Confessions of a Light Skinned Black Girl: An Academic Mis-fit

 

Valin Skye Jordan

The George Washington University

 

I was encouraged to write myself, my struggle, my meaning into existence (Taliaferro-Baszile, 2006, p. 89).

 

            I am human.  I am an only child.  I am a New Yorker.  I am a daddys girl.  I am a teacher.  I am educated.  I am independent.  I am strong.  I am misrepresented.  I am unapologetic.  I am invisible.  I am hyper visible.  I am emotionally unstable.  I am conflicted.  I am angry.  I am numb.  And I am exhausted with to having to define who I am.  I am a Black woman.  I am not Black first and then a woman.  I am inextricably and undeniably so, a Black woman.  And I, like Denise am encouraged to write myself, my struggle, and my meaning into existence.                     

            Throughout my life there has been a stereotype, better yet a prescribed consciousness, that at times I have uncomfortably accepted as I have screamed with rage within my mind, while at other times I have chosen to resist this consciousness that is not mine and to talk back (hooks, 1989).  Black women who do not fit a stereotype do not make sense (Boylorn, 2008, p. 418); so, needless to say, I do not make sense.  My progression into Black womanhood by no means occurred easily and not until I entered the academy and discovered how to write myself out of my pain and anger did I realize it is okay that I do not make sense. 

            As a Black female I belong to a group - a culture - that has been socially defined.  This social definition is expansive just as Collins (1986) reminds us, Thus, there is no monolithic Black womens culture - rather, there are socially-constructed Black womens cultures that collectively form Black womens culture (p. 22).  I am aware that as a Black female from Queens, N.Y. that my experiences cannot be essentialized to the lived experiences of all Black women nor can my mothers experiences growing up in the South during the civil rights and Black power movements be essentialized back to me (Bell et al., 2000).  Through my experience with difference amongst Black women and through Collins words, I can now say I have every right to rearticulate this prescribed consciousness that exists about Black women (Collins, 1989) and about me.  Through what Collins (1986) calls self-definition and self-valuation I am able to begin rearticulating the consciousness held about me.

            As I have progressed into Black womanhood I have found varying modes of resistance to the oppressive and stereotypical constructions defined by dominant society.  I have found the voices of the Black women across generations who, Guillory (2010) explains, have built a language to defend or name in public, challenging the underlying power structures of naming by talking back to and against the dominant discourses that have tried to define who we are (p. 211).  Through the course of my life as an athlete and now as an academician I have used a range storytelling modalities, movement and words to push back against dominant discourse and to define myself accordingly.  In this way my-ness, my Blackness, my Femaleness, and my Classness can only be defined and redefined by me.  I have struggled with attempting to define my-ness in order to fit in two worlds - the Black community and the pervasive White supremacist society.  I do not use the term White supremacist to cause shock to my readers but rather I use the term to define the politically and historically situated world that my Black female body has been surviving in for 28 years.  My struggle is a result of wanting to be enough in two worlds but yet resisting wanting to be accepted in either world. 

 

 

Defining the Methodology

 

            This narrative exists as a form of interpretive biography.  Denzin (1989) posits that interpretive biographies whether written in biographical or autobiographical form exist with an other in mind.  The other is studied and explored through life documents or documents of life (p. 7).  In this autobiographical writing - a performative text - I explore Taliaferros (1998) question, What is it that we learn about our selves as we exist in the imaginations of others (p. 94)?  I position my 13-year-old self and 28-year-old self in a conversation in which they discuss the moves made to resist the inner eye of the dominant world.  I use the imaginations of others as the sites for where I learned and continue to learn to resist and talk back against the inner eye of the dominant White society. 

