Eating the Other
“One desires ‘a bit of the Other’ to enhance the blank landscape of whiteness.”
“When race and ethnicity become commodified as resources for pleasure,
the culture of specific groups, as well as the bodies of individuals, can be seen as
constituting an alternative playground where members of dominating races, genders,
sexual practices affirm their power-over in intimate relations with the Other.”
-from “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance” by bell hooks
I’m sharing the post about “glamouring” again because I’ve been thinking, and in some cases, feeling uneasy about a number of things:
- The fact that I keep joking about changing my name to “I like your hair/nails/earrings/shoes” because these are the only instances in which certain people at my new job speak to me. Compliments might seem benign enough, apart from the fact that these people never ever speak to me otherwise and in some cases I’m sure they don’t know my name. It’s uncomfortable to catch people who won’t ever say hello staring over their computer monitors, or have their eyes slide away from contact only to see their reflection looking after me. Friends, there is glass everywhere in this office and it will give you away every time. Being accustomed to the daily slights of being one of *insert any number less that ten* Black women in a given place means that you often start to second and third guess yourself to the point of distraction; was that *really* what I thought it was, or am I just hyper-sensitive? It’s hard not to feel like a disembodied pair of hands or a floating head when the only times you are acknowledged involve commentary on my appearance. I’m not an object on a shelf.
- Lauren Michele Jackson’s brilliant (and continuously expanding) body of work on the [mis]appropriation of discourse on race, power, and cultural appropriation. (Read “When We Talk About Cultural Appropriation, We Should Be Talking About Power.“)
- Isolation, at times self-enforced, at times externally imposed. In grad school, I spent my first year attempting to socialize with classmates before reasoning that if I isolated myself from the “micro”-aggressors, the less likely I would be to endure those daily slights. I withdrew from most people except a few, but I could never quite escape the disrespect. At this new job, which I enjoy for the most part despite how this post might sound, I recognize that corporate culture involves people generally not being as friendly as they might be in non-profits or higher education spaces, and most of this is likely not personal (I’m used to friendlier work environments, but that does not mean those places don’t fundamentally operate like corporations as well). Still, it’s not lost on me that the newer hires who started around the same time I did have all been able to find their way into the groups of people who do interact and socialize. One can only try to say hello and get sliding-away-eyes so many times before one gives up. And I’m talking about people I’ve actually been introduced to. As in we’ve met. I’m also a little resentful of having to prove that I’m not an intimidating Black girl to convince people it’s safe to speak to me. I’m not about to bend over backwards to show that I’m “actually really nice” so you can laugh about how you were initially scared of me. It’s not my fault you don’t know how to act because you don’t know any Black people in “real life.” It’s also not my fault that people perceive Black womanhood and certain performances of Black femininity as purely for consumption.
- The fact that I feel compelled to include the details that other people of color I’ve spoken to have shared which show that they feel similarly so as to legitimize my experience, but I won’t. (I have still done exactly what I just said I wouldn’t in a sly way, because I am desperate to convince you, the reader, and my own skeptical self that I’m not making this up). There are friendly faces as well, including some of the other non-Black people of color and a very good friend from grad school. I should also point out that part of me is grateful that most people don’t know that I [think I] have jokes so that I can never be less talkative without a “Why so quiet?” when they feel like being entertained. Or maybe I haven’t tried hard enough? The chip on my shoulder is enormous? Is a hello too much to ask for? Maybe I’m actually scary, arrogant, or intimidating? Maybe I’m just an asshole who isn’t as likable as she thing she is?
- The time I created a first-year writing curriculum for a program I had taught in for only a semester in response to student protests for at my institution. Again, you might think, benign, except for the fact that this curriculum was grounded in Black feminist theory, and I still feel unsettled by the fact that I handed over this work to a program that I had to leave because it was not sustainable for me to continue to teach there, as far as my finances and my well-being (not unrelated) were concerned. At my presentation of this project, I stated plainly that I didn’t trust most of the people gathered to engage and teach the material I had put together in good faith, not because only Black women are able to understand Black women’s intellectual work, but because my colleagues had previously been the same classmates I *knew* to harbor prejudice and ignorance they were unwilling to address because they were comfortable in the power their whiteness afforded them, or at the very least were not interested in the mild discomfort brought on by pursuing a minimal level of self-awareness. My decision to do that work never felt as fraught as it did in the moment when I ran into the former director of the program a year later and he didn’t recognize me. A floating head, a disembodied mind, a few sprinkles of June Jordan’s words on the syllabi… Am I sure I did anything to help the students have their demands met? How do I know my work isn’t being trotted out just to demonstrate “diversity” without a single trace of real institutional transformation (the academy co-opts and sanitizes with the best of them), or simply languishing in the Google folder in which it lives unused and forgotten? Except, I do know…
- The number of white people I see walking around [gentrified] Area 4 with “locs” in their hair. Anyone still arguing that it’s “just hair” is being willfully obtuse at this point. The question boils down to power, as Jackson says in the article mentioned above. (Read here and here.) And I can’t say I’ve actually researched this, but given what we know about the [ongoing] European colonial project in Africa and the ways colonialists controlled and commodified the bodies of Black people, I won’t be surprised if the mandate that girls must cut their hair short in Ghanaian public schools has something to do with colonialism. It’s never “just” what you think it is. And that’s on the oppressor, not the oppressed. Honorable mention goes to the fancy coffee shops playing nothing but R&B and hip hop without a single Black soul in sight. And God help you if you appear to not have bought anything to eat or drink before connecting to the free Wi-Fi…
- We are not tragic, not a theory, not a spectacle, not easily erased, not on the menu, not for anyone’s enjoyment besides ourselves.
- The time I had to interrupt so that two non-Black men and fellow teachers wouldn’t wrongly diagnose one of our incredible students with impostor syndrome just because she called into question the sort of tokenism and injustice behind hand-picking “the best of the best” students of color (herself included) to access certain opportunities most of her classmates can not. See also: non-Black people who are so “down,” their attempts to relate or encourage feel condescending or even insulting.
- I would like to spend far less time than I do thinking about these things, especially when other more skilled writers and more critical minds have already said it all. Keta is literally being swallowed by the Atlantic. There are people drowning, dying in the desert, caged right near their desired port of entry (Of course I’m incapable of solving these issues single-handedly, but they are far more urgent and a more worthy use of my mental energy). What did Toni Morrison say about “distraction?”
- White (and non-Black in general) people with self-described “progressive” or even “radical” politics who still don’t recognize Black women’s humanity. Why does your solidarity, your empathy, your friendship, your romance, still feel like an insatiable desire to consume? Are you not full?
I’m feeling very content with and within myself, and I’m not sure what to make of it. I’m not complaining that the ever elusive joy towards which I’ve been writing seems to have finally arrived, not at all. It’s a pleasant surprise after these weeks of feeling strangely “silent” and distant from myself. I feel like I’ve woken up from a deep, dreamless sleep and had a good, wide stretch. What’s most confusing about this shift is that nothing new in particular has happened to remove some of the worries I’ve been harboring. I’m still facing quite a bit of uncertainty, but as I usually do, I’m going to get on with the business of living.
I’m also still sorting through some of the things with which I walked away from grad school. I am the proud owner of a few certificates embossed with curly gold lettering, folders full of…
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