Relentless Files — Week 33
*An essay a week in 2016*
I’m sitting in my living room, trying to ignore the cleaning that I have to do, as I nurse a summer cold that took me out these past two days. Being sick always sucks. Being sick in this heat is a different kind of hellish. The upside is that I’ve been digging into Jesmyn Ward’s The Fire This Time: A Generation Speaks about Race. If you don’t have it, COP IT!
Race has been on my mind all week. From the #BlackGirlMagic that’s been happening in the Olympics in Rio (Biggup Simone Bile, Gabby Douglas, Laurie Hernandez and Simone Manuel) and the problematic coverage of their accomplishments, to that fool who I refuse to name, whom I can’t believe is actually a candidate for our next president, saying that Obama founded Isis, and so much in between.
This week I learned that a panel I was invited to participate on was accepted for AWP17. I thought back to the last AWP conference I attended in 2015 in Minneapolis and the reflection essay I wrote (that went viral), Color in AW(hite)Place.
There was a time when I refused to believe that race was such a pervasive issue. I’d cringe when people cried “racism.” I’ve been known to say, “Not everything comes down to race, dammit.” I’m not that naive anymore.
On Monday, an essay published on Electric Literature showed up on my timeline as a sponsored piece. (Thank you, universe. I see you!) I clicked on it because, as you might know, I’m an avid reader of personal essays. In the piece, a white woman attempts to own how she was complicit when confronted with racism. Imagine my surprise when I saw an entire paragraph of one of my Relentless Files essays quoted. The essay ended with a line from my essay. I was not named anywhere in the piece though my words, dozens of them, were quoted. I was referred to as “a writer you know from Facebook…”
Erasure: e·ra·sure, əˈrāSHər/, noun:
* the removal of writing, recorded material, or data.
* the removal of all traces of something; obliteration. “the erasure of prior history” Google.com
Cultural erasure is a practice in which a dominant culture, for example a colonizing nation, attempts to negate, suppress, remove and, in effect, erase the culture of a subordinate culture. The idea of “civilizing” nonwhite people can be seen as cultural erasure. Reference.com
At first I was like, “cool, someone valued my work enough to quote a chunk of it.”
But where’s my name? Why wasn’t I given credit by name? This sure feels like erasure.
I wondered if I should address it.
Should I just be happy that my words were quoted and not my name? Is this my ego? Am I just being difficult?
I checked with my FB fam:
Serious question: If your essay is quoted in someone else’s essay, do you think you should be named in said essay? Just saw my essay quoted and I’m not sure how I feel about being referred to as ‘a writer you know on Facebook’…
There were 90+ responses. The consensus was: yes, you should be cited. More than few mentioned the irony of erasure in an essay on race.
I reached out to the writer, used the word “erasure,” asked her to share her thought process. She apologized profusely, said it was a “style” decision, offered to give me credit in the comments section on her page. We went back and forth. I held a mirror to her: “How would you feel?” The result? The essay was updated later that day to include my name and a link to the essay. But the accent on the “a” in Mártir was missing. I questioned myself again. Should I bother? I mean, they did give me credit, but that’s not my name. I pushed through my self-doubt and contacted the writer again. The change was made.
I was left thinking about why I even questioned reaching out to the writer. Why did I hesitate? What is it about my dynamic with white women that makes me not trust myself and question whether I should defend myself? Me, a woman who is normally so quick to talk back and defend herself without hesitation…what is this silence I’ve internalized? Where does it come from? Why didn’t I consider myself and my work worthy of carrying my name? Why was “the writer you know on Facebook” enough at first?
I reached out to my friend D who went to NYU and works at NYU and whose daughter recently graduated from NYU. She shared stories of “me too”—the white female professor who gave her a dirty look; having to ally herself with people who would use her for what she could do for them…there are so many sacrifices we make to survive in white spaces.
I thought about that AWP15 essay again…
I confess: I searched out fellow writers of color at AWP. I gave them extra love when they came over to receive their AWP bag during the hours I was volunteering. I tried to make eye contact when I saw one walk by. I smiled and gave a head nod. I hoped they read my “we in this together” face. When someone walked over to the VONA table, I sold the program with gusto. I am a walking VONA billboard. I’m proud of that shit. Why? Because this shit is hard. Because being in these predominantly white places is hard. Because we get reminders of it when we see a black body stepped over. When we go to readings and not one of the 28 white writers mentions the killing of black men and women by police that has been all over the headlines for the past year. Because silence is a political act.
