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Experimental Essay

Butterfly Wings's picture


I am in no way a professional poet, nor is this an incredible polished poem (by any stretch of the imagination). There is no doubt a lot that could be made more clear or logical. It is very much an edited train of thought, either about myself or about situations I’ve seen other people in. It is a processing of emotion and a reflection of the stigma we subconsciously internalize in every day life. 




Sometimes, the right

words are the wrong ones for

the right reasons

but the wrong people

say them


no one tells them off 

it’s hard to see the 

discrepancy of the story




You can shout it

from as many rooftops as you


You can reblog, and share

and like

and comment to


Heart’s content

Play the exception


Not all You’s


But you’re a liar


It’s true you don’t 


Haven’t excluded

to Memory

It’s true you seem 

to surround yourself

with “other”


your lie is invisible

the arms hugging the world



don’t betray it

but you lie


sometimes, though

you’d never admit it

those wrong, 


words come bubbling

up through the wrinkled layers 

of your mind

pressing tight against

the confines of the skull


that gut sinking felt

when a tall black He

grabs the pole next to you on the


late at night, going home


you have to remind yourself

to breathe

to remember









ways that you are wrong

and that marrow-jarring thought was


And you smile at him 


All the while certain that 

He knows

That he saw through that crinkled white wrapper 

with the charcoal-smudged smile

and the eyes

that for some reason or another

can’t quite meet anyone else’s


That he heard what you almost


That he saw the way your Weight 



to shift


He knows He knows He Knows

your ears all sing and ring and clatter

with the surety

that your wrong has been





You smile harder


But that smile hurts


It burns deep in your 

cheeks, in the tendons forcing

your jaw to stay closed;

fighting you and your

joint-deep need to shout



in your need

to somehow amend


the rift


put between you 

the moment his hand closed

on the pole next to yours

in your tiny, 

hatefully soiled world


But you don’t say it


Never have

Never will


Move on, let it go,

carry on


Keep that veil as

thick as the white of your skin

Pull the cape of separateness, of citizenship

and belonging

and lessons that should never

have been taught

tighter to the flesh


it is not your fault,

you tell you




it’s you

you cut yourself off long ago

Severed the cord, Made it

other versus you

you made that choice

you stepped away

you pulled the cloak tighter


you can go and be free


Maybe he doesn’t 

Know, though

you argue


Maybe it would be crueler to 


Maybe it’s not a 

“sorry for the hurt I cause”

so much as a guilty start

an apology to yourself

for breaking the lie

it is a self-serving sorry

to feel better, to feel kind

after the rush of bitter, 

that rush of memory of the 

racism you so desperately claim

to be 





but can you ever be?

when it’s all you can see- that wrapper

that fucking supposed marker of safety

But you know the truth;


You are the danger


I was thinking about a lot when I was working on this essay. I wanted to really focus on something personal, and frightening to admit to. That isn’t to say that all of these experiences have been mine, or that every aspect of what I just read is true, either to me or to you. But these pieces all fit, and are true to the story itself, to the experience.

I was inspired by Claudia Rankine in many ways, the most obvious of which being the choice of the “you” pronoun. I also wanted to play around with the role of formatting, spacing, and capitalization in conveying my point. Certain lines were definitely a reference to “Citizen” itself, though from a different perspective, as the one more probably inflicting the hurt.


Therefore, two options for discussion from here (whichever or both depending on time/interest):

How do you feel the nature of deep-rooted stigma impacts your life? What do you think can be done about it? Is there away to remove them? What are your tactics if something akin to this were to happen to you, or happens to you? Any thoughts in being in the position of the person being wrongly labelled?

Are there any experiences/lines of thought you would add/wish I had wandered down? Problem areas within the existing text? Thoughts about the effectiveness of my formatting choices? About the performative aspect? 



Butterfly Wings's picture

We face implicit association tests every single day- there are moments that reveal to ourselves all the stigmas we carry. It is no distinct measurement as with a psychological test, but it can force us to pause for thought. These stigmas can be anything, but more often than not, we ourselves cannot personally see them. Dubois speaks of Black people living through their youths behind a veil of sorts, which will occasionally reveal itself and show how truly marginalized and mistreated they are. To the same effect, people with privilege are often veiled to their own roles within a system. While they may intellectually be able to consider their power as something that comes from the unjust treatment of others, actually seeing proof of their own abuse of this power somehow negates their understanding of themselves, leading to a kind of overcompensation, which doesn’t actually resolve the problem so much as vaguely alleviate their sense of being in the wrong. I was hoping to be able to lead discussion into a personal place, where people could reflect on the stigmas they carry with them every day. For the most part, I felt that people were willing to engage with poem on a deeper level, and to relate to the themes of it without getting caught up in the specifics. There was a moment when we were getting too caught up in the exact story of the poem, which defeated my purpose. Towards the end of my time, we did get more in line with what I was hoping for.

I believe it was Rhett who asked where I actually wanted to take my essay- towards an academic, analytical style of examining racism, or though the lens of how my whiteness affects my racism. An interesting element of that question is the concept of white guilt. Guilt is an inherently damage-based perspective, as it forces you to look at what has been hurt. I think, however, there can be value in it if processed properly, allowing for desire-based growth towards the future. Guilt, particularly surrounding recognition of our own or others’ faults, creates a cognitive dissonance. We feel we somehow need to reconcile our personal needs to be the Good Person with proof of our own flaws. There are two routes we can thus take guilt, one better than the other.

There is the route that America seems to have taken, to either defend racism as something else or to deny its modern-day existence entirely, as it allows problems to be more easily swept under a carpet and forgotten. It is the route that is easiest to handle on an individual and a systemic level. To not have to admit one’s own complicity in an evil system is to not have to work on improving yourself. De Tocqueville chose to deny the existence of the south, of slavery, in America when he wrote of democracy. Rather than begin to address the evil done to people by those who treated him hospitably, he chose to ignore them entirely, to further himself from it. There is also the type of racism Michelle Alexander speaks of in “The New Jim Crow”, where so-called colorblindness can actually be used as a tactic to avoid helping minorities in need of support. “Colorblindness" allows people to pretend they are innocent, because they have never “seen color”; it allows them to believe that racism is something of a bygone era. Their defensive ignorance prevents progress from being made. 

There is also the route that I have been trying to lean towards, of seeing the racism in yourself and naming it so you can fight it.  The reason this method goes so unused is that there is an inherently negative stigma with being called racist- people take it as a personal affront to have something they say called out for its problematic nature. They mistake the problem to lie with them as human beings rather than with the statements buried deep within them, thanks to the social learning of stigmas. However, it is akin to accidentally using the wrong pronouns; you have to acknowledge your fault in the matter to correct it. Until we begin to accept which thoughts of ours our cruel and prejudiced, we can begin to eliminate them from our thought processes (or rather, discount them) and move towards a healthier future.

jschlosser's picture

I'm very grateful for your experimental essay and for the way you are taking up these issues in a way that invites all of us to participate. One line of yours stays with me in particular:

To not have to admit one’s own complicity in an evil system is to not have to work on improving yourself

I'm reminded of James Baldwin's line that "it is the innocence which constitutes the crime" (from The Fire Next Time). His argument is that white people have claimed they are innocence but this claim evades continuing benefits from living in a white patriarchal society. Moreover, this "crime" is one for which whites themselves are paying the costs: denying reality means denying the self; white fragility, I think, has a lot to do with being aware of one's own patterns of denial but being too afraid to face these. You're being quite courageous!

(For more on innocence in James Baldwin, you can look at my article in the Bryn Mawr Repository.)