My Skin: My Experience
Are you free? This is a question that many of us avoid. Perhaps because we are frightened to take a look in the mirror and ask ourselves if we are the oppressed or the oppressor. In the Oxford English Dictionary, the word freedom is defined as: “The state or fact of being free from servitude, constraint, and inhibition”. So, I ask the question again: are you free? If your answer is yes, you have either the power to change or contribute to the oppressed being oppressed. As humans we all desire for freedom, but the true desire of freedom comes from the oppressed. We, as a society, value freedom. That is why when someone commits a crime against the government, the first thing that happens to them is that their freedom is taken away. The state of not being free is like being stranded between life and death. So, why do we take innocent people’s freedom away? It is because our experiences towards freedom are all different. Some people never taste freedom, while others do not recognize the privilege of having freedom. This is because our experiences have already been chosen for us - before we even got the chance to come out of our mother’s womb. We either become privileged towards freedom or we become oppressed. And how do we differentiate between a privileged baby and an oppressed baby? By the colour of their skin.
So, when I recently came across a quotation by early 20th-century psychologist William James who wrote - “My experience is what I agree to attend to - I paused. The well-known psychologist's words struck me. And at first, I thought about “liberty”. The will to embrace your experience and to attend to it. In a way, James' words call attention to agency and to accountability. James implies that, as individuals, we make choices with our experiences and it is our responsibility to make the rights choices. His words read like an oath that one promises not to break. However, when we are analyzing quotations, we need to “take another look”, as African American critic Bell Hooks insists -- we need to take another look at what is going on in the world at present time. Different quotations have different meanings in different eras. What we need to consider is that William James wrote these words in the early 20th century. Now, I am analyzing these words today, from a modern perspective. I am analyzing these words from a world in which people have to protest daily, hourly that "Black Lives Matter”.
William James’ words are a reminder that having liberty is a privilege that is undermined in today’s society. Listen to his words again: “My experience is what I agree to attend to.” The word “my” indicates that most experiences are choices that every human makes. How many people get to say that they choose their own experiences? Whether it is a good experience or a bad experience. Your answer would most likely be a “no”. Our experiences have already been chosen for us based on our skin colour. Being black is a crime - while being white is a privilege. As much as we say we are moving toward a better world where racism will not exist, I beg to differ - to disagree. Because most of the time racism is loud, but sometimes - sometimes racism crawls out of your white professor’s mouth.
In my second year at York University as a Professional Writing student, I was in a class in which we were given two options on a particular assignment that we were doing. I remember being passionately excited to do option one. I had read all the readings and my notes were ready from the night before. That morning I came running late into the classroom and I quickly and breathlessly took my seat. I noticed that “option two” for the assignment was popular among the students in our classroom. It was only me and another white girl who picked option one. In the middle of class, while the professor was explaining option one, the professor decided to ask me a question: “Miske, have you ever done an analysis before?” I was startled by the question and the professor proceeded to scold me and told me to “pay attention”.
Embarrassed would have been an understatement about how I felt. The white girl’s intelligence was not in question, but my intelligence level was undermined in front of the whole class. As I took a look around the classroom, I noticed that my white colleagues were not even phased by the professor’s remark. So, when William James said, “My experience is what I agree to attend to” -- I was once again reminded about white privilege. I was reminded that the -- white people -- have choices. I was reminded that they live in a free world. I was reminded that their experiences are not a terrifying thing that they have to attend to. Meanwhile, the colour of my skin already came with its own experience - before I came out of my mother’s womb.
William James does speak about “liberty”. However, this liberty - today, and across the centuries - is called white privilege. When you choose to stay silent through injustice because it is not your experience to attend to, that is when you choose the side of the oppressor. We do not choose our experiences, but our experiences choose us. Imagine a world where my people did not know that their beautiful melanin skin was a crime. They did not know that going for a jog was one day going to kill them. They did not know that putting a hoodie on at night was one day going to kill them. They did not know that sitting in your own car was one day going to kill them. They did not know that having ice cream in their own home was one day going to kill them. They did not know that lying on the ground – unarmed -- was one day going to kill them. These are experiences that nobody would choose, yet it is my people’s experiences and they are the ones who have to attend to “Black Lives Matter”. In the hopes of one day finding peace and freedom.
So, when we “take another look” at William James’ words - “My experience is what I agree to attend to”- we see how they "become" a perfect example of blinded white privilege. To the extent that people do not believe in white privilege. So, my call to action is to those who are privileged. Go home, sit with your privilege, observe your privilege, attend to your privilege, and most of all, understand your privileges. Only then can true change happen. As a society, when we witness injustice it is our individual and collective responsibility as humans to attend to each other’s experiences. Especially to those who daily experience oppression, in a world where justice is given to the privileged.