“I am a product of an invisible veil of regional ignorance, self-imposed and systematically conflated — an ignorance that violently separated and crippled me from my truth. The result of which left me weakened; unable to critically question the environment that created me; unable to seek the necessary motivation pursuant to the study of my culture; my history. I was tamed. I was beaten. I was asleep.”
Children in the United States first learn of race between the ages of four and six years old, and so it may seem logical that my very first memory of race should spring to mind with zealous fortitude and clarity given my upbringing amidst the southern pockets of ‘sweet home’ Alabama. Yet, to the contrary, my earliest memories of race seem to evade me, purposefully overshadowed by what I once deemed a “normal” childhood – one in which my development and personality, thoughts and intelligence were greatly influenced by carefully orchestrated pillars of privilege, institutions of seemingly diverse public school systems, and clusters of white “frienemies” in tandem.
Though, what are initially clearer are the implications for this mis-education on the manifestation of my self-identity. Even now, as the sound of my ticking keystrokes rhythmically guide a once buried memory from person to paper, I find myself transported to a nearly decade’s old classroom, discussing the racial implications found within a literary piece of text I no longer remember. And while the details of the text, its title, evade me for they are of minimal importance, what are most evident are the circumstances that brought forth significant feelings of ‘otherness’ at a moment’s notice.
Before me stood a meek, feebly dressed woman of Caucasian descent, brilliantly middle-aged, and deeply versed in the symbolic conventions of English literature – I admired both her knowledge and her authority. Standing afore our cozy classroom of adolescent overachievers she led the charged discussion surrounding our latest piece of work.
Admittedly, I sat as a passive observer, analyzing the ways in which those I considered academic comrades debated various forms of marginalization as presented within the text. I was intrigued by their candor and comfort, yet, as the conversation soon turned from theory to reactionary my contentment toward the inclusive environment was brought to a screeching halt.
“LaKecia, would you mind sharing specifically how you felt after reading the passage? And then, it would also be great to hear from Student X.”
An eerie stillness fell upon the room as all ears perked to receive our tokenized responses, and in that moment we were ‘other.’ As my eyes swiftly surveyed the room for Student X, I found comfort in a shared moment of malice. He too donned the same melanated skin I was in, and while needn’t a word be spoken we each became pawns of privilege; we became community. Both called upon to breakdown the intricacies of imbalanced race relations, disparate prejudices, and blatant bigotry. I no longer felt included or respected for my intellect. I had just been commoditized into a baseless opportunity for circumstantial soundbite, the black perspective in twenty seconds or less, consumption for the majority.
Prior to this point, I had remained wrapped in a comforting cocoon of innocence and complacency. I actively disengaged with the cultural markers of my ‘blackness,’ deemed myself just American, and to my misfortune suffered internalized feelings of ‘less than’ without recognizing, addressing, or even questioning the cause. These were the variable effects of attending to principles of the colorblind society; however willingly or not.
Far removed from the antiquated days of antebellum codes of conduct or the violent/obligatory days of Jim Crow, the dark cloud of unspoken expectations for black (wo)men seeking ambitious careers or futures still engulfs and chokes the southern pockets of this nation. To carve out a position in the fast track for achievement the silenced expectation is that we happily step into the role of positive racial representative at will while simultaneously turning a blind eye to the skin we are in thereby performing the tolerable, non-threatening aspects of blackness in the name of diversity. Yet, this is not progress.
To be colorblind, for me, meant to resolve myself to a life without acknowledging my color or its implications on my social positioning while also standing constantly aware of it in every situational circumstance. To utter the word Black, address offensive comments or questions, even speak on my singular points of view or experiential reactions would have worked to disrupt my shallow majority acceptance.
I became a friendly, relatable, and well-spoken black – competent enough to successfully navigate in a room filled with White. Yet, the true success laid in my skilled ability to deny my own humanity for the sake of privileged positioning. In this way, I unwittingly relegated myself to the exhausting task of cultural assimilation for the purpose of majority acceptance. If the mainstream society refused to see my color then they refused to see me in my entirety, and if I refused to make them see then I denied myself the freedom of self-actualizing.
Black (wo)men, your color is not a convenient factor to be called upon for case study (or teachable moments), it is a portion of your identity that both southern societies deny and privileged influences expect you to hide. Now, jolted and awakened by the situational happenstance of my life – a postgraduate arrival to our nation’s capital armed with nothing aside a collection of communications theories and a dream at the cusp of the Black Lives Matter movement – I find purpose in my pigment – direction in educational advocacy, social movement building, community organizing, and systematic dismantling of unjust, inequitable policies that undermine the promise of democracy.
Through inward reflection and introspection I have slowly arrived at a disconcerting personal truth. Of the influence trinity [social, political, and educational], my heavy competitors have always been and continue to be systematic of the same society that identify me an outlier among mainstream America; of these institutions, I contend that the most consistent pipeline of messages derive from the mainstream lens of academia.
From the beginning, no other institution makes it mandatory that all children participate in framed collectivism absent of diversity of thought and application. Moreover, the continued neglect of Afro-American history from traditional education systems juxtaposed against the constant distortion of facts concerning black plight and presence in America deprive an entire race of its deserved knowledge and heritage thereby relegating them to ‘nothingness’ and ‘nobodyness.(1)’ The marginalized and mistreated become brainwashed by the same curricula painting them inferior; dooming them to absorb the psycho-social repercussions that lead to persistent self-hate.
This is my truth and the truth of many black and brown girls alike. For how can we successfully employ the techniques of ‘teachable moments’ within a classroom setting when it lacks authoritative diversity and the owned perspective of the marginal minority? Without a figurehead that looks like me, I cannot openly discuss the ways in which power and privilege impact me.
Novice expertise on subjects of interest to minority students does not a qualified instructor make. This is not a recipe for inclusion or a safe place for dialogue. It lacks understanding, sincerity, empathy, and finesse. The southern education system had failed me by expecting me to speak for my people without the support or learned history of my people; the experienced authoritative guidance or leadership of my people.
Yet, by recognizing that from its inception traditional education in the United States, arguably founded on principles of nationalism and obedience, seeks to dehumanize (wo)men of color and reject their intelligence thereby restraining their intellectual power and replacing it with social conformity, I can conclude that my black matters.
My voice and my perspective matters inasmuch as it is intentionally silenced or placed in a box. If W.E.B. Du Bois was correct in his assertion that schooling was both personally and socially emancipatory for blacks, capable of lending the next generations of persons of color the training they needed to become (wo)men of power, then it is safe to assume that teaching from canonized white supremacist curricula creates the necessary gate keeping mechanisms that still influences the social, cultural, and political welfare of the racial minorities today.
As an adolescent byproduct of psycho-social, Deep South institutionalism, and one that suffered twinges of the debilitating depression as a result, may I offer these final words of encouragement to my belles and beaus alike: Intentionally encourage your progenies to stand proud in their blackness; to find appreciation in both their shared and unique experiences. For it is in the minutiae that they will find internal appreciation and self-realization. May it not take decades over for them to realize the power of their pigment, to seek out the truth of their history, to identify their differences (and acknowledge them openly), to love and respect them, to nurture and develop them into a personified voice that matters.
What we experience matters, our history matters, and how we view and interact within this still much racialized world matters. Never yield to the threat of otherness, but instead accept the promise of otherness, for within its idiosyncrasies we find that which makes us beautiful. We find that we are beautiful. Asé!
1 Dr. Carter Godwin Woodson, History is a Weapon: The Mis-Education of the Negro (1933)