Learning the Language of Silence / Resilience
I never learned how to code-switch forms of expression in the same sense that I never really learned that black and woman and angry meant that people like me with hearts of depth and sugarcane were unpalatable. The richness of our experience is buried beneath ancient earth, beneath emotions that are unwelcome but accessible. I became fluent in the language of respectability that the black half of my family owed their success to, and the same language that, eight thousand miles and twelve years away, my Filipina mother prayed would create her salvation. Moments in educational spaces (from colorful rooms to elite settings) were full of anxiety packed into small cartons, where I tucked dreams and discomfort into books to mark the page.
I mastered the art of abstraction, exchanging native jargon for the language of academia. Softened and sweetened in favor of melting my words / my experience / myself into spoonfuls of brown sugar. I witched away emotion like a(n) (un)natural remedy for a natural occurrence, like healing abilities I imagine my ancestors learned to survive.
In many ways, I imagine that I’m no different from them. From Audre Lorde’s (art)icle titled “Poetry is Not a Luxury,” she emphasizes: “Our feelings were not meant to survive… feelings were expected to kneel to thought as women were expected to kneel to men. But women have survived. As poets. And there are no new pains. We have felt them all already.” (Why then, if “within these deep places, each of us holds an incredible reserve of creativity and power, of unexamined and unrecorded emotion and feeling,” are emotional and creative approaches to education a liability rather than a strength?)
Perceptions of Emotion in Educational Spaces
For students and humanities-enthusiasts alike, Cartesian Philosophy plants itself at the heart of our historical and contemporary imagination of knowledge regardless of the extent to which we understand it. Beyond buzzword and mantra, “I think, therefore I am” carries implications that construct our perception of emotion, of validity, and of historically marginalized communities. In “The Structure of Knowledge in Westernized Universities,” Ramon Grosfoguel explores Cartesian Philosophy as one of the elements contributing to instances of epistemic racism, sexism, and violence: “For Descartes, the ‘I’ can produce a knowledge that is truth beyond time and space, universal in the sense that it is unconditioned by any particularity — ‘objective’ being understood as equal to ‘neutrality’ and equivalent to a God-Eye view” (Grosfoguel 75). Objectivity, neutrality, and a removal from the identity and self, define the forms of knowledge regarded as most ideal, as they are regarded as closest to our idea of God and our perception of “universal experience.” In the realm of epistemology, this provides insight into the reason why historically, heterosexual, cisgender, white, Western men (often without disabilities and reigning from wealth and prestige) have dominated our most taught / learned / colonized bodies of thought, and therefore hold a level of privilege on a sociocultural scale.
Cartesian Philosophy embodies, and reinforces, the mind/body, culture/nature, public/private, man/woman duality, historically and currently used as a means of justification for social hierarchies and the silencing of those on the margins, meaning that “Any knowledge that claims to be situated in body-politics of knowledge (Anzaldua) or geo-politics of knowledge (Dussel) as opposed to the myth of the unsituated knowledge of the Cartesian ego-politics of knowledge is discarded as biased, invalid, irrelevant, unserious, that is, inferior knowledge” (76). (Or, to repeat the words of Lorde, the construction that feelings must surrender to thought is placed on seemingly-equal ground with the idea that women naturally surrender to men, lending both imaginations of superiority / inferiority justification and, therefore, strength — putting women, people of color, members of the LGBTQ+ community and of any other minority community imaginable at a chronic disadvantage.)
Because emotions are viewed as natural (and therefore, dangerous) responses most associated with women (stereotype that women are creatures of emotion) and people of color (the age-old “angry black woman” trope — content warning: sexual assault), there is very little room for emotions in educational contexts. Educators routinely avoid politicized (read: “controversial,” potentially-divisive, and relating to marginalized groups) topics in favor of exercising neutrality and maintaining an objective learning environment. Higher education creates individuals well-versed in theoretical, conceptual, and abstract readings of issues. Personal experience and emotional response are considered professionally “inappropriate,” contextually “invalid,” and socially “inflammatory” — entering spaces of education or occupation, we leave our identity, our personal, and our emotional at the door.
But what good is that for our experience of learning and the understanding of these real, personal, emotional topics that others form?
What if, despite your most desperate efforts, you carry your personal or emotional everywhere?
I came across the article “Red Eyes: Engaging Emotions in Multicultural Education” almost by chance. Author and educator Hongyu Wang expresses her ideas — both in theory and practice — about creating space for emotion in multicultural education. In recognizing the historical roots that paint women and people of color as “more emotional” and therefore “less civilized,” Wang invites us to challenge our idea of an appropriate response to pedagogy and recognize that, instead, “the pedagogical work of questioning social norms for cultural transformation cannot proceed merely along intellectual lines but must also proceed along emotional curves. A critical engagement with emotions and education is political as it involves power relationships, which asks us to re-articulate the notion of emotions” (Wang 11). Among other things, her essay “attempts to follow a critical path less trodden to turn the troubling emotional site of learning and teaching into a constructive space, in which teachers and students can engage personal and cultural transformation for new social landscapes.” (The voice of Lorde sings, “as they become known and accepted by us, our feelings and the honest exploration of them become sanctuaries and spawning grounds for the most radical and daring of ideas.”)
