I am currently participating in a Racial Literacy Series being led by Dr. Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz, an Associate Professor of English Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. My class is predominantly people of color. We choose to be in the space. In choosing to be in the space we are also aware that issues will arise that need to be confronted. In the class I’m thinking a lot about oppression: institutional, interpersonal, individual, and ideological. This has caused me to think deeply about the construction of my relationships, in particular those in my working space. In her 2019 book, “Black Appetite, White Food,” Jamila Lyiscott writes, “But before we can enter into conversation about what it means to broach the sociopolitical struggles of racism and white privilege, we must enter into a conversation about how you navigate struggle within yourself.”
The struggle within myself. In thinking about issues of race, racism, and justice I found myself being taken back to an experience that needed to be excavated. It was a meeting with the Deputy Director of Career Services at my graduate school. In examining the event I realized it was a root cause of my distrust of particular people in places of power. I kept thinking about how this event shaped the arch of my career and the ways in which I allowed one woman’s resistance, and what I now recognize as blatant racism, serve as a primary architect in the blueprint of my mind of who I was and am. I am finally disrupting that falsified image.
Barbara Applebaum’s 2016 work Needing Not to Know: Ignorance, Innocence, Denials, and Discourse quotes the work of Mary Louise Fellows and Sherene Razack. Fellows and Razack use the word “innocence” to describe the complicity white women have in the act of racism. It is defined as “a deeply felt belief that each of us, as women, is not implicated in the subordination of other women” (p. 451).
In confronting and excavating the places of oppression in my life, I’m not finding myself saying as former first lady Michelle Obama did, “When they go low, we go high.” This is because the intent of racism is to always have to have a group of people be substandard. Winners need losers. I have found the words and actions of one individual in an institution can directly impact who I am and can be in spaces that privilege certain groups above others. I am at a place in my life where I am confronting the demons of racism. And let me tell you that they are dark lies disguising themselves as truths. Their manifold configurations have led to my conformation and confirmation that they must be true. But now as I step back I see that they are fraudulent fronts designed to diminish my value as a person of color. These lies can no longer be coddled or cradled; they must be dismantled and never be put together again.
I share this open letter to myself from where I now stand as a teacher and educator of America’s children, as someone who strives to live truth. This incident occurred after I had graduated into the first major recession that I can say I fully understood. The economic recession taught me a great life lesson: people can choose to help or hurt you. It may be why now whenever I have an opportunity to be giving towards someone, I try to help.
This event was a passive aggressive exchange, which I never told my family about, but did mention to one friend. That, too, is the insidious nature of enacted racism: it gets buried or tucked away. The normalization of racism is not something anyone should disregard. I scheduled a time to meet with this Deputy Director. Instead of understanding the seriousness of my joblessness she led me in a conversation that can best be described as distracted. Why? This was a conversation directed solely on my weight loss. In college, I was what many people would call fat. One of my professors told me that if I could lose weight it would make me acceptable in the job market. He told me, “I’m telling you the truth, people will accept you more.” When that happened I told two of my classmates, women I trusted and who would never repeat it. And they never did. This past year I struggled with my weight and I kept thinking, “Why is this so top of mind?” I went on a healthy weight loss journey after grad school because it was right for my health, not in an effort to prove to family, friends or the world which contains people like that adjunct professor and that Deputy Director of Career Services.
What that Deputy Director did not know was that that year I had suffered a major blow to my health. What she did not know was that I also had lost two close family members. What she did not know was that I was a first-generation college student who had believed in the American dream, and that it had shattered. What she did not know was that focusing on my body as my worth was to devalue me – or maybe she did know and just did not care. Her undermining comments about my body when I came to talk about my career were and are unacceptable. As a black woman, I have subscribed to the belief, “Keep your head down, work twice as hard, and keep moving forward.” But I am tired. I can no longer afford to continue to be polite about racism because it’s affecting my quality of life. It’s affecting the lives of the students I teach. Please do not misunderstand me, racism has always effected my socioeconomics and politics, but now the effects are daily impacting my inner being, and the cost of that is too high. The daily indignities, the microaggressions, the slight slants placed on truths which are the equivalent to a lie are too much for my soul to bear.
During that meeting, I woke up but stayed silent because I not only wanted a job, I desperately needed one. I never want that to happen to another person of color again. I never want another black woman to feel like she has to pimp her soul and silence herself in order to get help in getting or keeping a job. I’m not going to go into what first-generation students face economically, but suffice it to say there was more to me than met the eye. But what met that woman’s eye was black, black, black. And I now know there’s more to me than that.
Ms. St. Jean
Native New Yorker teaching and living the middle school life, using this site to keep it 100. My students are the embodiment of joy.