I spent this past week at at technology conference, learning how to use digital and social media outlets to reach out to students. It was a pretty fascinating experience; plus I was able to present with colleagues on how we use technology on our campus to serve students. One of the discussions I sat in dealt with how social media helps professionals be more “authentic”. At first, I was really down with this concept. I’m an introvert, I despise large crowds, I’m certainly not a “Woo” in any shape or form. But, I use Twitter as my medium to express myself. I can be rather sarcastic, self-deprecating, but never trying to bring people down. I express myself and share stories that relate to my past and current work. I also like to engage with other professionals as a form of development and growth. However, one of the panelists said that we need to be careful on how we say things, because showing our authentic sides may be misconstrued by those who may view us with altered realities. This really made me think about how I’ve often been told to watch my behavior so as not be seen as the “Angry Black Man”. This carries a lot of baggage and impacts my work. I have to find the balance between being authentic but holding back enough to not be interpreted as the “Angry Black Man”.
I am cognizant of the fact that I need to watch what I say and do and how I can be perceived. It’s one of those things grown ups have to handle on a regular basis. However, being a man of color in student affairs, that perception is taken to a whole new level. I’ve really been sensitive to it when people tell me to check my body language, since it could be seen as “being defensive” or “being hostile” (in meetings, I usually sit with my arms crossed, because it’s comfortable and most of the time it’s how I process information). I’ve worked really hard to check myself when a meeting gets heated or when someone gives a remark that’s personally triggering. What heightens my anxiety is the fact that I am often the only man of color in meetings and discussions, and there is a lasting stereotype for men of color that showing emotion is equated with anger. So, when a topic gets a little heated, I have to work extra hard to not portray any emotion or thought. Am I to not express myself? Am I not to share my feelings and emotions? Trust me, I’m not going to get angry and throw a chair through a window.
But, as I kept thinking during the conference session, what if I was really angry, and that anger was authentic? What if I was angry that the majority of Oakland’s murder victims were young African American men? What if I’m still angry that one of my students in Oakland went missing a few months ago, and I didn’t see Nancy Grace talking about him on her nightly show? What if I was angry that politicians haven’t passed comprehensive immigration reform or that the unemployment rate for veterans is higher than the national average? Maybe I’m just a little ticked off that we can fund raise billions for elections, but the middle school I worked at had to ration paper towels because our budgets were cut. My anger is not caused by my ethnicity, but caused by the life I’ve lived and the things I’ve seen.
I remember a good colleague of mine telling me “It’s like I have to leave a large part of myself at the door when I come to work”. I suspect we all have to, in some form, to work in a professional environment. We all bring some anger to our work; it drives our efforts and wants us to make things better for our students and society as a whole. However, being constantly told to not look like the “angry Black man” means I have to leave more of my experience and authenticity at the door. I truly wish I could bring those parts of myself to my work and be “authentic”. I want my colleagues to know that I like Frank Ocean, or I listen to “Wait Wait, Don’t Tell Me!” every Saturday. I want to share that I enjoy Frida Kahlo’s paintings, or that I’m reading the Quran to educate myself, or that I would love to travel to Sweden to visit my extended family one day. I want to share how my experiences in urban K-12 education shaped the kind of higher education professional I am today.
Maybe I’ll Tweet about those things more often, hoping that will lead to people getting to know the true authentic self.