”

She said when it came to shaping her identity she didn’t consider heritage as much as she did culture in defining who she is. She said she studied abroad with a black male friend who was also raised in a white culture and had a very different perspective on his racial identity.

“He’d been telling himself his whole life that he was really African, that he just needed to get back to the motherland,” Van Hook said. “But when he went back to Ghana he was confronted with culture, and they didn’t accept him as one of their own because there are cultural differences.”

Van Hook said the experience changed the way she thinks about how people form opinions about their racial identities.

“For me and my friend, we need to unpack our baggage and recognize that culture and heritage play a role in defining who we are. We can’t rely solely on culture and we can’t rely completely on heritage,” she said. “I want to change this paradigm of how we’re defining ourselves because we will never grow and experience the richness and the depth of who we are as individuals and the people around us if we keep on ignoring the factors that created us.”

TED is a nonprofit devoted to spreading ideas, usually in the form of short, powerful talks. TED began in 1984 as a conference where Technology, Entertainment and Design converged, and today covers topics ranging from science to business to global issues. Independently run TEDx events help share ideas in communities around the world.