Growing up my nickname was Mèt Peyi. Loosely translated as “Master of the Country”, it was often meant to designate a child too big for her britches, who called out adults on their bullshit, who had no qualms about telling the impolite truth, a “towo”, a bull, lacking grace, devoid of charm. As time passed, the fire dimmed. People don’t want a mirror; their lies, insecurities, their cringey truths, all should remain hidden under layers and layers of concealer. The elephants in all the rooms should sit completely still, any move to reveal their presence could get them snuffed. People want a filter; a response to their search, selective reflection, polite consensus on lies, shades ranging from pure, lily white to ebony.
For a few years, I behaved accordingly. Anything to be seen, anything to belong. Which never quite worked out, I can admit it now. But I was good, wasn’t I? I told them all what they wanted to hear and swallowed the rest, I found a mage who could direct my life, mold me to his image. I could belong to him. When that stopped working, I found another, and another. All I had to do was change my colors to match his and hers. How did that work out? Turns out they bleed.
I wanted to belong to places, too. Put my name on metal bars above my head, plastic cards stapled to my chest. Tell me what I’m worth, tell me in numbers. Those never matched, until I realized it wasn’t so much about what my worth, but about what I would accept, what I couldn’t walk away from, my survival. Never thrive, no, that was for them. Not for us.
Us? We’re to behave, to perform. As soon as it stops entertaining them, the act has to change. Never too much, always try to be just enough. Not too loud, too strong, ambitious, self-assured, no, that’s threatening. Black bleeds on everything, indelible. Woman, poor, immigrant, queer, fat, artist, writer, lover, daughter, worker, student, teacher, priestess, love. How dare you be black and all that?
I was reminded of all of this week. I described it to my friend as a “very white day”. It was one of those days when you’re strongly, inescapably reminded that you’re having a completely different experience from many others, especially in a setting like academia. In the corporate world, having a “strong personality” is mostly beneficial to me because I am competent and seldom actually speak up. So when I do, it has a certain impact. One that maybe never translates to my paycheck, but at least can get things moving as far as the work is concerned. I get shit done, leave me alone, might as well be written on my forehead.
In my current program, most students either have never worked in the field before (or anywhere), did not have an undergrad degree in the field, or came to grad school immediately after undergrad. Some are a combination of all. Therefore, our expertise, experience, and understanding of what is customary and appropriate can differ from one another. It’s usually only a problem when we have to collaborate on group projects, bringing together personalities, views, and cultures that are wildly different.
I chose to go to grad school for very specific purposes. If I wanted to learn how to work with tech or how to design, I could do that from the comfort of my own home. I have clear goals about how I want to grow in this space, and now that I’m considering staying in academia for quite a few more years, these goals are expanding far beyond the year and half we have left in the program. One of these goals is to find the balance between being unapologetically, authentically myself, as a human(ist), a scholar, a woman, a writer, an artist, a teacher, and a student, and NOT being a dick.
And this week, I was reminded that the battle never disappears, you just get a little better at it each time, as I sat in a classroom listening to my (white) professor facilitate a conversation between me and (mostly white) group members. One of whom with (almost) tears in their eyes, a trembling in their voice, with the full impact of the violent weaponized vulnerability that only white women can wield with such grace, lamented over how “Hadassa has a strong personality” and how that prevented them from participating, voicing their thoughts and opinions, how they feel shut down or patronized to, and the rest of the script that goes into the diaries of anyone who has to work with an angry black woman. If I had taken a shot for every time the phrase “strong personality” was used in that 30-minute conversation, I would have probably needed to Uber home.
As I sat there, triggered, thinking about my recent post about code-switching, thinking about my recent conversation with an advisor about how as a person of color in America, when something happens, “you never really know” whether it’s racism or something else, thinking about the first chapter of Frantz Fanon’s “Black Skin, White Masks” my advisor let me borrow on that day, I couldn’t get out of the feeling of complete alienation I felt.
There I was, trying to take initiative, to build an infrastructure for our documents, doing the grunt work so we could focus on the actual work, and there they were, seeing it as me taking over, showing off I was better, talking down to them. One tried to even dictate how I should write my emails so I didn’t come off “that way”, to which I replied that I was not interested in making myself smaller to make others comfortable.