            In the first conversation I explore my parents parenting as the starting block for my resistance.  The conversation begins with an expression of the tension felt by my 13-year-old self and a response from my 28-year-old self.  As the conversation transitions between my selves, I provide an analysis in order to contextualize the tension felt by my 13 and 28-year-old selves.  The conversation in the first section concludes with my two selves working concurrently in conversation to understand the mode of resistance they had been taught.  In the second section of the paper, I provide another synchronous conversation about an interview I had with a headmaster of an Upper East Side, N.Y private school.  This conversation is an expression of my acceptance and resistance to the prescribed consciousness.  Within this section I use Helfenbeins (2010) notions of place and space to explore and analyze the binaries that functioned within this school that I accepted and attempted to resist.  The final section of this paper I present how I have come to use curriculum theory to create a space for me to fit in a place where I am a mis-fit.  I have come to this performance through the power and refuge provided by Black feminist thought and curriculum theory.  I use this performance to add to the scholarship about the modes of resistance used by Black female scholars.

 

Developing my Resistance to the Dominant World

 

13-year-old Valin: She thinks I cant see it.  She thinks I cant see the way my teachers look at me.  Like Im this exotic extraterrestrial being. She thinks I cant see the way they glare at me with amazement and disgust at the same time.  She thinks Im walking around with blinders on. Like I dont know what the world sees when they see me. She thinks I cant hear the things my teachers and everyone else says about me behind my back.  She thinks Im not listening. She thinks I have no idea.  And sometimes I think shes trying to protect me from it. Because without a doubt she is a pit bull.  And other times I think she wants me and needs me to handle it alone. But shes afraid because she thinks they will swallow me alive.  She thinks Ill crumble so she holds tight, shes shielded me to the best of her ability.  She instills and forces the voices and words of Richard Wright, Barbara Jordan, Malcolm X, Shirley Chisholm, Maya Angelou, my great-grandmother, and grandmother down my throat.  She thinks I havent been listening to her. But, my words to her and everybody else are impregnated with the pain, struggle, and blood of those who came before me.  But I just choose to respond to the world differently. Im a fighter and always have been.  I back down from no one. Silence? I dont know silence! Passive? Passive I am not! She and everyone else taught me to speak my truth. So I speak. Even when they dont like it. So I know how they look at me - the they in my community look at me like the light complexion black girl who thinks shes all that. I know how they – the they I sometimes see myself through looks at me. I can see how they look at me amazed and disgusted that at 13 Ive read Shakespeare, Alcott, Poe, Frost, Hughes, and I can recite Aint I a Woman like I wrote it.  That I know more about my history than they will ever know.  But, she doesnt believe that.  What she sees is not herself. What she sees is that Ive rejected reading lots by Black authors. What she sees is that I dont care if my friends arent Black. What she doesnt see is that I can see the amazement and disgust in her eyes too. And what she doesnt see is that I fear her more than the rest of the world. That I will never be black enough, womanly enough, or know the struggle and work it took for her and my father to give me the life I live. She thinks I dont know.

 

            The tension I felt as a 13-year-old was based on reading the world around me.  I was aware of the inner eyes of the rest of the world that I was attempting to renounce, including that of my mother.  My 13-year-old self was attempting to prove that I could read what was and was not present in the reality that I functioned.  At the same time I was expressing a definition of myself by not maintaining silence and choosing to ascribe to multiple worldviews as a way of defining my position in society.  My inclination at 13 to ascribe to multiple worldviews is what Collins and others refer to as multiple consciousness.  I was not rejecting reading Black authors or having Black friends rather I was attempting to develop a consciousness of two worlds.  In doing so I began developing my outsider within status (Collins, 1986). 

            As an outsider within I am positioned as the other but I have an awareness of white male dominant thought.  I allow my consciousness as a Black female to influence how I think about and use dominant thought.  Lorde (1984) posits that oppressed individuals develop a consciousness of this kind in order to survive, they become familiar with the language and manners of the oppressor, even sometimes adopting them for some illusion of protection (p. 114).  Using Lordes words, my choice to read more than Black authors and make friends outside of the Black community was my attempt at facilitating my survival process.

