When I was in graduate school at Yale University over twenty years ago, I once asked a friend of mine why everyone always gravitated toward us two at student parties. My friend was one of the few black doctoral candidates in the university at the time. Finding ourselves to be the only minority students in a great many of the seminars we attended, we often joked with each other privately about race and identity as a way of blowing off some steam. I recollect that particular conversation – words whispered over plastic cups in a crowded room – well. With each passing year, our playful exchange has taken on Technicolor oracular tones in my mind:
I hear my friend say: “Sharmila, do I really have to explain why everyone comes and hangs out with us at parties? Because we are fun. Because we smile and laugh so much.”
“Why do we smile so much?” I ask him. “My cheeks hurt from smiling so much and I cannot keep it up.”
“We smile,” he tells me, “because it is the only face we can show. If we stop smiling, they will see how angry we are. And no one likes an angry black man.” Or an angry brown woman, I add, silently editing our conversation. “But I think you know this already,” he continues, “and so you smile wide and crack all those jokes.”
At the end of the nineteenth century, the African American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar wrote,
We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes
In the early decades of the twenty-first century, I know that if I stop grinning, I will frighten others with my anger.
Anger is the useless emotion of people with grievances. Civilised people, superior people, capable people manage anger through reason, televised town hall meetings, logic gates, strategic planning, branding exercises, op-eds, and fireside chats with tea and sherry.
In the universities of America today there are angry students who say that when people of paler complexions use pigments to darken their faces and redden their lips for Halloween, when people with blond straight hair wear dark curly wigs in order to dress as a rapper, they are insulting black people. “Don’t curb our freedom and be a killjoy who doesn’t understand that Halloween is about experimentation,” say their opponents. “Children, do you want adults to tell you how to dress? Do you want to whine about microaggressions and institutionalised racism? Remember, out there in the real world, outside college, no one will give you trigger warnings in a boardroom meeting.”
Those who think angry students of colour are pampered minorities continue, “Institutionalised racism is a figment of your imagination. This is the reign of emancipation. Jim Crow is a chapter in the history books. The empire has folded up its flags and bid farewell to the natives. Stop complaining, pull up your pants, and learn to have a little fun. We cannot go around changing names of buildings just because the name happens to belong to a white man who owned slaves. Think of all the good qualities the slave owner had. Think of all the wondrous things he did for this country.”
“What’s wrong with a little racial ventriloquism? Race is just performance. Race is a metaphor. Race is a biological fiction. Let us perform our identities.”
(These are the graduate-school-educated voices of America.) “What’s wrong with having a little fun?” (These are teenage voices in America.) “Parading in blackface is our cultural heritage. We will fight to protect our heritage.” (That is Dutch people parading as Zwarte Piet, or Black Pete, on Saint Nicholas’s Day.) These voices, I wager, are mostly white.
Why do blackface and brownface bother me? Because I have been wearing whiteface for so long. Because my Halloween never ends. The tricks and the treats are not toilet paper and cheap candy. The truth is that the opposite of blackface is not whiteface. Blackface is jolly, makes fun of others, is entertainment, is a game you get to play when you are already the winner. Whiteface is sad, demeans me, is deadly serious, is a game we play when we know we are on the losing team.
Blackface makes me angry because whiteface is not its opposite. And anger is no longer a heroic emotion. The age of Achilles is over. Gods and heroes no longer rage as the topless towers of Ilium burn. Now anger is a Third World emotion. Anger is a militant black. Anger is a shrill woman. Anger is a jihadi. Because we know this, many of us also hide our anger behind elaborate masks of comedy.
At Yale, I learned that all binaries are false. That race is a biological lie. That the coloniser never fully dominates. That the colonised are never fully subjugated. That there are things called Ambiguity, Ambivalence, Aporia. And those were just the A words. There were also Hybridities, Problematics, and we had to Complicate Things. Outside class, there were people whose cheeks hurt from smiling because they feared the consequences of revealing their anger. Perhaps because we perfected our smiles, students young enough to be my daughters and sons have to be seen raging on YouTube.
Almost twenty years after I graduated from Yale with a PhD, in the spring of 2016 I was invited to speak to graduate students at my alma mater. My hosts asked me to speak on racism on campus and the experience of non-white alumni in the workplace. There are many ways of comporting oneself at such an event – in each version I could emerge as the triumphant heroine of my own story. I could speak of hard work and the high road, and end on an upbeat note. I could speak more clinically, do a Produnova vault across critical race theory, and nail my landing with a virtuoso flourish that would demonstrate that there is no such thing as race after all. I could be somber and tragic, listing all the slings and arrows borne patiently since graduation. I could be the comedienne of colour who outruns and outguns racism with her swift wit.
We were scheduled to meet on the third floor of Linsly-Chittenden Hall on Old Campus, in a classroom where nearly all my graduate seminars used to meet. When I walked into that room, I knew that none of the story lines were right for the occasion. If I could not bring myself to tell the truth in the very room where I was educated, then what was the value of the diploma written in Latin that Yale once gave me?
I cannot play the role of the photogenic minority alumna who has managed some small amount of professional success. I cannot be the poster girl for diversity in a glossy magazine targeted at wealthy donors. So, I told them that as a young woman I once sat in that very room and smiled until my cheeks hurt. I confessed that I entertained classmates with elaborate masks of comedy. I said that I wish I had the courage to be as angry as the young people who are protesting institutional racism in campuses all over the country right now.
Excerpted with permission from Not Quite Not White: Losing And Finding Race In America, Sharmila Sen, Penguin Viking.