Black women in the United States occupy a unique intersection of race, class, and gender that frequently results in their being constantly misheard and denied the right of voice and expression. My work currently looks at how Black girls experience this in the classroom and the ways in which sound is used to deny their humanity and childhood. Oddly, I always thought of myself as doing this work for other Black girls and women, but not myself.
It’s not as if I have not had unofficial lessons in how to make myself small, agreeable, and nonthreatening my entire life. How to speak in a way that gets my point across, but not too harshly. Or how to speak in a way that’s not too sassy. Too angry. Too disrespectful. In fact, over the last 25 years I think I’ve gotten pretty good at making others comfortable by silencing parts of myself. Despite that, I’ve noticed that folks continue to misunderstand me—willfully or otherwise. I faithfully learned how to swallow these false ideas of who I am. I began to realize that no matter what I said or how I said it, my Black body rendered my speech unintelligible. This realization only grew stronger once I began graduate school.
My first three years of school in Bloomington, Indiana were a difficult time for me. I noticed that in coursework, my words became something for men and White folks to flatten out to something that was unrecognizable to me. My words became something they could play with and bend to the will of their argument. The actual content of what I was saying was unimportant, but the ability to use me and my body as a springboard for their own convoluted ideas was, in fact, crucial. Perhaps even necessary for the workings of academia that I was still not privy to.
I began to grow numb to this when it occurred. Numb to my words being used as someone’s plaything. I usually just fell silent once they began to respond to some contorted argument nobody in the room was making. I didn’t want to appear outwardly confrontational or angry—a right that was (and continues to be) extended to many of my White and male colleagues. However, I was certainly growing resentful of the space I was in and how I resigned myself to a state of placation.
My work during the second year began to increasingly focus on racialized listening practices—how Blackness is not only a visual phenomenon, but a sonic one, as well. I was and remain particularly interested in how racialized listening practices lends itself to the criminalization and dehumanization of Black girls in the US school system. As someone who works with children, who is in Black studies, and who believes the humanity of Black children deserves to be honored, I found this work incredibly fulfilling. And, strangely, healing.
I did not previously think that it might be healing because I am also doing this work for myself. That realization was an embarrassingly recent one. I am doing this work to make sense of why eleven year old Kennedi was asked to leave class for asking a question disrespectfully. I am doing this work to make sense of why a White man physically flinched when I gently pushed back on a comment he made during my second year of undergrad. I am doing this work for the times people who aren’t Black have spoken to me with a “blaccent” in an effort to be funny or “hip.” I am doing this work for that one time I was told I created a hostile environment in the classroom for disagreeing with a professor.
I have attempted to approach each of these moments and similar interactions with kindness. I have always actively taken stock of my tone in moments of frustration, anger, and disappointment in fear of being registered as the “angry Black woman,” or unintelligent, or overly emotional. These efforts often proved to be pointless.
At the beginning of the month, I was talking with another Black woman about how frustrated I was in my efforts to be heard. I was seeking to make sense of a specific interaction that occurred earlier that day, but I don’t remember the exact details—the “microaggressions” of mishearing all bleed together. However, I do remember her response.
She told me that I don’t always have to theorize my own oppression to make sense of things and to validate what is happening to the oppressor. She told me that sometimes I can just say to myself “This sucks. I’m allowed to be upset without explanation.” She continued by reminding me that constantly being expected to explain my own oppression to those who are not willing to change on their own accord, can be a distraction. That it stops me from doing the work I am passionate about: Black liberation.
Her advice felt freeing. Difficult, but freeing.
Since the conversation, I have been better able to sit with the incorrect ways people choose to hear me based on preconceived notions of Blackness, femininity, and class. I still find myself growing frustrated and wasting a lot of energy trying to find the right phrase or tone to make myself intelligible to others. In fact, I’ve been internally wrestling with this frustration for the past few weeks.
For today, I will take a break, refuse further explanations of self, allow myself to think this sucks, and feel upset.