Black In White Spaces: A Snapshot

This week’s post is a little off the beaten path. The following is what I wrote during and just after a class where I was taken by surprise by racist imagery during a neutral academic class discussion. The image was of Mexican stamps featuring a Black cartoon character called Memin Penguin who is drawn as a Sambo-style caricature with huge pink lips, bug eyes, protruding ears making what is supposed to be a Black boy look almost indistinguishable from a monkey. The surprise bowled me over. I was just not ready. In order to cope I started typing notes about what was going on and how I felt about it.

Not everyone would have been bothered or reacted in the same way as I did, and I am not speaking for every Black person here (I never am). I do want to share this with you though, because sometimes it’s hard to articulate some of the microaggressions Black students may experience in predominantly white institutions. The following is what I wrote at the time to cope. The image is included with this post.

MexicanStamps2005

We were shown an image of Mexican stamps in class and a white appearing Mexican woman was trying to provide context and to explain – or rather give excuses – that this was a well loved cartoon character and not meant to be racist and there are hardly any black people in Mexico so it wasn’t based on a racist history like America.

  1. My reaction was visceral, my chest was hurting, my eyes were burning, I wanted to cry.
  2. I was the only black person in class today. There is another black woman in this class but she wasn’t there today.
  3. I said something: not because I had the energy or was in a strong emotional place to do so, but because there was no one else in the class who was about to say anything.
  4. I tried my best. I said that in the US at a certain time racist imagery was considered acceptable and harmless as well, and there were many well loved minstrel characters – that doesn’t mean it wasn’t harmful. No one asked the black people if it was harmless. I spoke about how racism and white supremacy are worldwide phenomena and just because something is part of one’s culture does not make it right. Cultures can change. When you know better you do better.
  5. There was some discussion about imposing your hang-ups on other people’s cultures. I mentioned my culture having racist and sexist aspects, and admittedly it is not always acceptable for an outsider to swoop in and try to fix things – however these things are still harmful and people within the culture can also do research, disseminate the information and try to take action from within.
  6. I wrote this down so I wouldn’t forget it in the cloud of emotion I am feeling as a result of this encounter.
  7. Racist imagery and racism are really really fucking triggering – no I wasn’t alive at that time of the minstrel shows (I was alive in 2005 when these stamps came out). Such images were used to represent me and people who look like me and I am still affected. Also the generational trauma of slavery is real.
  8. I stepped out of class for a bit. Went around the corner, sat on a chair, placed my head in my lap and let my head spin for a few moments. Yes my head was spinning – I tell you my reaction was visceral.
  9. The professor and my classmates were really good about letting me have my say. No one tried to argue with me for which I’m grateful. I don’t think I currently have the emotional wherewithal to have dealt with open hostility well.
  10. I stayed calm and I believe I spoke clearly. There are still other things I wish I had said but in the moment I didn’t. I’m letting that go because I’m not perfect and I did my best under the circumstances.
  11. Had I not been in that room, no one would be affected, it would have all been a non-event, no one would have questioned or challenged the use of culture as an excuse for racism.
  12. Being Black in a white space means things will affect me in ways they don’t affect anyone else in the room sometimes. It means this intellectual environment, though I may be privileged to be part of it, triggers me in ways that make my walk through this process a bit more of a challenge than it is for the average student in this predominantly white institution.
  13. For me and other Black students on this campus, getting this degree encompasses more than being smart, doing the work, overcoming the general issues of money and ability and the frustrations of academic life. It involves coping with systems, images and values that are couched in white supremacy and devalue anything and anyone that does not fit the “white” standard.
  14. This isn’t the first time I’ve been emotionally punched in my stomach because of what I encountered in class and the implications that seem obvious only to me as a Black woman. It won’t be the last time either.
  15. To quote lyrics from a Coldplay song appropriately named The Scientist: “Nobody said it was easy. No one ever said it would be this hard.”

© 2015 Kelene Blake, All Rights Reserved

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