It is officially week six of the program I’ve been fortunate to be a part of. We have less than two weeks and being a fellow is still weird to me, but that’s not at all surprising; I am still figuring out how to navigate spaces such as this one and how to utilize tools that have been historically, and currently are, oppressive to communities in which I belong. And wow, I don’t think I have worn a pencil skirt as often as I have in the last five weeks. I’ve also never thought so much about how I should cover up my tattoos or take out my nostril piercings. To be honest, I don’t enjoy it much – the molding myself into the world of professionalism is not something I am here for.
Let me preface this paragraph by noting that this particular program has not explicitly encouraged the following sentiments, however, many situations and comments have led me to feeling some type of way about respectability politics and how apparent it is. Professionalism tends to perpetuate dominant ideologies, specifically around race/ethnicity, class, gender, and ability. It is rooted in the desire to making people produce, and it seems that a lot of us are taught that in order to do that efficiently we cannot show an ounce of individuality, or worse: be a marginalized individual. I should not dare to call attention to the fact that I am a queer black womyn (quick, I should find my White Man mask). I should not dare to call attention to how certain comments or ideologies are incredibly harmful to not only individuals in the space but to the people outside of the space, those whose lives are literally on the line because of said comments and ideologies are making policies and laws. I should not dare to express my views because they might be construed as “biased” (because you know, perpetuating dominant ideologies isn’t at all biased).
That is certainly not the mission of this program because this is supposed to be a space for students of color and otherwise marginalized to learn important tools in order for us to succeed not only in the world of public policy but in life. However, all of the internalized oppression has been a major barrier in fully understanding how these tools could be useful and used for the better. Professionalism does not allow us to address that, so we don’t. Despite the mission of this program, there is a fear that some of us have: the tools are ending up in the hands of people could potentially cause more harm to disenfranchised communities. This would not be on purpose because these are people who are genuinely good people. But they have platforms that would allow them to be spokespeople and to implement changes. And there’s little doubt those changes will be good long-term. A brown face implementing some kind of change does not mean it is representative of all brown and black people, not even their own constituents that supported and voted for them.
It is wonderful to be with so many people who look like me and/or share similar experiences, but it also reminded me that our experiences do not happen in a vacuum and that we do not process them the same way. For me, healing is crucial. Self-preservation is not optional. I cannot and will not sacrifice my mental, emotional, or physical health. For many others, in and out of this program, there isn’t anything to heal from and there is no trauma, so there’s no point in labeling it. I respect that because it’s not anyone’s place to push their processes onto others. Unfortunately, I cannot say that I’ve felt that many people respected my ways of labeling, articulating, and processing the pain that I have experienced before and during this course of this program.
The amount of emotional and physical labor (of varying degrees) that people of color have to produce every day is astounding. I would like to recognize the effort that it takes to wake up and follow our daily routines. Let us also recognize that a large number of people from our communities are purposefully denied entry to these ‘professional’ spaces and those of us in these spaces are working twice as hard as our counterparts. This is institutional oppression at its finest. We are exceptional, not the exception.
So what does it mean when we are silencing ourselves and/or each other? Is it possible to have diverse perspectives without continuing to have dominant ideologies perpetuated and internalized?
Being at the table doesn’t mean we’re not being fed poison.