I would like to discuss public space identity in terms of academia, and how that contributed to my experiences as a black woman studying opera and vocal performance in music academia. This blog post will begin as a short narrative of my experiences in the academic landscape of public school, and how that intersects with my experiences in higher education.
My experience as a young, bi-racial, black woman growing up in the suburbs (with a high concentration of white, higher-income, politically conservative demographics) has had its ups-and-downs. While going through the different stages of adolescence I was thrown into a world that included my body, but did not include my own perceptions of me in many ways.
In school, those divisions were clearer to see between my peers-the divide between what “fit in” and what was “weird”. In the early stages of elementary school there was not much segregation by skin color amongst my peers, at first: the only segregation I had experienced was enforced by my Kindergarten teacher who began to target me as the “class bad kid”. Ms. Able, a young, white woman began her teaching job being the nicest, kindest, and sweetest teacher that any kindergartner could ask for… that is, until the first Parent-Teacher Conference.
Ms. Able began targeting me after that night.
She had never seen both of my parents in the same room before, and to some people, without any warning, it shocks them: my white father, my black mother, and me, this little dark-skinned girl. How did this come about? It perplexes a lot of people.
That school year, I had to come home sick everyday because I had fevers; it turns out I had an undiagnosed tonsil infection, and by the end of the school year, when the problem was finally solved, I got them removed. However, my pediatrician, my parents, and everyone could not figure out why I was sick all the time, and Ms. Able began to think I was faking. She attempted to get social services called on my parents to remove me from a “hostile environment”, but I had missed a lot of school prior to the Parent-Teacher Conference, without any problem.
Any time I would raise my hand, ask a question, or turned in something she “didn’t like”, I was put in recess detention; I didn’t get to play with any kids. My mom would pick me up from school and get harassed by other teachers that were friends with Ms. Able due to an extensive discrimination complaint that my parents tried to file against the school, and lengthy discussions/meetings with the principal.
Eventually, Ms. Able and my parents came to an agreement of sorts: all social services charges were dropped because, eventually, my pediatrician figured out what was going on with my tonsils, which gave them permission to pick me up from school early for the remainder of the school year. Ms. Able was still not kind to me in the classroom even after this, though, and there was really little she could do. (She still threatened to fail me, but I had all of my assignments turned in). But I noticed that the other black children in my class were not treated with this hostility, and I remember seeing their parents at the Parent-Teacher Conference-I was the only biracial child with interracial parents.
The other kids in my class didn’t speak to me because of my “bad child” image, and I was unhappily reclusive for the rest of my kindergarten days.
My parents transferred me to a different school, and later on, they told me about the racial antagonism that they faced. I was too young to comprehend what was going on, but that was the first time I was ever aware of race, how it was perceived, and that it could be perceived as something “not wanted”.
The rest of my elementary school days were molded by that event, and I wanted to no longer be black anymore: I associated being black and white as an inappropriate mix, and embraced my whiteness more, even though I didn’t pass. Every field trip where my dad chaperoned was a spectacle for all the students, and I liked the minute attention it gave me.
“Whoa, do you see her dad? He’s, like, white,” a nondescript student would say. And I saw that my peers kind of reveled me in a way; the other black students didn’t really speak to me, so I began to see myself as more white, just accidentally black. During the latter end of elementary school, the racial divides got bigger, and this time, it was enforced by the students. Fifth grade was an explosion of hip-hop being more mainstream, and more accessibility to the Internet for my age group. All of the black students wanted to be ‘pimps’, a term popularized by rappers 50 Cent and The Game, and all of the white students that followed this trend were labeled as ‘wiggers’. This was also the year where I learned more about class dynamics and how those hierarchies played out during the school day.
All of the girls the boys had crushes on were not black, and the ‘good girls’ were the girls with two-parent homes, money to shop at the tween stores like Limited Too and Justice, and they were overwhelmingly white, and they made straight A’s. I wanted to fit-in, but my parents had recently moved to Virginia, and just transitioned from living in an apartment to living in a home – getting the coolest clothes for me was not their priority, but I still got the latest toys, which kept me somewhat popular. The teachers liked me, too, because I strived to make good grades.
The popular kids who were rebellious were minorities, had a non-two-parent home, got suspended a lot, didn’t care about their grades, and did crazy antics like bring pop-guns to school, or wore profanity on their shirts-the girls were also more developed and couldn’t wear the clothes from the tween stores because they had more shapely bodies. Teachers did not like these students, and I was too weird to fit-in with that group, too.
Middle school was an ever-evolving landscape that invited more race and class dynamics, and the teachers enforced these dynamics, as well. Those days were the days that I began hearing about who was ‘ghetto’ vs. who was a ‘redneck’, and white people began to separate themselves from black people. My teachers began to discipline black students harder than other students, and I felt like I had to prove myself through my grades. These were also the years where I craved being popular-I had a MySpace page, tried to surround myself with all the cool people, and I dressed like them, got my first cell-phone, and tried to immerse myself in popular culture. I realized that I wasn’t being myself, and that I was also “too weird” for those kids, and I became a lone wolf who began reading books and exploring my sexuality through romance novels (Twilight was popular at the time), and began listening to indie/emo music. I noticed that all of the girls who read books and who liked the music I liked were also overwhelmingly white, and while becoming friends with them, I didn’t have many other black friends. I began to be tokened by white friends saying that “at least I wasn’t ghetto”, or that I was “acceptable” because of the “white” things I liked. Once again, teachers reinforced this idea of me being “good”, because of my grades, and that I didn’t act like some of the other black people in my classes (they didn’t outright say ‘the other black people’ but they drew comparisons to other black students).