My silence is a political act. Is this who I want to be? How I want to show up in the world? Acid settled in the back of my throat. It burned.
I pulled out my journal and started writing what I now know is an essay that’s going to take me a little while to complete. I started:
What is it about white women that makes me, a normally very outspoken, quick to defend herself woman, get quiet when challenged or dismissed by them?
Then I started listing the white women who have silenced me, tracing it back to when I was just a thirteen year old girl from Bushwick trying to get an education.
There was my guidance counselor my first year of boarding school in 1989 (I’ll call her Ms. G) who reminded me every chance she got that I was too much, I needed to be tamed, quieted, the Brooklyn bred Latina taken out of me, by force or shaming if necessary.
When I talked too loud or laughed too loud or showed excited too loud, “Hush,” she said, shaking her head.
The keys that dangled from my hip jingled too loudly. “Take those off and put them in your bag.”
“It’s want to, Vanessa, not wanna.”
“You only speak Spanish in Spanish class, Vanessa.”
When she looked at me, she was tight lipped, nose turned up, her eyes scanning me, looking for something else to correct, to make right, to contain…
There was that professor at Columbia who after a challenging semester told me I was irresponsible when I showed her the doctor’s note excusing me from taking the final. When I went to take the make-up exam, she glared at me and slammed the exam onto the desk. “You people…” she said as she walked out and yanked the door behind her. I wondered what she meant by that. Did she mean you people of color, you spics, you hood girls?
There was the CEO of the nonprofit I worked as an editor who referred to me in an article about the organization for Fast Money Magazine as “the Latina single mom.” No mention of my education or publishing credits. No mention of the work I’d done for the org, helping them rebuild the website by writing and overseeing the content creation. I was the stereotype in her eyes. No more. All those accomplishments didn’t matter. I was still just a spic…
There was my partner’s (now former) friend who we visited a few months ago in Minnesota…who antagonized me, treating me/us like the help. I spent the morning of my first day of what was supposed to be my vacation, helping her get her house ready for her housewarming, where she was debuting her new house to people. I did it and didn’t complain though I admit to feeling a way about it. That night, after a full moon ceremony, when I shared that this was the first of two consecutive full moons in Sagittarius (June and July of this year), she leaned forward and said, “No, that’s not possible. Let me tell you how this works…” and proceeded to go on her spiel where I was wrong and she was right. This happened repeatedly, where I felt antagonized and condescended, until I couldn’t take it anymore and walked out of the house for good, returning only to gather my things and leave.
The thing is: I didn’t say anything. I didn’t defend myself. I didn’t take her task for talking down to me. I simmered. I seethed and said nothing.
The list goes on for pages. The truth is I could spend days listing the microaggressions and episodes of blatant racism and erasure that I’ve experienced. I could quote friends and essays and books. I could talk about how it took me weeks to read through Claudia Rankine’s Citizen because it made me cringe and cry (I may have even thrown the book across the room once) because I saw myself in so many of the same situations, in boarding school, in college, in corporate America, just walking in the street or riding the train …
Like that time on the downtown 5 train when an older white woman kept shoving me. The woman could barely walk but she thought it was okay to push me because like her, I’d asked people to make room for me to enter the train. There was enough room for both of us but how dare I take up her space. How dare I insist on making space for my brown body? After the fifth or sixth shove, I stared her dead in the face and said, “Imma need you to stop pushing me.” She sneered, but she stopped pushing me.
Today I’m looking at the ways we internalize those episodes and quiet ourselves, shrink ourselves as a result.
The purpose of erasure is to make us doubt ourselves, feel like we’re buggin’, like we’re the problem if we speak up, if we dare to defend ourselves. Someone thought my words were insightful enough to quote my essay, but my name was not worthy of recognition. Even if that wasn’t the writer’s intention, I’ve been down this road enough times to know what erasure tastes like. I deserved to be cited. Me. By name. And asking for that isn’t too much nor is it confrontational. And, no, a note in the comments is not enough.
We should feel worthy enough to demand that much respect for the work we do, that we labor and lose sleep over. And we shouldn’t feel bad for that or worry that we’ll be labeled problematic or angry.
In the essay, I was labeled “defensive” when I was annoyed by a writer who asked me to translate the Spanish in my essay. Why is it “defensive” of me to expect a reader to do her homework? No, I’m not translating for you. Do. The. Work. I’m doing it. So should you. Word.