 

28-year-old Valin (speaking to the 13-year-old): She still thinks you have no idea.  She still fears that they will eat you alive. Shes even more worried about you now that youve entered the academy, the ivory towers, higher education, whatever they call this place.  She knows that its lonely for you. And now more than ever in a place that used to be known as Chocolate City she fears losing you to a world that didnt want you in the first place.  Shes scared that because you dont have the unlucky good fortune that she does to be high yellow and freckled that you will be rejected.  She fears that you will never procreate a family because youll allow yourself to sink in the psychologically violent and unfriendly place they call the academy.  She fears that now she did it all wrong.  She told you not to be silent and not to be passive and you refuse to be either but now it seems to make sense to just be quiet. Valin youve lost your voice. Or have you?  And your voice and her voice are in your written works.  See right now youre a dancer and long jumper. Your voice is in your athletic movements. You speak and are visible through your movements.  You have figured out how to deal with not belonging in two worlds by moving. He told you leave it all on the runway and leave it all on the stage.  He told you to be quiet and know the strength of your movements.

            The tension my 28-year-old self feels is the opposite of my 13-year-old self.  I have yet to determine how best to be visible in this new place - the academy.  I have come to form my cultural contracts (Jackson, 2002 as cited in Harris, 2007).  Harris writes,

            Racialized individuals are continually placed in contexts where a cultural contract is                     warranted.  The cultural context process is an implicit agreement of one interactant to                     ascribe to the typology that most appropriately addresses how that person chooses to             negotiate his or her racial identity in the company of racially different others.

The paradox that exists for me, then, is attempting to maintain my Blackness in a place where my Blackness is often rejected.  Implicitly agreeing to silence my Blackness in the presence of the racially identified other causes me to refract my Self when in the presence of the other, ultimately, not being able to define my association in two-worlds because of the constant refracting of the Self.  Crocco and Waite (2007) argue that educational attainment of Black women brings them respect but at the same creates a sense of isolation and marginality, even within their own community (p. 74). As, a Black female in the academy I am attempting to negotiate my cultural contract via the notion of silence. 

 

13-year-old Valin: I know what he told me.  He told me to be an athlete.  He told me to hang upside down from a pull up bar like I was Rocky or somebody.  He told me to stop being such a girl. He told me to toughen up.  He wants me to be tougher.  But she fears that because of him that Ill lose my femininity.  She fears that my father is doing it all wrong. 

 

 28-year-old Valin: He didnt do it all wrong, neither of them did. Hes preparing you to be physically and mentally strong to withstand this place.  Hes making sure that if he walks away you can handle it all.  Hes not scared.  Hes not afraid something will happen to you because as far as hes concerned he did it right. He made you the athlete you are. He made you ready to handle whatever comes your way.  He knows he did it right.

 

            This newest place for my academic success is defined by my fathers assertion to know the strength of my silence and the loudness of my movements.  The performances of my movements at 13 years old were used to expressively define myself as an athlete and as an individual.  I was using creative expression as a dancer and athlete to shape my self-definitions and self-valuations (Collins, 1986).  Collins argues for the role of creative expression in shaping and sustaining Black womens self-definitions and self-valuations (p. 23).  Defining and valuing my consciousness as a Black female allows me the space to challenge dominant ideologies held about me; Im able to push back on the political and historical stereotypical images formed about Black females.  The silence that my father insisted I channel into my movements as an athlete was my display of creative expression; an expression that allowed me the space to resist objectification and assert my subjectivity as a Black woman.  The translation of my athletic movements or creative expression represents the transgressive nature by which I perform or move as a Black female in the academy. Through the teachings of both my parents I have come to know what it is to resist and talk back.

 

Acceptance and Resistance Flood My Consciousness

 

            The conversation to follow presents an experience that I had with a headmaster of an Upper East Side private school in New York City.  It was my first obvious experience highlighting that I did not belong or was not wanted in a particular place.  Helfenbein (2010) writes, For geographers, place is the localized community - filled with meaning for those that spend time there.  Quite simply, it has significance (p. 306).  From this I understand place to be the physical area/location that one exists in that has meaning for those that spend time there (p. 306).  Helfenbein (2010) argues that Space constructed through discursive, interpretive, lived, and imagined practices becomes place (p. 306).  Space, then is created from the subjectivity or the meaning making practices that enter a place in order to develop and shape that place; I understand those to be the Forces of economic, social, and cultural practices [that] work on both the inhabitants of the place and work to form the place itself (Helfenbein, 2010, p. 306). 