Amy Brown and Mark Stern, who co-created an essay about educator depression and activism (that I’ll reference more later!!) channel Lorde and Wang by re-framing emotions in education as an empowering force, and, in a sense, a form of knowledge. They reinforce that “as feminists of color have long argued, feeling and giving voice to feelings — especially feelings of oppression, depression, or alienation as a result of symbolic, political, or physical violence — is a way of knowing” (Brown, Stern 339).
Or, the way I visualize it: “The white fathers told us: I think, therefore I am. The Black mother within each of us — the poet — whispers in our dreams: I feel, therefore I can be free” (Lorde, “Poetry is Not a Luxury”)
(I read this, quote-browsing and aloud in my friend’s room and again in the company of black women. I understand three times before I feel. The words dance in my dreams.)
Experience of Marginalization: (Emotions as Accessibility)
Dreams don’t translate to reality easily.
I’ve always been a dreamer — palms starward and sacrificial. But even for dreamers and black women with survivor hearts, channeling Lorde’s words into my own experience of learning has been as tough as the front I put up. Moments of anxiety and dreams packed in small cartons.
I channel Lorde by channeling energy into art. A means of open expression where feelings (of anxiety, of anger, of heartbreak) translate more easily, though it’s never truly easy. From the moment I entered an educational space and found no room for my (whole / natural / artless) self, from the moment I understood the effect that existing in the margins had on my mental health (Who needs “tone police” when you can apprehend yourself?) I’m unsure if I learned the language of code-switching or if my native tongue died altogether, buried in translation. (They only want your experience if it’s curated.) When certain topics are made impersonal for another’s comfort where does my discomfort come into play?
I am black. I am Filipina. I am a queer, mixed woman of color, who unearths her brain in therapy regularly but has trouble unearthing her heart in academia.
The evidence that abstract can translate pretty easily into reality exists in the embodiment of my identities. Homophobia and misogynoir and anti-black racism are tangled in the rough, natural curls of my hair. Just like I can’t remove my queer womanhood from my blackness, I can’t remove my emotions from these politics.
A multicultural education with emotion recognizes how individuals’ realities / identities continue to exist in the classroom, in conversations, in the way we perceive and navigate the world. It’s creating a more full recognition of how the political is personal, and a more accessible space for marginalized students who may not be able to access an abstract version of their experience. It’s realizing the effect of racism on your health and experience of learning. It’s eliminating tone policing and validating anger.
Most importantly, it’s re-visualizing our perception of “valid” knowledge — as neutral, as objective, as removed from the body and personal experience. In order to center the voices of marginalized groups (namely women of color) and root them in validity, emotional responses and personal accounts first need to be recognized as forms of knowledge that hold truth, magnitude, and are worthy of being listened to.
Experience of Privilege: (Emotions as Understanding)
I had to learn (the hard way) the truth of how experience permeates spaces. How no matter how carefully we create and establish homes for trust, power dynamics carve themselves into the woodwork. (But how can we expect to build, really, when breakage is the architecture on which our history is built?)
Experiences of privilege exist in these settings the same way that our marginalized identities have the tendency to haunt the coziest of homes. Holes are dug to create room for critical conversation. Comfort and detachment take their seats at the head of the table. Ask you to pass the sugar — regardless of how much you assert that there’s no sugar to be passed. In fact, the tea, much like the reality, is almost never sweet.
Sometimes the tea is uncomfortably hot, and the kettle is screaming from a place you can’t quite reach. Most of the time politics hum on the news in the next room, a noise of constant static. Maybe the homemade meal is never served. Maybe the thermostat reaches critical levels but the critical (conversational) level is never truly reached.
Conversations about social issues are no different, inherently uncomfortable and bitter and political by nature in the ways that these marginalized experiences are. Designing room for emotional (and often uncomfortable) responses — from marginalized experiences, folded in the dirty tea towel you were given — would enhance the understanding of those of privilege and encourage them (or in some cases: us) to recognize how these larger systems can permeate their and others’ experiences on an interpersonal, intimate level. Maybe then, the dirty tea towel stained with emotion won’t appear a thing to be discarded.
Maybe the meal is unfulfilling regardless of the fact that it was made with love. But — much like conversations regarding social issues — it doesn’t need to be.
Experience of Educating: (Emotions as Hope)
Even for educators, privilege and marginalization can become pieces in the constructed space that may go unrecognized. Regardless of the imagined ideal that teachers are neutral participants, incapable of carrying their own personal experiences and immune to the realities of our contemporary world, the environments created culturally and politically in academia can evoke emotional responses and uncomfortable, overwhelming feelings of responsibility — namely for educators who hold marginalized identities.
