Who determines the criteria for expertise?

To call myself an “expert” feels like I’m committing some sort of crime. But I think I’m going to allow myself a little bit of tenderness today, and acknowledge that there are things I have spent years learning which deserve recognition.

I started writing poetry in high school, like any other shy introverted kid. One day, a classmate discovered my notebook under my desk while I was away. When I returned to my seat, I found out that it had been passed around and quite a handful of people had read my poetry, and told me that they liked it.

I started writing more often after that, even started my own blog (which is now discontinued, sadly). I used to write about the loneliness that comes with moving cities frequently. New York is the tenth city I’m living in and I’m only 20, you can imagine how hard of a time I must’ve had constantly adjusting to new cultures.

But as I grew older, I started questioning the loss of culture, language, and heritage that comes with migration/immigration. Mostly, the pain of colonialism. Why was I writing in the language of my colonizer? Why was I forbidden from speaking my mother tongue in school? Why couldn’t I translate my poems and read them to my mother?

A poet whose work was particularly inspiring to me was Safia Elhillo. She writes about her experience of being a Black Muslim immigrant woman who also moved cities frequently growing up. Some lines I love from her collection Alien Suite are:

“i have an accent in every language

i want to be left alone but    that’s not how you make grandchildren

i can’t go home with you    home is a place in time

(that’s not how you get me        to dance)

i’m not from here     i’m not from anywhere”

Lately, I have been trying to write about topics that I struggle to express: being queer and suffering from mental illness. I also started a poetry club at Queens College this year to foster a community of young poets. It hasn’t had a great start due to COVID but I’m hoping it survives till we get back on campus.

Maybe I am not an expert at poetry but I have been wondering who determines the criteria for “expertise” when not everyone in the world has access to the same resources to build expertise? Who has the privilege to qualify for awards like the Pulitzer anyway? I think categorizing people on the basis of their skill and knowledge isn’t too far away from white supremacy and classism.

When it comes to poetry specifically, I can’t help but think about how my grandmothers are illiterate. And even though my mom is bilingual, I belong to the first generation of women who can communicate in English. I would be lying if I said all languages are regarded with the same level of respect in the literary world. You definitely need to know some level of English to gain wider recognition.

With this background, wouldn’t it be a little unrealistic for me to expect that I can turn into an expert within one generation? This applies to most of my peers too; we are held up to standards that we aren’t even given the resources to prepare for. And maybe we all deserve to be known as experts in our own rights.

7 thoughts on “Who determines the criteria for expertise?

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  2. Kashema Hutchinson (she/her)

    Your last sentence is the answer. You have navigated two spaces and worlds in multiple cities and can attest to it–don’t discredit that! You have realized the value placed on both languages. As a first generation, you hold knowledge and culture of your family’s world and the world you reside and you apply accordingly.

    Also, I love that you decided to be tender with yourself! It can be hard at times for many of us. Continue to do so…

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