            The school where I was interviewed for middle school admission is geographical located on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, in the wealthiest congressional district in America.  This place was/is shaped by the subjectivities of those that inhabit (investment bankers, lawyers, doctors, CEOs) this place as well as the luxuriously expensive sky-scraping homes of Park and Madison Avenues that hug the perimeter of the school.  This single gendered predominately White school had a particular identity that allowed it to sustain as a place that functioned with binaries: self/other, us/them, oppressor/oppressed, and White/Black.  The binaries that were established in this place were clear boundaries.  They were boundaries that did not allow for complete border crossing, as that border crossing would have impacted, complicated, and disrupted the identity of this place.  The conversation between the headmaster and me shows the oppressive and colonizing theories that have created us/them or White/Black binaries or boundaries. 

            We can understand the binaries that constitute place through post-colonial theory.  Asher (2010) writes How, then, do we decolonize curriculum so that it enables us to deconstruct such binaries as self and other, margins and center so that the self unlearns the internalization of the oppressor? (p. 397). Hendry (2010, 2011) reminds us that these binaries are what allow curriculum to continue to function in colonizing terms and must be unlearned through historical contexts; in other words, the binaries or the boundaries need to be complicated and disrupted.  In the conversation that proceeds I express how I recognized the binaries that existed which were going to keep me from entering this school.

 

13 year old Valin: So now what? Because this is difficult.  I have no idea what they want from me.  Im about to start high school at this posh place.  I should have picked somewhere else to go.  A public high school.  But, Im about to spend more time in a private parochial school.  I know how they look at me and what they say about me behind my back she thinks shes better than everyone because shes been in private school her entire life. What they dont know is that I dont fit in the private school world.  That interview at East Side Park Academy* still upsets me. Why in the world would they want to send me there? My body wouldnt have fit there. My knowledge wouldnt have fit there.  I live in Queens I dont belong amongst the chichi types of Madison and Park avenues. But, that was for 7th grade.  Now I made the choice to go to this chichi place in Queens. Im not going to belong there either!

 

