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WEB EVENT 1: Am I Too Accessible?

kwilkinson's picture

My blackness always reigned as my dominant identity in high school, often times forcing me to choose between: black or woman.  Although I went to a relatively progressive high school, our discourse about race always seemed more significant.  I operated in a dual-consciousness that felt inherent.  In hindsight, I see that this was of course socialized, but it seemed natural to always be aware of how others perceive you, while expressing yourself in the way they can most understand.  I was use to always having to culturally translate or give the Black perspective, more concerned with how I said or expressed an opinion, than it’s actual content.  Of course I felt that it was unfair that my opinion in class would speak on behalf of my whole race, but I understood that I had no real choice.  Most of my peers never have to think of this intersectionality.  I felt that it was my job to educate them.  I had to make myself accessible, not only to socially survive, but also to contribute a valuable opinion that has been underrepresented in the classroom my entire academic career. 

Of course it is important to consider my class as a factor in constructing this framework.  I come from an upper-middle class background, resulting in attending the best schools, which were overwhelming white.  That is not to say the only good schools are white, but in my geographical location that unfortunately tends to be the scenario.  Since I have grown up as the minority for my entire life, I have assimilated to the reality that I operate in a constant state of performance.  Allowing me to be accessible to my peers, by way of the ability to speak in their rhetoric or language in my self-representation, while maintaining a metal dialogue in my head that may differ.  There are few people that I can be my unencumbered self around in my current environment.  I am not uncomfortable for the most part, but I am hyper aware of my word choice, tone, and body language when expressing my thoughts or opinions.  Although this may seem neurotic, it is almost second-hand nature to the point it is mostly a habit of my sub-consciousness.

As a student at women’s college that emerged during the first wave of feminism, it is almost assumed that you are a feminist.  Of course this was what I assumed, when deciding to attend Bryn Mawr.  As stated before my lack of understanding with my “womanhood” was unsettling to my sense of self.  I wanted to immerse myself in an environment where I would be in the majority, where I was understood without having to explain myself, once again.  Although I feel connected to the Bryn Mawr community, feeling a shared sense of identity as a Mawrter and pride for my college, there are times when I feel like the other.  This is most illustrated in my relationship with feminism.    

In class when Anne asked us if, “Accessibility was a value of feminism?” all of our answers were varied.  Given that during our discussion while playing the human barometer game, it was clear to me that some of us were arguing against realities and ideals.  Of course I would love for accessibility to be a value of feminism, as a Black woman I feel as if I am on the outskirts of the feminist movement.  Given the socio-historical context that represents a predominately white middle class woman narrative, I do not connect with this legacy and history, as do many Black women, and other women of color. 

More recently theorists have described the third wave/post wave of feminism to emphasize the importance of intersectionality and voices of women of color in shaping this dialogue and discourse.  We see women of color authors publishing works that resist the traditional narrative by writing in rhetoric that refuses to assimilate to society’s norms and the public sphere.  I argue that this “inaccessible” nature of women of color feminists, especially Black feminists such as Toni Morrison, bell hooks, and Zadie Smith, allow for a true unencumbered narrative naked of performance and illuminate dual consciousness.  

Ever since I read White Teeth by Zadie Smith, she has been not only an inspiration for me as a Black female author, but I have also admired her ability to illustrate the, somewhat harsh, realities of intersectional identity.  That is to say, Smith’s resistance to fragmenting her character’s identities, forces the reader to immerse themselves in this arguably “schizophrenic” train of thought.  The duality of her identity as a women of color, results in scenarios that involve multiple plot lines and trains of thought. 

As a Black-American woman living in an, at times overwhelming, white majority, I find myself operating in a dual-consciousness that in acutely aware of my audience.  That is to say, although I am not able to see the world through my lens as a Black woman, but also the way in which the majority of my peers relate to larger groups/ideals, such as feminism.  This identity overall impacts my plight through society, influencing the way I am perceived in the public sphere and how interact within it.  In an interview with The New Yorker about her new novel NW, Smith discusses her writing style deriving from her identity and plight as a woman of color in the public sphere.  She says:

 I used to have this envious feeling towards the type of writer who never gives a second thought to whether their readers might not all be white and middle class and highly educated. That’s the whole world to them. All their characters sound like the author and like each other and like the reader. It seemed to me you could write so much more cleanly and stylishly when you didn’t have to try and think yourself into many places at the same time. Of course, it probably isn’t easier—the grass always looks greener elsewhere.  Anyway, in my situation, every time I write a sentence I’m thinking not only of the people I ended up in college with but my siblings, my family, my school friends, the people from my neighborhood. I’ve come to realize that this is an advantage, really: it keeps you on your toes. And it seems clear to me that these little varietals of voice and lifestyle (bad word, but I can’t think of another) are fundamentally significant. They’re not just decoration on top of a life; they’re the filter through which we come to understand the world. To be born into money is ontologically different than to be born without it, for example” (New Yorker).

