“Constantly seeking external affirmation will ultimately disempower you. Yes, who are can be (and is) subjective and relational, but by no means does that mean that the opinions of others should shape *you.* What people think of you matters far less than they think.”
This was my Facebook status 4 days ago. I sat there and re-read it, hoping to internalize it. It is a tricky balance between being self-possessed and outright flouting social mores. The normalizing effect of the social Panopticon we comprise does “check” non-conformity. Too self-assured? “Don’t get a big head.” Too abrasive? “You can’t catch flies with vinegar.” Too free in your body? Tsk tsk. That’s what ballet classes are for. Train and discipline that body. After all, we are the subjects produced by power, we internalize the “gaze” (le regard); we comprise a social Panopticon- self-policing and self-sustained. Our bodies become the vehicles and site of power’s exercise.
I sit and think about how I was shaped and socialized as a Black woman with a disability. Inhabiting a body that is racialized, gendered, and dis/abled, I occupy a distinctive (unstable?) subject position. On one hand, my socio-economic class has enabled me to traverse spaces that could be termed loci of power- think tanks, universities, foundations, and so forth. On the other hand, nearly everywhere I go, I will be marked as “Black” and “woman” and this carries a historical connotation of a Black, female body that is never self-possessed, always the Other, possessed and available for consumption. Then tack on a dis/ability, and I’m “unexpected.”
Since coming to study at the University of Chicago, I’ve never been more clearly aware of what people think of me- or people like me. It’s strange. I am deemed “exceptional,” and somehow this gives people license to express their bigoted opinions around me without apology. As the only person of color in a car on the way to a visit to the County Jail, I heard some horrifying (but banal) racist tropes. One girl even adopted a “ghetto” accent and joked that she was visiting her “babeh daddeh.” After she said it, there was a moment of silence, which I broke. “Remember, even as graduate and law students visiting the county jail, we have far more privileged access than the loved ones visiting inmates. Just think about that. And pay attention to the signs in the waiting room.” Chastened, they nodded and changed the topic.
I’m sure there were other ways to handle that. In that moment, I wished that I had given into my introvert ways and brought a book to read while ignoring the other passengers. At the very least, I could pretend that I didn’t hear what they said. I am very good at feigning deafness, after all.
In other news, I’m finally writing my Thesis. Most of writing, for me, is reading and taking notes. When I read, I come up with my best ideas.
I also gave a class presentation on Foucault’s Discipline and Punish after days of preparation (I even made handouts for my classmates). I am not sure why, but when it was time to present, all of my practice went out of the window. I think I rambled a bit, in spite of having detailed notes and quotations in front of me. I also fixated on the disciplining of bodies, rather than the development of the techniques and practices that culminated in the birth of the prison. I should have just taken a deep breath and reminded myself that most people get self-conscious when they speak publicly.
All the preparation in the world means little when you don’t have the confidence to back it up.