The personal essay demands that a woman of color writer dig as far as she can inside of her experiences in order to excavate something that she once thought that she could never put into the words. The art form forces her to see herself as complex as the world in which she exists. When she rethinks what an experience meant to her and her alone, she inevitably centers herself, a right that she was never afforded.
~ Morgan Jenkins, “The Personal Essay for Women of Color Confessionalists,” Book Riot, September 21, 2015
I remember sitting outside the front door of one of the buildings on campus when I was in undergrad. It was a sunny day, and I was waiting for something or somebody. Can’t remember which, but I had time to kill, so I started journaling. A class must have let out because people started exiting the building.
This white boy, who I did not know, came up to me and started talking. I responded cordially, but I didn’t close my journal. It sat open on my lap.
“I always thought people who kept a diary were self-centered,” he said.
Okay, I thought. Is he trying to be combative? I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt and said,
“I don’t think it’s about being self-centered. It’s about self-reflection.”
“Like, nobody’s life is so interesting that they need to write in a diary every day,” he said. It was as if he hadn’t even heard my last comment. I opened my mouth to speak, but he continued talking. “I mean, we’re all just livin’ life, ya know?”
I went back to journaling. He continued to stand in front of me. I could feel the expectation, of what,
I didn’t know and didn’t care, in his presence.
“I guess you’re too busy to talk to me,” he said. He had the nerve to sound hurt.
I didn’t respond.
Finally, he sulked away.
I went to a predominantly white college for undergrad, but I grew up in predominantly black working- and middle-class neighborhoods in a predominantly black city. Black people were the center. When I was little, we had to get in a car and drive to find evidence that white people existed. Sure, I saw them on TV, in white magazines and in white books, but TV shows, magazines and books weren’t real life.
In undergrad, I realized that, in most societies, white people and their experience were considered the center, the norm, especially in western societies, and that people of color were considered minorities and were, therefore, marginalized. I also learned that, in large part, white TV shows, magazines and books reflect marketing dollars that are largely provided by white people, and because black people provide limited marketing dollars (I won’t even start on the educational and economic marginalization that contributes to this reality), we have a limited number of black shows, magazines and books. So, the U.S. is not only white-centric, but media perpetuates that white-centricity, which in turn pushes people of color into one of two corners (which are really two sides of the marginalization coin):
- Blend into whiteness, pretend that you’re colorblind and hope you can collect some residual privilege by accepting white-centricity; or
- Acknowledge the marginalization and the stereotypes imposed upon you, and try to change them.
When I participated in class, volunteered as the student representative on faculty search committees, and later, when I interviewed for jobs, some white people would tell me (and still do tell me), with a hint of surprise in their voices, that I was poised, articulate and intelligent. What the fuck did they expect me to be?
They expected me to be a stereotype, a caricature. They expected me to be invisible, you know, like dark-skin black female characters on TV shows who don’t have a criminal record and aren’t trying to steal someone’s husband or the black characters in most of the published novels that are mostly written by white people. They expected me to be that singular dark-skin model in white magazines who takes up an entire page, or they expected me to be a rarely-seen background prop like the rest of the dark-skin black models in white magazines. They expected me to keep my mouth shut and blend in, like a good little colorblind black girl. Silly people.
Even when I am silent, my voice reverberates. I couldn’t blend in, even if I wanted to. God didn’t intend for me to be silent or to blend.