WE wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and 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.
We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
We wear the mask!
Paul Laurence Dunbar
For the past week, I’ve been working on what is now a 30-page paper comparing and contrasting the analytical contributions of Feminist Standpoint Theory and Genealogical Critique to the discourse on Sarah Baartman (known as the Hottentot Venus). It has been a draining process, because the way that Sarah Baartman is constructed as a victim without agency, a threat to public decency, a representation of European anxieties about imperialism and sexuality (which, believe it or not, are interrelated in colonial discourses on the body- both corporeal and the body politic) is so utterly ingrained.
I must admit, I feel myself being pushed further and further away from the center and closer and closer to the margins. I’d even go so far as to say, I’m in the margin of the margins. As I work with situated knowledges and questions of ontology at a theoretical level, I find myself grappling with my literal, physical and social situation as a Black woman in a predominately-white graduate program and university. Earlier, I described microaggressions as paper cuts that, in spite of their size, pain me. One day it’s a white student in my cohort being upset at there being “so many” Black students in the cohort (there are 6 of us, out of 189. The cohort is 80% white, by the way.) Another day, it’s a professor trying to push me into courses on race when they are clearly not related to my thesis topic.
Last night, I was in a good mood until I began to recall the day’s events. I wore the mask. I smiled when I was supremely displeased. I hummed to myself when I wanted to scream. But then, I remembered what words that cut, the silences that kill, the small violences. This is the reason I just want to be alone in a dark room after a day of class. This is why I never stay on campus for longer than 5 hours at a time.
I feel a profound sense of alienation. No, it’s not “impostor syndrome.” I’ve no doubts of my intelligence, skill or knowledge base. This alienation has nothing to do with that. It’s the fact that I can walk into a room and be simultaneously invisible and hyper-visible as a Black woman with a “disability” that is not immediately apparent. I can walk into a room and my classmates will avert their eyes and avoid eye contact or turn away when I speak. By no means do I seek affirmation from these people, but I do accord people a basic level of respect and acknowledgement. We humans are social beings, and something as small as a head nod goes a long way.
I wear the mask, but is there a space for me to take it off? I pushed back in my Political Theory seminar when a classmate got intersectionality terribly wrong, and when another stated with much confidence that Black feminist theory lacks praxis- completely ignoring the work of Black feminists inside and outside of the academy, for whom praxis is central to their theorizing. And she went even further to say that “most Black women” would not be able to grasp feminism as articulated by Patricia Hill-Collins. Oh? Of course, because “intersectionality” is a BIG word.
I spoke up, but there was no one willing to amplify my voice.
Are these complaints? No. This is what I’ve bottled up since the first week of graduate school.