In a sudden fit of nostalgia last week, I sat for TWO HOURS watching old skits from Chappelle’s Show. My obsession ultimately led to me creating one of those ranking lists that you have in your phone that means nothing to anyone else but gives you some sense of satisfaction in thinking highly of your own taste. My absolute top skits were “When Keeping It Real Goes Wrong” where a Black main character would find themselves in a predicament where they could either ignore something offensive or “Keep it Real” which would eventually lead them down a hilarious downward spiral they couldn’t have predicted. Dave Chappelle’s genius is a real battle for Black people and other people of color, a kind of painful learning experience he expertly cloaked in perfectly timed quips and laugh tracks.
Growing up, my father would always tell me to “keep your head down”. My dad’s words were intentional in their harshness as he prepared me to get to this point in my life as a Black woman. As a child, this meant keeping opinions to myself when my brothers got a larger share of candy than I did and shrinking myself to be smaller and less noticeable when curious White friends would touch my puffy curls. Sharing my own narrative was not a part of learning the daily navigation through life in a predominantly White neighborhood – a sentiment he would share growing up on Chicago’s west side in the 1950’s as he was chased home from school simply by being the only Black boy in school.
By the time I got to high school, I wasn’t about it. I watched my White peers’ parents getting entire courses changed for the needs of their student, I watched my classmates confidently stroll out of the classroom and never return; everyone was living life the way they felt entitled to, so why couldn’t I? Thus, my transformation from “keeping my head down” to “keeping it real” had begun leading me down a road of being labelled as aggressive, angry, and dominating as a Black woman speaking her mind. By the time I reached undergrad, my “keeping it real” when a coworker consistently talked about my weight lead to a disciplinary meeting with my supervisor in which I was asked to formally apologize or be removed from the position.
“Keep your head down” is now a part of my daily life. As a rising Student Affairs professional, the very first thing I picked up is the vitality of “playing the game”. Functioning in loose hierarchical systems and a small network, my learning is ever more important as the stakes are far higher than playground tears and threats of detention. However, my life course on behavior is now mingling with others’ “advocate for yourself”, “speak your truth”, and “own your experience” – ever more synonymous in the classroom and workplace with social justice and liberalism rooted in careful phrases rather than brazen honestly from a place of hurt. With recent upticks in social conversation surrounding truth and justice within the stories of others (#MeToo and Parkland High School shooting), this idea of owning your experience with the near expectation of understanding and acceptance is a consistent topic in higher education, especially in student services where so much of student interaction is story telling. But, is this liberty primarily available to White people who define and control what is acceptable in our current “call out culture”? (looking at you Colin Kaepernick haters)
How can I ever ensure my standing up for myself is gently labeled as “advocacy” as opposed to brushed off as a colorful person colorfully “keeping it real”? The honest answer is: I can’t. As my mother so eloquently said, “Because of what you look like, sometimes you have to choose between doing what’s right and what’s smart. It will almost never be fair or feel good, but it’s the game you will always have to play”.
Students arrive at our institutions with already shaped ways of communicating and navigating their identities, salient or not. But, where the dissonance lies in is the ability to share opinion without a fear of repercussion or no longer “fitting in”. What does that teach us about dissent? Labeling outsiders in the classroom and field is dangerous and reckless in a way that prioritizes preferable opinions decided, arbitrarily, by the top of the hierarchy. Isn’t this the point of a higher education? The ability to hold bits and pieces of information from varying disciplines and schools of thoughts to craft a cohesive and original intelligence? WHO decides what is “right” and what is “wrong”? Do your identities allow you to decide?
Today I only have questions and no answers. I can only strongly recommend the best skit on the Chappelle’s Show (according to my phone list, *clears throat*) in effort to lick your wounds after a long day of “playing it smart”.
Season 2, Episode 7 - Vernon Franklin
Season 2, Episode 8 - Brenda Johnson
Season 2, Episode 6 - Darius James