I went to high school at a small, nominally-progressive private school in Boston. I was the only black girl who stayed for three years. And at 5-feet-3-inches and 250 pounds, I tried to make myself as invisible as possible. For probably the first three years I was there, I didn’t really speak in class.
It was a shock, then, to get the school catalogue the spring of my first year. It featured a large picture of me – only me – in the frame, laughing at a joke someone had made. The picture was not flattering.
I remember feeling puzzled for a few days about why the school gave it – gave me – such prominent placement. Then a slow realization dawned. I was there as a symbol. It didn’t matter that this picture of me was terrible. It wasn’t about flattering me or making me feel beautiful.
It reflected a fantasy of the school into which someone had inserted this image like a prop.
To be seen and not seen is one of the defining characteristics of blackness in America. There is how we are as black people – human beings with a full range of emotions and sensibilities. Then there’s how non-black people imagine us to be – impervious and incapable of irony or intentional thinking.
That same year at school I decided to preemptively reject romantic life before it could reject me. So I created a uniform for myself, made of overalls and the kind of T-shirts they give out at charity walks. For me, this symbolized my budding feminist resistance.
But when I wore these clothes in the overpriced boutiques in the neighborhood around my school, clerks inevitably followed me. To them, I looked like a troublemaker and a thug.
We believe that we are objective and fact-based – but the reality is that everything is filtered through a racialized imagination … where we are never more than what our skin color represents to someone else … where black boys are men and black men are monsters.
In high school, I experimented very briefly with wearing a nylon tutu attached to the crown of my head. I recall this really intense desire that it would still be the 19thcentury again, when it was socially acceptable to wear a veil. I spent a few days peering at the world through a screen of thick black netting. I felt exposed and protected. I think it was a way to hide in plain sight.
Hear Kaitlyn's follow-up conversation about her essay on The Brian Lehrer Show.
Kaitlyn Greenidge was born in Boston. She received her M.F.A. from Hunter College. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Elle.com, Lenny Letter, The Believer, American Short Fiction, the Virginia Quarterly Review, Guernica and other places. Her debut novel is We Love You, Charlie Freeman.
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We hope these essays spark conversations for you -- at your dinner tables, churches, synagogues, nail salons and barbershops. To help you continue the conversation, here are some questions related to Kaitlyn Greenidge's essay.
1. How important do you think it is for school classrooms to be racially diverse and identity inclusive?
2. Have you ever felt invisible when you are in plain view? What did that feel like?
3. What do you think it means for everything to be filtered through “a racialized imagination”? What would it mean not to see through such an imagination? What might be different?
4. What do you understand racial “tokenism” to mean? Have you ever felt like a token, or seen someone else as a token?
5. What might have been a better way for Kaitlyn’s school to see or depict her? What could the school have done to make Kaitlyn feel less like a “symbol”?