Every night, before heading to sleep, I unplug my Target-bought heart-shaped lights – the last remaining light in my room at this time of night – and climb into bed underneath my white down alternative comforter. I grab my charging phone from its resting place on the bedpost to my left and unlock it. My phone’s display, now in Night Shift mode, replaces the glow from the decorative lights. Tumblr’s navy blue background is there to greet me. I scroll.
Tonight, I come across a gif-set from an interview with Toni Morrison. In the first gif, Morrison, in her white-grey dreadlocks and caramel skin, gazes off to her left over and over again and speaks. The bold yellow text beneath her face reads: “I understand Black is Beautiful but I was…That was a generation a little bit younger than me and I thought, ‘Wait a minute, why are you…? Do you have to say that? Of course we are.’ And then is that all? It’s about beauty again? Is that what makes us human, acceptable? And besides, it’s too frail.”
She goes on and her half-silhouetted face contorts into a scoff again and again and says, “It was part of what I really despise, which was addressing white people. ‘Who are you talking to, are you talking to me? No, I know I’m beautiful. Or it doesn’t matter to me.’ You’re talking to white people who are saying you’re not and therefore you should be segregated or oppressed.”
By the sixth and last gif, Morrison’s eyebrows, separated by three wrinkles, furrow and unfurrow and furrow, “Once, I always say this, once I took white people out – I say white men, but I meant white people – it’s like the whole world opened up. You could imagine anything, everything.” I save the link to this entire gif-set as a little square to my favorites on Safari.
Before taking Intro to Legal Theory with Professor Adam Sitze my sophomore spring, I never spoke in my classes. Across the large wooden table from me on the second floor of the Octagon was a black female Law, Jurisprudence, and Social Thought major with none of these inhibitions. My spiral bound notebook was filled with would-be contributions that ultimately got nixed by my racing mind. Her notebook definitely was not. My thoughts would go from some variation of “Look at all of these white people” to a version of “If I say something stupid, all of these white people will have their stereotypes about black people confirmed.” She spoke up assertively throughout the semester.
I spent the following summer in Hitchcock dormitory feeling depressed about my racial and gender oppression. But I realized that I could not go on like this so I crafted a plan. The plan was to try to stop thinking about my identity in the classroom. This experiment sounds like a bad one, but please know that I had no intention of adopting colorblindness. In fact, one of the benefits of being a dark-skinned black woman is that I am still a black person, even if I don’t think about it. My pigment doesn’t change even if my mind’s eye isn’t focused on it. A privilege and maybe a nightmare too, but definitely something not all of my light-skinned counterparts experience.
This experiment went surprisingly well. Speaking up in class became a piece of cake. Who cared if I made a comment that revealed I misunderstood the material? I certainly didn’t. It dawned on me that I should be preoccupied with the class material instead of my white peers’ attitudes towards me. Most of them were certainly getting their tuition dollars’ worth by using the classroom as a space to test green ideas. Why shouldn’t I?
Attending office hours was no longer a time where I shook nervously wondering whether my white bespectacled professors believed I deserved to be at Amherst. Standing under fluorescent lighting in front of a mirror in the women’s locker room was no longer a moment where I compared my thick thighs or textured twists to my white teammates’ legs and straight blonde and brunette hair. Spending an endless amount of time pacing down CVS’ skin care aisle was no longer an occasion where I wondered whether the white retail associates in their blue shirts with red accents thought I was planning to steal.
Ignoring the white gaze has been liberating for me. My confidence levels have spiked. My stress levels have fallen. Because I am better able to see my worth, due to the fact that my time has been spent building myself up, I have the confidence to pick and choose what I allow to get to me. Not everything has the value of being worth my time. And for what I do allow to get to me, I am equipped to tear it down with forceful argumentation.
What worries me about Amherst to no end is how easy it is to get preoccupied with the white gaze. Times where I feel blackness should be celebrated are times where whiteness is the focal point. Blackness on this campus feels more unified around being similarly oppressed than around being similarly gifted. This is not to say that whiteness is not flawed. It is to say that we need to pass the baton to our white allies. Let them fix their community. Of course we can be part of that rebuilding – in fact we must be part of it – but we should not be spearheading the work of ridding their communities of racism specifically. In the same way that white people should not be spearheading our movement.
When I let go of the white gaze, I sincerely began to see my privilege. It is easy to forget that only around twenty three percent of Black people (without “Hispanic” origin) have a bachelor’s degree or more. Next month Catherine Epstein will call my name into a crowd of students, families, and friends and I will walk underneath the canopy of trees across the black makeshift stage to become part of that thirty-three percent. This is privilege. Amherst is privilege and I appreciate it. My appreciation swells as I prepare to live on less than forty-thousand dollars in a large city. It runs over as I truly see that it is not me who has been cooking my meals and cleaning my dishes. Believe me when I say that I will miss living in Lipton where my education, food, and friends are within walking distance.
For this year’s Black Alumni Weekend, Tamika Mallory spoke in the Gerald Pinney Center as we ate oxtail, jerk chicken, and plantains from Golden Crust. I couldn’t help leaning forward in my grey foldup chair with my elbows indenting my thighs and my palms cradling my cheeks. She stood in her Louis Vuitton stilettos behind that brown podium and told us how privileged we were. She reminded us that while we may have it bad at Amherst, our people outside of this privileged space have it even worse. It is easy to lose sight of that when the focus is constantly on the white gaze.
Loving Amherst is hard to do. Not because it isn’t a lovable place, but because a voice in my head, which may or may not actually exist in the heads of others, says that a black person who loves Amherst isn’t in touch with their black identity; a black person who loves Amherst must not be engaged with campus politics; a black person who loves Amherst must hate themselves. But maybe a black person who loves Amherst is a black person who recognizes that trying to compete with white people over bourgeoisie acquisitions is just too narrow-minded.