We ultimately concluded the meeting with some ground rules about communication, and I drove home, ranting on the phone with my homegirl, honking at drivers. When I got home, I threw a naked dance party in my room as I drank wine and listened to Teyana Taylor’s “Rose in Harlem” on repeat. After two hours of decompressing, I sat in front of my laptop and typed out an apology email.
I apologized because when I re-read the emails that caused the entire kerfuffle, there had been some confusion on my end about logistical details. I had made some assumptions that were pretty customary to anyone who’s familiar with project management, but they were assumptions, and given my audience, I would have avoided a lot, had I not made them.
I also apologized, not because I believe I did something fundamentally wrong, or because I was disrespectful or inappropriate as they suggested, not even because I believe I’m this person they described, but because there wouldn’t be any other way to move forward. I would be a disgruntled team member, barely participating, and they would crack under the tension or hate me, both outcomes I wouldn’t care much about, if it weren’t for my decision to do things differently, this time.
Seriously, how do you decide between being authentic and not being a dick? That’s the project I’m on, finding a space where I don’t have to feel out of sorts, I don’t have to feel or be defensive when people attack my way of being in the world. It has always happened, and I’m coming to terms with the fact that it may never stop. Institutions, governments, and people alike, all have an agenda to have you be who they want you to be, who they’re comfortable with you presenting as. Your answers have to be scripted, your reactions, choreographed.
As a black woman, the pressure is high. If you’re too direct and confident, you’re loud and mean. If you’re quiet and private, you’re mean and condescending. Everyone, everything wants you to recognize a truth they have constructed, that you CANNOT win. You should just make your peace with that. And then what? Just do as they wish?
Do you ever feel how people spurt out “truths” about the reality of the world, as a matter of fact, and not as a matter of fucked up shit that we should do something about immediately? (ex: “Black women are at the bottom of the social totem pole”, “White people have privilege”, “men get paid in attention and money more than women”,). It is as if they’re already indoctrinating you into knowing and accepting your place without resisting while performing this dance around “at least I’m woke enough to recognize it”. But then what?
This is what you notice in these academic, or even activist circles. They know all the theories, and the histories and the herstories. They can provide you with definitions, theoretical frameworks, annotated bibliographies, entire bodies of work about cultural topics like coded language, all the isms, intersectionality etc. But when it comes to examining their behavior in real time, when it comes to preventing certain moments from happening, when it comes to protecting those students of color as more than a concept, but flesh and blood and strong personalities IRL, they fail miserably. As one of those students of color, I try to not assign ill will to anyone as the academy is above all a learning space for everyone, but again, when these things happen, “How do you know?” Can you know?
Academia and similar institutions like the corporate world, often feel like playing Minesweeper (Mindsweeper). You never know when the next moment that denies your agency to be whoever tf you are is going to happen. You err on the side of caution and you shut the fuck up. You retreat into yourself and save it for queer black brunch and other hush harbor spaces where those conversations are allowed, encouraged, and ultimately buried.
I wanted to do it differently. So I sent them an apology. In the apology, I was direct about the things I thought I could have done better, for my growth and personal development. I may not need to learn the basics of project management, but I could stand to practice more how to deal with people with whom I would not deal with in any other context than a compulsory one. I acknowledged and validated their feelings as I recognize that they should be but while maintaining my own understanding of the situation and my knowledge of my own intent. I stated how I planned to improve, goals that are primarily personal in terms of being a better listener and being aware of my blind spots as far as how others may perceive me, independent of my intentions.
I also apologized to the professor for turning a constructive moment into a contentious one. I am proud that in the moment I did not back down, I spoke up for myself and stated my truth. But given this is a new strategy for me, I may not have been as graceful as I wanted to be. I apologized, not because I didn’t have an issue with the professor having conversations with individual students about me but not directly with me in order to get my side. Not because I didn’t feel betrayed by the prof’s presence in what should have been a group meeting as they seemed to back up other students, like the cavalry stepping in to handle an unruly negro. Not because I didn’t resent the prof for introducing the phrasing “strong personality” in the discussion in the first place.