28 year old Valin: That interview at East Side Park Academy will never leave you. You were 11 trying to figure out the right answers to give to this 6 oclock figured woman sitting in a black suit with gold oval shaped buttons on her jacket.  Her black rimmed glasses were on a red and gold linked croaky and she pulled them down to sit right across her nostrils and stared through you with her light brown eyes and said Youre a good writer, what do your parents do? And in that moment all I could think was my parents occupations have something to do with me being a good writer?  And I panicked.  Because circling through my brain was dont tell her your father is a commercial roofer. He isnt her type of people and Im not going to be good enough to be here if I tell her that. So I said very quietly with my heart in my throat, my mother is a director of special market sales. And I looked at her nervous and she looked at me quizzically and asked, Do you know what that means? I said no. She then followed it with, Do you know how much your mother makes annually?  I could have made up a number because I had an idea, but I said no.  And I started screaming in my head thinking, my mother wants me to go here but I was uncomfortable in that space because how dare she ask me that.  I thought I could get away with the humiliation by only claiming my class because of my mothers occupation. But, in one smooth free flowing question she asked, What does your father do and how often do you see him?  My heart sank.  This woman had me pegged as a typical kid from Queens.  I didnt know what to say next; do I say he owns the commercial roofing company. Should I lie? Instead I chose to tell her the exact truth. Because my truth is all I know and my truth is what defines me.  So I said proudly and confidently, My father, who lives with us and is married to my mother, is a commercial roofer in New Jersey.  I was hoping the interview ended after that and I could be put out of the shame this woman wanted me to feel. But, the bashing kept going.  That woman didnt care what I knew and that I was good writer.  She wanted to know why my light complexioned Black body thought it deserved to be there, better yet, why I thought I belonged there.  She wanted to know how cultured I was.  She wanted to know the last time I had been to a Broadway show.  I lied and told her I had never been.  She asked me if I knew where my mothers office was located. She asked me if I had ever been to her office.  She asked me if I could name landmarks around my mothers office.  Like lady really?!  Name landmarks near her office?  She had me pegged for the media image of a kid from Queens. I knew what she thought.  She looked at me amazed and disgusted too.  So I indignantly said, F.A.O. Shwartz, St. Patricks Cathedral, Central Park, the Italian shoe maker guy on the corner that Ive been getting my shoes from since I was able to walk, Prada, oh and my favorite store Niketown.  I didnt know whether to cry or laugh in that moment, because this woman had completely racialized me and I let her.  But, it was amusing watching this thin white woman squirm and become uncomfortable by the places I had indicated as landmarks.  She asked me if I had any extracurricular activities. I lied and told her no. I started dancing at the age of 4; I had competed the summer before that interview at the Junior Olympics, I played the saxophone, I volunteered and spent time with my grandfather and his 369th military buddies; but I let her have that one too. I let her believe I didnt belong there and I allowed it to happen because I didnt want to be there and at 11 I didnt know how to tell her white self that she was wrong about the kid from Queens.  I walked out of that interview confused.  That was the first time it was obvious how they saw me.  She walked me down to the lobby to meet my mother, and I looked at this lighter version of me with freckles all around her eyes and she asked me with anticipation How did it go? I just glared at her and the 6 oclock shaped woman said Ill be in touch.  I didnt say a word when we walked out and caught a cab.  She just kept asking, Valin what happened?  What did she ask you? And all I could manage to say low and despondently She asked what your jobs were. I dont want to go here or any other school in the city.  And again she said What happened, do we need to go back?!  I just wanted to go home.  I didnt talk much the rest of that day or the days following.  Later that week I took the test for all the private schools in NYC. I walked in that room- the only Black body in the room, and thought I dont know why Im doing this.  The essay on the test was to choose an animal that characterizes you and why?  And without hesitation I wrote I am a gazelle.  In this very moment I am a gazelle. The beautiful and graceful moving animal that spans the deserts of Africa that are known to have quick speed and since the danger that lurks nearby.  I am a gazelle. Every moment of my life I have learned to be a gazelle, to love the few stripes that I do have that cover my tanned skin. I know that even when I am the want of my predators who dont want to see me survive I stand strong and beautiful.  I am a gazelle.   I wrote seven sentences and closed the book and handed it back to the proctor.  I walked out the room and there was my mom and her friend and simultaneously they asked So how was it? I gave the normal kid answer fine.  But my mother wanted to know more, so I told her I had to pick an animal that describes me. She asked what I chose. I said a gazelle.  So then she asked, Well what did you write?  I lied and said, I dont remember.  I knew what I wrote. I still remember what I wrote.  But, I couldnt tell her what I wrote, because even though she wanted to heighten my Blackness and thought I didn't know my Blackness, if I had told her what I wrote she would have been upset because in that moment I was to pull back from my Blackness and try to fit.  But I dont

 

            My experience with applying for academic and social acceptance at this school showcases the prescribed consciousness that exists about me as a Black female.  At 11 years old I was unclear as to how to rearticulate this consciousness that pervaded my existence.  I accepted that I did not belong there but my responses during the interview and the essay for the private schools of New York City (just Manhattan) proved that I was attempting to resist being part of a world that handed me a prescribed consciousness about myself.  My subtle comments to the headmaster about my father and the places I indicated as landmarks during the interview showed that I was talking back and would not allow her to define me as a Black child who she believed was fatherless and unaware of city she lives in.  My inclination to resist entering a place that had created binaries within its space was clear in the essay I wrote for the private school entrance exam.  I had visualized myself as a gazelle that has been standing strong to her predators - dominant White society and the prescribed consciousness constantly being handed to her, I had created my own curricular construction of myself (Taliaferro-Baszile, 2010).  The experience I had applying for social and academic acceptance into the private school world of New York City is only part of the answer to Ashers question; in order for us to decolonize curriculum and for the self to unlearn the internalization of the oppressor, the self has to be willing to resist, talk back, and rearticulate the consciousness given by the oppressor, this rearticulated consciousness gives African American women another tool of resistance to all forms of their subordination (Collins, 1989, p. 750).