In his piece “On Teaching (Trans)Gender,” Dr. Cary Gabriel Costello expresses a personal account of his experience navigating academic spaces as a trans man, incorporating his dream of wanting to incorporate intersex and transgender issues into his sociological pedagogy, and encountering “the idea that only the privileged have the right to speak about the marginalized because the privileged are objective and the marginalized are not.” Rooted in the idea that the political is personal, Costello offers an emotional perspective of an educator pressured by the education system, his social environment, and the normalized ideal of objectivity to leave his identity at the door.
Brown and Stern further paint an image of how multicultural education, as it often explores social issues under a critical lens, may create feelings of hopelessness when educators are reminded of the realities of the world and the circumstances of marginalized students, some of “the kinds of negative affects brought on by critical analysis (of neoliberalism, patriarchy, racism, nationalism, ableism, heterosexism, and the intersection of all of them)” (Brown, Stern 338).
The positive element of inviting emotion into educational spaces is this: if executed artfully, these negative emotions may “call into being affective conditions that might provide space for also feeling otherwise — spaces of healing, of hoping, of solidarity, and repair” (Brown, Stern). Brown and Stern continue, capturing the idea that “affects or feelings, then, are read as kinds of intensities born of a particular moment … and yet present themselves through means that allow for a different kind of experiential / corporeal insight and, therefore, analytical understanding” (341).
From my fair understanding and firm belief, the positive element of inviting emotion into education is the creation of space for healing and collective activism. Meaning that, through the use of art (writing, dancing, performance, photography, film, etc.) to make visual / visible experience and channel / evoke emotion, educational experiences regarding social issues may reach a depth that enhances understanding and healing — for educators, situationally experienced students, and inexperienced individuals alike.
In Practice: Art & Emotion to Visualize Experience
Classroom (Dis)comfort: Heidi Tolentino’s piece on “Race: Some Teachable — and Uncomfortable — Moments” exhibits the experience of an educator who made the deliberate choice to encourage students through natural (and naturally uncomfortable) conversations. One of the most admirable things about Tolentino’s pedagogy, in my perspective, is the effort and energy she places into creating space for emotions both through verbal expression and in the form of candid creativity. She explicitly states that “[she] wanted them to feel that they could always stop our discussions to be honest about what they were feeling and thinking,” an attitude that applied, in her practice, especially to students of color (Tolentino 272).
Tolentino makes a conscious and active effort to re-frame the idea of comfort that is commonly held in educational contexts, charming the notion that educators must redirect conversation in favor of majority comfort into the practice of prioritizing the comfort of her most effected students. Through the recognition of racism’s effect on emotional health and the critical thinking born from an organic emotional response, Tolentino artfully maneuvers around the tone policing hole by encouraging a healthy expression of anger (through personal writing and the words, “Get as angry as you need to”) from one of her black students (275). Classroom settings could benefit from educators who take the responsibility and natural opportunity to discuss social issues, with the encouragement of healthy emotion / creativity and without avoidance for the sake of maintaining neutrality.
Fear Uncolored: The Color of Fear is a documentary film created by Asian-American director Lee Mun Wah in 1994, for the purpose of featuring a facilitated conversation between eight men of various ethnicities about the topic of race in America. (The film is referred to in the piece by Wang — as she incorporates a screening of the film into her unit on race — and is available in DVD form at Canaday for those of you who attend Bryn Mawr or have library access! Just ask the front desk!) Colored with emotional intensity and discussion on the experience (or lack thereof) of race from marginalized and privileged perspectives, the film paints a difference in the level and reception of emotions as the participants navigate the space and move through complex feelings.
Notable Moments (ones featured in the video will be italicized):
- “I’m not gonna trust you, until you’re as willing to be changed and affected by my experience and transformed by my experience as I am everyday by yours… I have to understand you to survive … you live in a world where you don’t have to understand my consciousness or my experience.” – Black man to a white man
- “My feelings are very opposed to many of yours, and I don’t understand why you have all of this intense anger and emotions…” – One of the white men addressing the people of color, and expressing a lack of understanding of racism’s emotional nature
From the words of a black man participating in the conversation, he emphasizes “the sort of tender parts of the hearts of racism” that the film indicates visually, as personal experience is encouraged by Wah and strong emotions are ever-present in the room.
Magic of (Feel / Heal)-ing
My own healing journey is complicated, sweetened and unsweetened by brown sugar dreams. I am learning not to compress my experience or perform alchemy on myself in order to go down easy. Learning to celebrate my dreams colored in resistance and survival and the poet that dances in my blood, alive and healing.
I am channeling my energy through art and encouraging my own anger. I am reimagining what it means to be natural the way my ancestors knew it. Complicating art and academia and the line between the two. I am empowering myself, and others, and curating my experience — not to soften my narrative but for the purpose of reclaiming it.
I am black. I am Filipina. I am a queer, mixed woman of color, who unearths her brain in therapy regularly but has trouble unearthing her heart in academia. I am the poet of my dreams. I am complete and unfinished. I am art and emotion embodied.
“For there are no new ideas. There are only new ways of making them felt.” (Lorde)