When she says, “There are some bigger Black women in the class. I just wish that they would speak up and say, ‘Yes, this has been my experience,’ or whatever,” I feel the start of something inside of me.
It’s complex: talking about race. It feels more complex here.
We have started off this semester by reading parts of Andrea Elizabeth Shaw’s The Embodiment of Disobedience: Fat Black Women’s Unruly Political Bodies in one of the classes I am in. How I sincerely feel about this book is easy, because my relationship to this book is like my relationship to fresh fruit and veg: I enjoy it, but more importantly, it nourishes me. I think that this simple relationship does not need exploration or explanation because it so simply just is.
But back to the topic at hand, which is really standpoint and privilege.
I understand that, when reading about experiences unlike our own, we crave validation of our own understanding. Isn’t that what this really is? I read about “Fat Black Women,” and I look at my own understanding of my perceived experiences, and if I don’t find anything akin to what I’m reading about, I am unsure about my own understanding. To quench this uncomfortable marginalization, I look for someone who I think may better understand these alien experiences, and I hope that this person will do some work for me: I hope that this person will ease my anxiety.
There are so many differences between people, some of which are more or less structurally maintained and enforced. The way I interpret others’ actions and words, the way I act or react depends on my past. My particular past has caved in and/or expanded in particular areas some of which are relatively unique, some of which are broadly shared, some of which I can trace and identify so clearly in the writing or speech of others that it becomes the physical ache of a healing wound as that missing piece finds me and knits itself back in to my bones.
These differences are true art: alive, beautiful, challenging, loaded with feeling, but they don’t come without cost. More and more often I feel as if we, the community of the United States of America, are just yelling at each other across gaping divides. Communication has become so much, so loaded, so group specific. It’s not a breakdown, though, it’s a breakout. What happens when minorities demand to be heard in their own voices? We are seeing how privilege separates and stratifies, so that words don’t even have the same meaning in different groups. And, how long? How long should we try to speak to dominance in its own vocabulary? Does this not just ensure minority failure? The feeling of being a minority in the U.S.A. is sometimes like being forced to perform, being unexpectedly called on to explain what, how, why you are how you are in a language you have only just learned. “Ain’t no America left, it’s all fragments. Ain’t no verses left, it’s all adlibs,” say the Blue Scholars.
If I had to guess why it is that neither of the two Black female students related their personal lives to the class’s discussion of Shaw’s book, it would be because it meant something different to them. I actively try to not speak in class when the topic of Asian American women comes up because I am all too aware that I am expected to speak. As if my skin gives me a higher authority that allows me to speak on the experiences and feelings of all Asian American women who exist and have ever existed. In these situations, I feel completely reduced, no longer a human, but simply a conduit, a way to retrieve snippets of how the others feel, but there is no way for anyone to accomplish this Sisyphean task.
And, when you have been generalized into a racial stereotype like the Black women on this particular campus have been (only last semester there was a bit of an uproar when a student in a semi-authoritative position made a comment about “loud” “black” “girls”), maybe you don’t want to speak for a huge group. Maybe you don’t even want to associate yourself with “Fat Black Women.”
Which brings me to forms of rebellion. There is so much I have no control over. There is so much of my own life that I wasn’t able to control. The things people have said, the things they have done, some of them, a direct commentary on my racial-gendered minority status, often leave me so momentarily stunned as to be rendered completely helpless. And so, sometimes, the very best way I can think to rebel is to, in the very tiny context of a college classroom discussion, choose not to speak. My life experiences and thoughts and reactions are mine. They are not for anyone else, and I imagine there are people who don’t understand, but I know that they could. You just have to want it enough. You just have to work.