“Tell us what the world has been to you in the dark places and in the light…Tell us what… moves at the margin. What it is to have no home in this place. To be set adrift from the one you knew. What it is to live at the edge of a town that cannot bear your company..."
(Toni Morrison, Nobel Lecture 1993).
In addition to reflecting on my own experiences in elite, predominantly white institutions, I interviewed four black, well educated professionals. Our common experience consisted of racial micro-aggressions, racial battle fatigue, and crises in racial meanings. Tai "experienced inferiority." Isa " battled herself." Joi “bartered,” while Aya, “wore a mask." In this 5-part blog series, we explore three critical questions: How does race get acknowledged, ignored, articulated, and interrogated in our professional lives? What do these processes incite within? And if our professions are sites through which we advocate for equality, how does it shape our capacity to improve the human condition?
"I wear a mask and acquire all these credentials": How Aya Navigates Race+Power
“I wear a mask,” she says with gut-wrenching honesty. After spending “a long time in undergrad educating White students about racism,” Aya declares, “I’m NOT interested in being a race educator HERE, in being your professor.” Such education demands “access to my inner life.”
The mask, Aya explains, “protects me from having to be in that role, the role of cultural service.”
With her curly hair pulled back into a ponytail, she sits across from me. The rectangular, wooden table between us is no mere boundary; it is a surface hoped to be sturdy enough to hold the burdens she carries. Though she began the conversation admittedly nervous to talk to me about race, she contrasts the stark material differences between an ivy league education and the “housing projects” across from her “dilapidated school building [with] numerous teaching vacancies...and lack of materials…”
Aya, 33 and African-American, is earnest and caring. After nine years of teaching students with special needs, Aya shares “I escaped Philadelphia and went to” the ivory tower. Holding her black-plastic-rimmed glasses in both hands, she explains, “I wear a mask. It is like that Paul Lawrence Dunbar 'We Wear the Mask' poem. We wear the mask that grins and lies/that hides our cheeks/that shades our eyes.”
This debt we pay to human guile;
with torn and bleeding hearts we smile.
And mouth with myriad subtleties.
Why should the world be over-wise
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.
“Those lines always just have hit very hard for me because I wear a mask,” she admits. The furrows in my forehead fail to mask my intrigue. I wonder what “torn and bleeding hearts” lay behind the masquerade? Do they align with my own experiences? And, what environmental pressures necessitate a smile on the face of a body in pain? Even more, on what occasions is a smile a suitable form of defense?
“So you wear a mask, while you acquire armor?” I ask aloud. “Yes,” she answers assuredly.
“And in a way I acquired all of these credentials; these [four degrees] are my shields.”
“What do you think that does for people? Smiling? Wearing the mask?” I inquire.
“I don’t know what it does for them, but I know it protects me from them,” she clarifies. “It protects me from White colleagues having access to my inner life and then potentially betraying me or saying something hurtful. Wearing the mask, it helps me conserve my energy.”
An armor of smiles and degrees, even when what lies beneath can be much more grave, captures two ways Aya navigates race+power in professional spaces. Her "mask," "armor," and "shields" are employed to accomplish three tasks. 1) to diminish white colleagues' fear-based preoccupations with her "approachability," 2) to minimize entitlement to and interrogation of her inner life, and 3) to thwart stereotyped-based misconceptions of her intelligence and professionalism. Aya conveys how “being misunderstood” is too costly. It affects her physical energy, and mental and emotional health, what Smith calls racial battle fatigue. She has to look for ways to "conserve my energy" and "protect me."
Aya's experience reveals that navigating race+power at work can be an exhausting walk through a land mine of race-related social casualties. When I examine the efficacy of these strategies in the 21st century, I wonder if they accomplish the task intended? Does acquiring four degrees minimize stereotype-based misconceptions of one's intelligence? Does smiling diminish fear-based preoccupations with one's "approachability?" While we defend against stereotyped-based misconcpetions and fear-based preoccupations in our professioanl lives, how does it influence our capacity to improve the human condition? Is there a better way to navigate race+power at work, whereby we spend less time defending and more time creating without ignoring the problem?
For many professionals of color, our preamble to grappling with inequality at work frequently stems from
1) familial-communal-ancestral acumen. Aya notes Paul Lawrence Dunbar's warning in the form of a poem that was first publish in 1896. 2) ethnic studies, -ism-centered college courses; the kinds of classes Aya says she spent undergrad teaching by granting access to her inner life, though she wasn't the formal instructor. and 3) individual study/practice/living. However, similar to other essential-to-life-but-seldom-formally-taught life skills, we rarely encounter a formal, rigorous program for how to navigate race & power dynamics in our professional lives. Racial Equitecture seeks to build upon this knowledge, offering a methodical praxis that uses research and experience to coach professionals to navigate racial events in ways that safeguard mind-body-spirit balance and productivity so that we can advocate from a place of creativity and ameliorate our efforts to improve the human condition.
A serious grappling with the answers to the aformentioned questions serve as the impetus for Strengthen Your Response-Ability. "Strengthen Your Response-Ability," a 5-session seminar on navigating race+power designed by Racial Equitecture, emerges from a deep listening for “what moves at the margin” (Morrison, 1993). Rooted in “locally and politically situated knowledge” (Featherstone, 1989; Greene, 1990), the curriculum seeks to prepare participants to thrive amid the ever-changing, multiplistic, micro-dynamic state of race +power, at work.
Join us for a 5-session seminar (Wednesdays, 6-15-8:15pm, June 17, 24, July 1, 8, 15) at Impact Hub Oakland. Register here.
Skill/Knowledge Goals: Participants will be able to:
1) Create racial climates where racial microaggressions, invalidations, and insults have less of an impact.
2) Sense rhetorical, emotional, and egoistic postures used to assert power & ways to navigate them in the moment.
3) Practice and strengthen their response-ability to racial events in their professional/personal lives.
My goal is for you to step beyond what you imagine is possible. To be brave and do something you've never done before. This goal is supported by a pedagogical approach that lies at the nexus of critical race pedagogy, black feminist thought, adaptive leadership, and experiential learning. This means there will be little lecturing, lots of practice, dwelling in negative capability, productive discomfort, and constructive feedback. You will be guided to drive discussions rather than silently receive. The intention is to create a holding environment for rehearsing courage while personally developing a racial response-ability that better addresses racial events in our world.