Theories Detached: The Perpetual Outsider Within [pow]
bell hooks (2013) captures in her new book titled Writing Beyond Race: Living Theory and Practice the experience I had as an African American that may not so unique but they drew me to academe. Those experiences were being or at least feeling like an outsider within my very own community, just to realize that even the acceptance that I felt from academe was “as was explained to me” only because I was not threatening like other African American’s, because my characteristic naturally is passive and not militant in your face. This left me feeling confused and sad actually. I also met many non-Americans that I befriended that said the same about me but I would put the feedback into the contact theory filter in my own mind.
After leaving graduate school understanding how we all fit into social constructions in society and thinking that this understanding could easily be taught and thought through I felt as if I crashed back into society; the real world, from the walls of academe, the ivory towers as I understand them to be which is a place where the market place of ideas are free and safe to roam about and embraced. Where whispers were rude or at least as communication experts we all respected one another enough to know that we all read verbal and nonverbal messages all too well that we knew how to gossip tactfully because we all worked so closely. I think that we were all bold enough to practice open what we discussing in class via our research, it became the tool through which we could have the difficult discussions.
At the beginning of the semester I felt compelled to explain my standpoint in all of my classrooms and that our classroom is place where all expressed perspectives are expected to met with respected as the lived perspective of each individual. But also that no student should automatically assume my standpoint or bias they expect me to hold based on my social location or material body because that type of thinking is not only narrow ignorant where racism was and oppression is born. That my classrooms will be places where critical thinking is allowed to grow and flourish because when we actively listen and engage these thoughts and perspectives carefully without judgment or fear all of use of us will grow and this is my dream. However, I am cognizant of how difficult this dream of mine is because in the real world, the practical world, apart from academe, the world of abstract “theories detached”, from the practices of everyday life, it is easier to debate, to encourage, to write about, to idealize this dream, than it is to live it (hooks, 2013).
In graduate school, you gain the respect of your peers and professors as you present in classrooms, then conferences and begin your career to gain a certain degree of respect as an intellectual. Since the group is relatively small you typically sense no overwhelming presumption of your ability of lack thereof to critically engage the intersections of race, class, gender, weight and sexuality. Indeed, prejudices are not about your loyalty to any of these groups based on your social position based on your ethnicity, body size or place of origin but are a place from which you create an argument to advance a body of research. Not because you have “an ax to grind” as a hiring committee member mentioned in an accusatory tone on a job interview that sent me straight into sabotage mode since I was obviously only there because of the diversity clause, not because they thought I had anything else to contribute [pow]. It becomes uncomfortable then when you can empathize with group only to then be perceived as one that is inherently against that group. I do not have a ax to grind toward any group of people, maybe there are issues that I am for or against, ideas that I like to debate or discuss.
So when you come back into the real world, the practical world and consistently feel the urge to relocate your standpoint for others so they do not offend your anti prejudice sensibilities toward whites, blacks, the LBGTQ community, Immigrant community, catholic, non-Christian, non-religious and any one person feeling oppressed at a point in time which is every human being. I believe myself to be a perpetual outsider within [pow], never belonging to or automatically being loyal to anyone one group of people based on any material feature they and therefore we embody. I think that is narrow minded to say the very least. I am not an essentialist. I would prefer to label myself, if I had to have a label at all, that of an intellectual but my former professors me would have to agree, they are the judges although others that are not qualified often oblige. As such while I detest and resist only speaking from and being seen from a place of a raced body I have more to offer. However, I simultaneously embrace the fact that this location affords me a great privilege to access information that others might not otherwise have access to [pow]. Sometimes I feel like it is a blessing but most of the time it feels like a curse.
I have been rejected more times by those that look like me than those that do not. This may be due to the mere fact of repeated exposure to my own community. But consistent rejection and mistreatment over the years takes it toll and one tends to learn after a while to be productive and live busy lives to hide such failures. This is very difficult to say; to write; to put in print but it is a small part of a truth that I have lived and always believe it to be of my own doing. To continue, because of the way our society is structured; growing up in the 1970’s I was automatically an outsider within other communities only having a certain amount of access through education and the kindness of quirky, artsy, nerdy, also known as the “eccentric” individuals that gave me the privilege of hanging out with them even though some of their parents would not allow me to come over to their homes, so there were not many invitations to parties or sleepovers etc. but I never missed what was normal to me.
Coming into adulthood understanding my outsider status caused a lot of pain; as a perpetual outsider within I have gained insight, though naively, on how to proceed with caution and truly get to know human beings over time based on an individual relationships and not what others say about them. I never had many folks to choose from anyway. It wasn’t until after graduate school that I experienced unexpected invitations, from people that did look like me in my community and from ones that did not and that was confusing. Especially the outrage at my aloof response to such invitations that usually came after being “sized up” from those in my own community or being treated mechanically or theatrically life from those from within or outside of my community.
It felt as if I had crashed back into a very unknown practical society in which my title made me a political tool in which I realized that separating the personal and political were relatively impossible and not practical in the workplace. In fact, it is not the norm to separate them. It could be that you are expected to know that the personal is always political in the workplace and the moment you literally take your last breath people only want to know the dirt to gossip and get on with the next order of business.
So when I write. I write to hope that my writing helps bridge gaps in the disconnected biased relationships among fat people or people with body image issues or people with eating disorders that embody some kind of difference, otherness, people that are on the margins and that have traditionally been muted or silenced in the body image dialogue or maybe seen as an anomaly in quantitative research because we are not easy to explain or put in a nice and neat little box, not NORMAL.
I write, not from a place of judgment, not from a specific place of what my social positions suggests, not from a place from anger or hate, but a place of understanding. I think if we understand the similarities we have with the ability to see through the anger, hatred, and then in this cause of justice, of fat prejudice and fat discrimination, we can all survive strongly succinctly together. I am going to speak from the position in which I was given to speak but know I stand with everyone in this wonderful community with love and without judgments. As beautiful and courageous men and woman from all backgrounds and acknowledge our dear leader Robyn, the artsy woman that has recognized something in all of us and is allowing me the privilege of hanging out with and feel NORMAL again.
Dr. Mensah [pow]