Monday, October 8, 2012

Public Displays of my Blackness: Personal Politics with Public Consequences

I’m a girl from the little Island of Barbados. For the most part, I grew up with folk that look like me—some might have been darker, some might have been lighter. My family is an interesting mix of people that reflect the legacy of colonialism and slavery. At the age of 16 I decided to permanently reside in the US. My college experience (at the undergraduate level) was not always the most challenging, but my experience with race was a different story. I won’t take you through my various experiences with race; instead, I’ll focus on how I negotiated my personal politics with the public display of my Blackness. 

Talking about race is not always easy. However, I believe that for my personal wellness race, like money and intimate relationships, must be dealt with even if it makes us uncomfortable. At the age of 16 I did not understand that I could have a personal politics on this issue. I couldn’t even name what I felt. However, I did feel the need to confront some public representations of poor Black women (even if veiled in the “legitimacy” of political discourse). About three years into my education, one of my Economics professors stated that on the 1st and 15th of every month drug sales increase because that’s when welfare checks are received. I was the only person of color in the class. No one said anything. Here I sat, a 19 year old immigrant, still learning to confront and understand racial differences, feeling to my core that something was wrong with this statement. So I raised my hand and asked (I’m paraphrasing here) “Doesn’t the rest of America also get paid on those days?” I can’t remember her response, but I can remember how I felt. Let’s fast forward to my experiences in academia where I sit in the position of colleague and professor. Most of my professional life has been spent at Historically White Institutions where I find myself in the position of being the only one in my department and/or one of a few in the entire institution. That same feeling that I had as a 19 year old still raises its head from time to time. Something isn’t right and will I be the lone figure to raise my hand. 

Many moons have passed since I sat in the classroom as a 19 year old young woman and I’ve had many experiences with race that have left me wondering “why am I doing this to myself”. The beauty of all of these challenges is that I’ve come to a place where I manage the public display of my Blackness. By the public display of my Blackness, I am referring to situations where being the only one makes me stand out. For example, attending graduation and family day are events where my Blackness is put on display—often in stark contrast. Needless to say, these very public events can leave me with diverse feelings ranging from anger to sadness. I get tired of having these feelings. I get tired of wondering, why? So I made a very conscious decision to manage the display of my Blackness in the face of systemic and institutional racism.
Source: Ad

For one, I’m unapologetically Black. No I do not embody the stereotypically constructed image of the angry Black woman. This construction suggests that my anger is mis-placed and that I should be eternally grateful that I was given a chance to be in academia or any other majority White space. Being unapologetically Black means that I don’t apologize for anyone’s discomfort at my presence. It also means that I don’t pretend that Blackness does not mean something to both me and the person(s) that I happen to be occupying a specific space with at a specific time. For me, being unapologetically Black means that I don’t have to wear a mask; a mask that often hides mental illness, such as depression. I don’t go around crying “Woe is me”, but I also don’t hide the struggles that I often confront when I disrupt White spaces and resulting narratives. 

Second, I choose (within reason) when I want to be on public display. So there are some functions I simply don’t attend. Some might say that this is not collegial. Others might say, aren’t you afraid that you won’t get tenure. I’m tenured and even when I was not I made choices concerning the public display of my Blackness. This is about the exercise of my personal power. Nothing makes me feel worse than being disempowered. We all have to learn the unspoken and spoken “rules of the game” by which we are to be judged. However, these rules do not have t render us powerless. We can make choices. For every three events I’m invited to, I typically say no to two. I am able to do such, because I make trade-offs—I find other ways to engage in service to my institution where the display of my Blackness can be minimized and where I can also feel that I have some level of control over the display. One can be a team player and still have power.

Third, I’ve learn how to create safe spaces. Not safe spaces only in terms of physical space, but also in terms of mental space. It’s about transcending the boundaries in which I’m often confined. I do this by organizing my physical space to reflect who I am. Every small token counts! Again, I make no apologies for surrounding myself with Black art, etc. This physical space provides me with an opportunity to create the mental space I often need to manage the public display of my Blackness. When I can’t escape to my office, I escape via my mind. I fill my mind with stories of Black women who’ve “triumphed”. I surround myself with the stories of Audre Lorde, my mother and my grandmother. These are women who mother me through their narratives. I surround myself with Bible verses that help me to transcend to a space where I feel safe and secure.

Finally, self reflection is a constant part of my consciousness concerning the public display of my Blackness. Periodically, I ask myself, “Why am I doing what I’m doing?” Asking this question is relatively easy. The difficulty is in answering honestly. The tools I use for self reflection sometimes change. What remains constant is staying true to who I am regardless of the situation in which I find myself. I’ve found that some of us, particularly Black women, spend a considerable about of time trying to figure out how to fit in. As a result, we forget who we are and our purpose. We twist in the wind trying to embody other’s understanding of how we out to publicly perform our identity. After watching some women I know struggle with their presentation of self, I made a very conscious decision not to wear a mask. For example, I jokingly tell my students “I know that I’m Black, I’ve been Black for 21 years.” This is my attempt to openly address that fact that we are racialized beings and we can choose how we want our racialization to influence our interactions. Some students don’t always understand this, but I’ve found that being open allows me to publicly confront stereotypes and beliefs about my role in the classroom. When I first entered academia, I could not do this. In part, because of was afraid of the consequences. I took some time to reflect on my perceptions of the consequences of publicly recognizing my Blackness. Eventually, I concluded that while I could not control the consequences, there was one that I absolutely could not live with. I could not live with the consequence of denying how all of my identities interact and intersect to make me who I am. 

As a Black woman, not only do I struggle with the proverbial battle of self-identity, but I also struggle with other people's conceptions of who I am and how I should be. Black women are expected to be angry and loud or meek and subservient. I am neither. This often means that some folk literally don’t know what to do with me. I’ve disrupted their narratives by controlling, in a very honest way, the public display of my Blackness.  My toolbox is a constant work in progress as I seek tools to handle not only my understanding and performance of my Blackness in public spaces, but also for how others understand and expect me to perform such. 

This was first published at All Black Woman

No comments:

Post a Comment