A few months ago, Zadie Smith enlightened me to an emotion that I had been feeling in certain situations for years, but one that I couldn’t quite name. The essay “Speaking in Tongues,” in Smith’s anthology, Changing My Mind explores walking the cultural line – its virtues, its tortures, its messiness. “It’s amazing,” she writes, “how many of our cross-cultural and cross-class encounters are limited not by hate or pride or shame, but by another equally insidious, less-discussed, emotion: embarrassment.”
It was upon reading those words that it all came flooding back to me – so quickly, in fact, that it was dizzying. The times I was embarrassed to tell my friends at my public school how often I went on vacation. The times I felt embarrassed to go to my father’s side of the family for Christmas, for fear my appearance that day wouldn’t be up to their Jamaican standards. The times my non-black friends made derogatory black jokes. In most of these situations, my embarrassment stood firmly inside of me – I didn’t let any of my feelings of shame and self-consciousness out.
When writing about race and class-fueled embarrassment, Smith – herself half Jamaican and half English – was describing the celebratory night of the 2008 presidential elections. She was at a party in New York City, and a friend of hers invited her to hop over to a rowdy reggae bar in Harlem. She hesitated. Why? “I’ll be ludicrous, in my silly dress, with this silly posh English voice, in a crowded bar of black New Yorkers celebrating,” she thought.
Smith isn’t divulging a feeling akin to white guilt, but rather digging into the sloppiness and imperfections of commonplace race and class encounters. In addition, addressing the race issues that are closest to your heart be can uncomfortable, especially in a culture that privileges the anodyne.
I’m going to give an example that’s close to my own heart, memories, and experience. My high school, Toronto’s Oakwood Collegiate Institute, was proposed by the Toronto District School Board as becoming the city’s first Africentric secondary school. Last Tuesday night, in the auditorium where I used to watch talent shows and had my graduation ceremony, the decision was postponed. A small disclaimer: this isn’t an article about whether or not I support black-focused schools. (I do.) Nor is this an article about whether it would benefit Oakwood, a school that had – and to my knowledge, still does have – “black doors,” “white doors,” and “gino doors.” (It would.)
I use this example because I know the feelings it incites in people. Much of Oakwood’s media attention in the past few days has focused on visceral responses from students, parents and teachers. Words like “passionate,” “volatile,” “controversial,” and “angry” are thrown around to describe the affectivity of the situation. Because I’m aware of the “sensitivity” of this so-called controversial subject, I think twice about how I approach the topic. I think twice about posting it on my Twitter, on my Facebook. I hesitate. Despite my initial hesitations and my embarrassment of my “controversial” opinions, I truck on in the hope of not only overcoming my fears, but also showing to the world that despite what my apathetic Facebook profile seems to suggest, I do in fact believe in something. Most of us do. Sometimes I’m just too embarrassed to tell anyone about it.
Smith finds embarrassment in places I had never considered. In a discussion between Smith, who is currently Harper’s New Books columnist, and Gemma Sieff, Harper’s Reviews editor, earlier this year, Smith talked about the relationship between embarrassment and fiction writing. “It requires all these other embarrassing things,” she writes, “things that seem too banal to talk about, like empathy, like sympathy, like the appreciation of small details that other people leap over because they are not even worth discussing.”
While discussing embarrassment is difficult in all circumstances, it becomes even more so when it arises in the context of a confrontation between friends. Alas, this is my final post for “Mixed Like Me”. What better way to bring this column to an end than to discuss how talking about race makes me, at times, feel weird and uncomfortable? Even with my friends. Especially with my friends.
It’s sometimes easier to share opinions on things that are far removed from us, but it’s most important to give our opinions on those things we find closest, those things that matter the most. Smith’s idea that we can negotiate our own identities through emotion, and especially through embarrassment, is beautiful. Despite my own self-consciousness, the huffiness of race-related discussions is worth exploring.
Zadie Smith went to the party after all, leading me to believe that our grandest and most embarrassing barriers are flexible, fluid, and utterly fragile.