By Aymen Sherwani, September 15 2022—
It’s officially September — the return of loafers, sweater vests, hot coffee, romanticizing dreary weather and reading leather-bound classics from the 17th century. It’s not uncommon to see a university student on their way to their political philosophy class in a boxy blazer-turtleneck outfit, looking straight off the set of Kill Your Darlings (2013). Adding an ancient charm to learning, dark academia is a fun way students rationalize and romanticize the stress of the school year and colder weather — picture walking alongside ivy-covered academic institutions and studying under the grecian statues located in the Atrium. At the same time — and this is coming from someone who absolutely loves this aesthetic — dark academia is deeply embedded in western European notions of what it means to be an intellectual, whether it be through the way someone dresses, what literature they read or even the way they decide to decorate their bedrooms.
Outwardly, there is no issue here, but the real issue lies in the idea that to fit the part of an “academic,” one must look like a tweed-wearing professor from Oxfordshire and have the “pride” of reading every dead-white-guy book starting from Plato all the way to Freud. The issue lies in the fact that such an aesthetic has never claimed to be inclusive, racially or with regard to socioeconomic backgrounds, and — at its core — prides itself on its inaccessibility and the idea that not everyone has the means to be a part of such a lifestyle. While it does glorify cultural exchange and learning languages, these are limited to western Europe as well — glorifying France and Italy for their architectural facades, churches and languages but avoiding others. It is rare to find the geometric precision of Spanish mosques on a dark academia Pinterest board or see others romanticize learning Mandarin or Arabic — two languages and cultures that have been at the forefront of technological innovation — but we already know why that is the case.
Not everyone has the time to learn languages they’ll never use or skulk around dark corners of a vintage bookstore in an Italian wool coat while holding a seven dollar coffee. Not everyone purchases a first edition Atwood book, only for it to collect dust on the shelf but still give you the prestige of saying that you own it. Most importantly, not everyone wants to reinforce European standards of intellectualism through the clothes they wear either because, for the longest time, that’s how colonial powers stratified the people living in their peripheries alongside a spectrum of how assimilated with European ideals one could really be — further equating Indigenous cultural ways of knowing and appearances as the antithesis of enlightened and, thus, socioeconomic progress.
As a result, dark academia — in my mind — is a glorification of a time and standard of living that is reflected in the colonial and post-colonial struggles that many people of colour still live with. Depending on where you’re from, it’s likely that you’ve internalized the idea that you won’t be taken seriously as an intellectual if you don’t adhere to a standard of whiteness in the way you look, which dead-white-guy book you reference across your dry, witty, humour — even the way you speak.
So the question remains — if you as a person of colour are adhering to the standards of dark academia, are you contributing to your own internalized oppression? Are your stylistic and intellectual preferences a reflection of a colonial legacy that is deeply entrenched within your psyche? Is it really not that deep? What about people who incorporate elements of their own cultures within the aesthetic, such as Indian Academia and African American Academia? Do they dismantle structures of Eurocentrism or legitimize them through the participation of more diverse participants?
As someone who doesn’t mind it — I feel like it’s important to remind yourself that you are not a reflection of the clothes you wear, so as to not give yourself the illusion that wearing tweed blazers and loafers actually make you smart. Don’t be the person that’s on academic probation thinking that they’re better than everyone else because they hangout at bookstores, wear trench coats or write with fountain pens — I assure you, these won’t help your GPA as much as self-authenticity will.
This article is a part of our Voices section.