High school was even more dividing. People would categorize you by race; people would sit with their own race; people would make class, gender, and political distinctions on your race about whether or not you had access to money, prestige, power, etc. My high school was considered the wealthiest high school in the area, so competition was inevitable. My friends and I bought into these ideas about race and my identity, and would make comments about how I was “the whitest black girl ever”, forgetting that my familial tie to my dad in fact made me white-and with comments like these, I was still reminded of the fact that my inability “to pass” as a biracial child meant a loss of status, and/or credibility amongst my peers.
My head was vortex of trying to erase the skin I was born in through “acceptability politics” which meant constantly policing my movements to overcompensate for my lack of visible whiteness by striving to be as “good” as I could be as a black person.
When I went to college I went to a local university in the same area as my elementary, middle, and high school, which meant that the demography of the area was virtually the same. My first major was in music: I was a scholarship recipient and I specialized in vocal performance, my main focus being operatic works. I became even more aware of more white bodies inhabiting spaces of power in the department’s faculty, and how singing opera as one of the only black women in the department displaced me in many different ways. This displacement of my self-actualized identity vs. my academic identity was something I was accustomed to, but in regards to musicality and musical expression, it felt a bit odd.
My scholarship audition was not handled in the most professional manner: the school had an accompanist for me that did not show up to the audition, so I had to sing a capella; some faculty and staff were missing from judging panel; and there were no people-of-color on the judging panel.
Interestingly enough, after I received the scholarship, many people in the faculty forgot who I was over time, even though I was just awarded one of the biggest scholarships in the department. (This may/may not have been intentional; it was hard for me to be social in the department due to being a commuter student, and also because the full-time faculty taught instrumental music more than vocal music. Either way, I still was in the department every day, and I still took music classes, so I didn’t disappear from the department entirely.) The faculty began to remember who I was during my last two semesters in the department, when I began to work for the department’s office, and after hearing me sing for my upcoming senior recital. More opportunities to perform arose for me, but it was interesting to me that it took two-to-three years for these opportunities to come to the forefront.
Another sense of displacement came from singing the archaic text from many operatic works: many of the popular arias and art songs I sang from major works came from eras where my kin were enslaved, not recognized as fully-developed human beings, and from gendered text lines that placed women (white women, exclusively) as second-hand citizens. The opera that I studied was not about me, rather, I did not exist in the space of the text that I sung. My primary voice professor-(an older, white woman)-did not discuss many modern black operatic singers with me; we studied the works of primarily white women roles and not the roles of the major black women opera stars like Kathleen Battle and Jessye Norman. There was one mention of Porgy & Bess, one of the only popular black operas of the contemporary age, but our major focus was in the works of standout white, male, opera composers like Verdi, Mozart, Puccini, etc. (Another interesting thing about Porgy & Bess is that is a story of class distinctions based on frameworks of lower-income, poverty, and the “black struggle”. It does not hold the same class themes that are seen in many white operas).
In Demonic Grounds: Black Women and the Cartographies of Struggle by Katherine McKittrick, McKittrick contextualizes the history of black women’s geographies and the struggle to find an inclusive space due to the history of the black diaspora (i.e. the beginnings of enslavement) – the main context of this comes from the transatlantic slave trade which created a geography of “…black dispossession and white supremacy, which assumed racial inferiority and justified enslavement.” (McKittrick 44) This then created archetypes of black women’s bodies as conceptualized “racial-sexual” identities as “…spatialized, gendered, often public, violence; the black female body was viewed as a naturally submissive, sexually available, public, reproductive technology.” (McKittrick 44) McKittrick goes on to discuss how the precepts made black women’s bodies as “territorialized” space, meaning its ownership belongs to the outsider.
This territorialized concept also breeds a level of commodified ownership, meaning that the more able a black woman’s body was able to perform during times of enslavement, the more useful her body was to garner profit.
So how does that relate to my sense of place in academia? The long and short answer is that it relates to everything. The overarching theme of my sense of identity in the space of academia came from not having a place of fully established as my own-I began to learn through a white gaze, a gaze that encapsulated power, privilege, and prestige. My body, due to the color of my skin and my gender, was constantly compared to everything that it could not be-it was territorialized, although not in the same fashion that it was territorialized during slavery, but it was measuring up to ideals and standards that were generated by others with the same intersections as me. In terms of opera, and from being a part of the music department, it was territorialized and commodified (my vocal talents were seen as marketable, something to invest in, by receiving a scholarship).
Even though in these terms my body was not sexualized in the same ways that slavery created, my body was racialized, and I was born with these racialized distinctions on me just because of the history of my ancestry.
What tends to be forgotten is that history overwhelmingly repeats itself in modernized forms-the concepts of what is considered “ghetto”, not appropriate, “bad”, all came from similar stigmatized biases that began during enslavement for black bodies: the underlying concept is the same-white leaders dictating what to label black bodies, without the voice of black bodies’ formulating their own labels. In terms of black women, this concept is stressed even more because of gender dynamics (women’s bodies were “naturally” submissive with a predilection to being dominated) which means that more labels were attached to black women’s bodies without any say against them, and this was lack of voice was dictated as “biological”.
In simpler terms, I carried with me stereotypes and distinctions that were never mine throughout different academic geographies. These non-negotiable distinctions were something that I became accustomed to when entering higher education, and entering the white landscape of opera. That musical discipline already had levels of displaced geographies that I was familiar with; I felt as if I was entering a space could not include me, because there were not many in the field of opera-in the context of the music department I belonged to-that I could relate to.