 

The Present Moment

 

            I do not fit.  It was obvious when I began my first seminar class; I am the only Black female in my cohort.  It was obvious when I began reading in the academy; the Black voices that contributed to the development of American education were silenced.  It was obvious when I began stating my research interest; my cohort was skeptical of providing me with feedback.  It was obvious when I began teaching a diversity course as an adjunct professor; my White female students were visibly and verbally amazed by how much I know and extremely uncomfortable by the critical stance I asked them to take to discussing the course topics.  It was obvious when one of the graduate schools academic affairs directors said, From what Ive heard about you, I expected you to look different.  I was looking for someone much bigger and darker than you.  I do not fit.  I engage in spaces in this place where I feel the need to tread lightly.  If I say too much about my interest in race, racism, and practices of Whiteness in elementary school classrooms, I may not make it to my dissertation.  If I say too much in the diversity course that pushes the White female pre-service teachers out of their comfort zone, I may be asked to never teach the course again.  My mis-fit in this place has pushed me to work consciously and critically to make myself subject in this place where I dont quite belong (Taliaferro, 2006, p. 205).

            I have learned to work consciously and critically to cross a border.  I have brought my identity and sense of place as a Black woman from Queens into the academy which has spaces that speak[s], leak[s], and [have] possibility (Helfenbein, 2010, p. 310).  The academy often does not speak to subjectivity or my subjectivity as a racial subject.  Yet, my subjectivity and lived experiences are able to leak in to create how one comes to make sense of this place and have a space of possibility to understand the racial self as a curricular construction (Taliaferro-Baszile, 2010, p. 485).  The preceding performance adds to Taliaferro-Basziles (2010) notion that multiple and varied voices can intervene (p. 484) into the dialogical nature of curriculum theory; that is, to examine racial subjects as objects of study but also to use those racial subjects as the lens to how we shape curriculum theory.

            Collins (1989) argues that Black women academicians need to be ready for potentially being rejected for not having a valid knowledge base.  So here I ama Black woman in the academy.  I have retreated to this place because of the spaces (theory) created to assist me with writing myself into existence and allowing my existence - my subjectivities, to leak into particular spaces to add to the dialogical nature of curriculum theory. 

            In this space of possibility I am able to use my subjectivity as a Black female to think about what needs to be done to decolonize curriculum.  Black women have got to resist, imagine, and insist upon a different world (Green, 2012, p. 149).  I am using my outsider within status to influence how I resist, imagine, and insist upon a different definition of curriculum - a definition that subverts the constraining and oppressive structures.  Collins (1986) maintains that those with outsider within positions are able to learn to trust their own personal and cultural biographies as significant sources of knowledge (p. 29).  My experiences as I have grown into Black womanhood add to the proliferation of the curriculum field.  I understand that my autobiography has meaning to reshaping how Black females are seen in society.

            I began this piece with Taliaferro-Basziles question What do we learn about our selves as we exist in the imagination of others?  I learned how I exist in the imagination of others.  And, I learned how to create forms of resistance to pull myself out of the imagination of others.  Knowing how I exist in the imagination of the racial other is what pushed me to write this paper.  Knowing how I exist in the imagination of the racial other allowed me the room to have this emotional purging and to rearticulate the prescribed consciousness held about me.  I came to this paper with the idea to tell my story and to write myself into existence as an individual Black female, not realizing that writing myself into existence with theory would allow me the space to speak, to leak into the proliferation of the field, and to have the possibility for decolonizing a curriculum that allows the self to resist, talk back, and unlearn the internalizations of the oppressor.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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