We won’t even talk about how going to a professor before communicating with the other adults on your team would not be considered professional behavior, nor would inflicting the silent treatment and non-participation as punishment due to relational frustrations. Even in a simulation of the workplace, this poor communication system should have been addressed, but I guess not before dealing with the dangerous, angry black threat.
Ultimately, I apologized because I’m trying to build an identity in this circle and I don’t want to be labeled as someone who cannot work with others. I don’t want to BE someone like that either, and learning to let go of my need to be right (even when I AM right) can be the path of least resistance and the best way to move forward.
I had been planning to work with the professor in question as I prepared my PhD applications. This event, linked to another from last semester, has gotten me to rethink everything. I’m supposed to trust someone to provide me with guidance for my future when I don’t feel that they can see me? Me, as who I am, not as “a student of color in your class”, not as a concept, not as a project, or a burden, or an annoyance? And the thing is, it’s not even about whether these things are true for them, it’s really about the fact that now, those things cannot be “definitively” false for me. How do I know? Can I know?
What I do know is, this time, I did things differently and I’m proud of myself. In my email, riddled with soft statements directed at preventing them from concluding I was calling them racist, I continued to speak up for myself and pointed out to the professor how the phrasing of “strong personality” had triggered me, as it has often been used to tell people who look like me that they were unacceptable. That while for others having a strong personality has benefits, for people like me, it could be a danger to our path to success. These things were not excuses, I was merely trying to explain my perspective, something that may be useful to them in the future.
To be honest, I only skimmed their responses. My group members accepted my apology, I stopped reading when they started to offer their own. The professor acknowledged that the situation was not okay and should have realized that it was coded language and how it affected me, I didn’t read much after that. Because it’s not about them.
I wasn’t Mèt Peyi my whole life. For a while in my life I conformed, for god, for family, for money, for friendship, for love. I did the things people wanted me to do, I was the one they expected. Many times, I thought I’d found my place, and for a while, I believed it. Until I realized I’d been losing myself. Recently, I’ve been making my way back, loving and holding myself along the way.
Being unapologetically authentic to yourself is a lifelong journey. It can be a lonely one at times. But above all, you must be okay with other people misunderstanding you. You have to be okay with not being right, or acknowledged as being right. What are you okay with? What are you not okay with? These have been my most important questions. It’s a constant learning to not hide things because others may disapprove, and to change the things I actually want to change, after I’ve confirmed that I’m not changing just to people-please.
More than simply reacting, I am actively becoming this advocate for myself, instead of folding under the weight of other people’s expectations or range of acceptance of who I should be. And I’m learning to do it all with some grace and some style. Not even to make it easier on them, but to make it smoother on me. I can recognize that I don’t particularly like to make enemies or to come off as unreasonable or irrational, but my only alternative is no longer to do as others would want me to do or to hide.
When I was confronted with this week’s events, in the moment, I stood my ground, I was direct and honest, blunt even, but I tried to be fair and while I was somewhat disruptive, I still opened it up so that we had a productive meeting. After the moment passed, I was able to reflect on what I could have done better and what I was okay with doing on my end in order to move forward as graciously as possible given my long-term plans. I expressed myself empathetically and was able to mend it with people that think and feel differently from me and I was able to address an authority figure unapologetically and express a social truth that could have been a risk for me within the institutional structure.
I am in this moment where I am integrating the promises I have made to myself and the level of gratitude I feel is dizzying. I didn’t handle it perfectly, and as I recount it here, I can see some things I would change, but what I know for certain is that next time, it will definitely go better. In my last post about codeswitching, I wondered how one could simply stop. In this post, I show my hand at trying to navigate trying to be authentic vs. trying not to be a dick.
I guess the answer to doing things differently is to just do them, see how it feels. There’s a certain level of risk associated with it, and if you’re willing and privileged enough to try, do it. But be mindful that the world is not going to suddenly change just because you’ve decided to move against it. On the contrary, the more you position yourself outside the system, the more exposed and alienated you are, slim picking for predators with an offer of belonging. Create home within yourself and you won’t waver. Above all, remember, it’s a foundational process, one brick at a time.