Similar to Smith, it is impossible for me to compartmentalize my identity.  It is the filter that not only defines me in the public sphere, but also influences the way in which receive and syntax information.  The intersectionality of my identity as both being black and a woman cannot be bracketed to favor one over the other.  In Smith’s novel NW, her writing style is somewhat fragmented, reminiscent of a person attempting to reconcile one’s unencumbered internal narrative with one’s representation or performance of self.  Her inability to fragment her identity as a Black woman, or self-described “filter”, forces the reader to see the world through her lens.  Many have critiqued Smith’s novel to be “too difficult” or “a headache”, which is ironic in that she is immersing the reader in the reality of dual-consciousness that define the plight of many marginalized groups today.  If Zadie Smith is a feminist writer, how can she do so by not making her work accessible?  Is she now marginalized?  Is this a necessary evil in order for her effectively and efficiently participate as a valued voice in the feminist sphere? 

I would argue that although Zadie Smith’s resistance is difficult, this inaccessibility allows for a more “true” self to be represented for women of color in feminist narratives.  By allowing the internal dual-consciousness of many of Smith’s character’s to play out in the public sphere, this enables an underrepresented identity and voice to emerge in feminist discourse.  Many Black feminists have called on feminism for more praxis and intersectionality, calling on more solutions that deviate from society’s norms.  Smith’s writing style is most only answering this call, but also speaks to her inability to segment this identity regardless of her dual-consciousness.  

Although I am still performing and acutely aware of my dual-consciousness, I am much more comfortable in acknowledging my intersectionality.  Similar to Zadie Smith, my identity as a Black woman filter’s the way “in which through [I] come to understand the world”.  Although this mental state can be exhausting, I appreciate the skill it has taught me.  I am inherently taught to question, while simultaneously thinking two trains of though at question.  However I want to resist like Smith, but I am not sure I am able.  My literal behavior would be classified as “accessible”.  In class I have characterized this phenomena as a burden—however I do not to intend to imply a negative tone, but instead stating that this is my reality as a Black woman.  I am not really sure where to move from her, as I am not ready to share al my thoughts with the public sphere.  I am still to aware of my audience, but for the sake my shared identity as a Black woman I will ask the questions that my peers possibly never think of, still careful of how I ask them and to whom. 

 Works Cited:  

Cressida. "This Week in Fiction: Zadie Smith." The New Yorker. N.p., n.d. Web. 06 Oct. 2013. 

Garbitelli, Beth. ""Q&A: In Zadie Smith's 'NW,' Some Harsh Truths About Frienship." PBS. PBS, 31 Oct. 2012. Web. 06 Oct. 2013. 

Penguin, Books. "Zadie Smith's Tour of NW: Camden Lock." YouTube. YouTube, 25 Sept. 2012. Web. 06 Oct. 2013. 


Anne Dalke's picture


I love the way you zero in here on Zadie Smith’s work, as a great example of the “inaccessible” but essential writing of Black feminists…though I’m not quite sure I understand how you understand such an achievement. You call it a “a true unencumbered narrative naked of performance”; I would say it’s actually a glorious performance: very “cumbered,” clothed, multi-voiced, refusing to pare down or leave out any of the complexity of life’s experience, refusing to accommodate or assimilate or make it easily accessible. Zadie Smith puts her double consciousness on display, and makes her readers do the work to make sense of it all.

And as that fine quote you give us from her suggests, such a consciousness is both a burden and a privilege: it enables her to see more. WEB DuBois and the more recent work of Gloria Anzaldua on “borderlands” both claim that being forced to “wear two faces” (in neither case is this a choice) lets you move, can make you wiser. You see more, know more, because you are always viewing the world comparatively, from double lenses (that “inherent questioning” you write about….)

Actually? I think we’ve moved well beyond double consciousness @ this point. The identities Smith describes are not only dual: they incorporate dimensions of race and class and gender and nationality and and religion and age and ability….within a single character there are always running (as you note) “multiple plot lines and trains of thought. “

But where I’m still confused? You say that you “would love for accessibility to be a value of feminism,” and yet you celebrate the “arguably ‘schizophrenic’ train of thought,” the “somewhat fragmented” reconciliation of “unencumbered internal narrative with representation of self." Being true to oneself, in all one’s complexity, means making oneself more accessible? But it means being less accessible, to those whose lives don’t intersect w/ your own? You leave me unsure…

yj13's picture

The idea of intersectionality

The idea of intersectionality when it comes to accessibility is definitely a tricky one; the more layers that are considered, the harder it would be in practice to make oneself accessible without becoming too essentialist to draw meaning from. Trying to simplify such complicated entertwined issues and facets of one's life for those who are unaware or unacquainted is a daunting task, and it's pertinent to question at times whether or not it's worth it really. I found that making myself too accessible meant that I only scratched the surface of who I was, and while audiences could understand what I put out there I felt like they wouldn't get anything meaningful out of the experience. Still, balancing that sort of personal accessibility you mention while acknowledging intersectionality is a valuable point.

pipermartz's picture


The idea of a dual consciousness is really intriguing, especially with regard to female interpretation of the gaze. W. E. B. Dubois describes double consciousness as “sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others”. I think women everywhere are constantly having to change their actions and presentation based how they think they are being preceived. In Laura Mulvey’s 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” she stresses the idea of how the male gaze and the female gaze are essentially the same because women look at themselves through the eyes of men. This idea expands to include the double conciousness of women of color, and how they are also performing for caucasians.