The silence of the night is broken only by our whispers and the hum of tires against the highway. The street lights cast a flickering, orange glow across each of our faces—just a group of kids looking forward to a week of roller coasters and way too much cotton candy. There’s no other students that look like me, but that’s ok, right?
Then that moment came.
Just breathe. Act normal.
“Truth or Dare?”
I feel the knot that previously rested at the top of my stomach begin to inch its way up my esophagus, coming to rest in the back of my throat. I know what is coming, but knowledge alone is insufficient preparation for this. The muscles in my neck tighten.
“I dare you to kiss Alex.”
They linger there in the darkness as she carefully places her lips against his cheek.
Crisis averted. Temporarily
A full round of innocent truths and dares pass, until. . .
“I dare you to kiss Chad.”
I know there is no way this is going to happen and so does he. I have spent the better part of this honors trip in the gaze of her grandmother. The same gaze Emmet sat under. The same gaze Trayvon and Michael sat under. The same gaze students sit under each day in classrooms, our classrooms. The gaze that says stay in your place and there won’t be any problems here. I’m not sure if the gaze is naturally developed over time or if there is a talk when the gaze is taught, like the talk little black boys and girls receive on how to survive while living under the gaze.
Her eyes rise in the darkness--they never meet mine but I see it beginning to form in her eyes, in her heart: the gaze. I know how to handle this moment—put on the mask. The mask Brother Dunbar taught me about “. . . the mask that grins and lies, / It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,— / This debt we pay to human guile; / With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,/ And mouth with myriad subtleties. / Why should the world be over-wise,/ In counting all our tears and sighs?/ Nay, let them only see us, while/ We wear the mask.”
I’ve worn this mask most of my life. It slims my broad nose, the same broad nose used as justification for taking Philando’s life. It lightens my brown skin and covers my woolen hair, the same hair their savior has, my savior, too, though they seem to forget this.
From generation to generation, we have passed down the gaze and the masks, but the time for seeing with loving eyes and revealing what exists beyond the masks is upon us. We owe it to our children and our children’s children. So let us be about the work to ensure that windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors are present not only on our shelves but in our personal lives as well, modeling for our students what it means to love our neighbors as we love ourselves--our neighbors both near and far. Our neighbors fleeing persecution and our neighbors that may not act like, think like, and vote like us. Because if our shelves are diverse but our lives are not, we have missed the mark.
We say that we are not sure if our students are ready to talk about the gaze and the masks that come about as a result, but I had mastered the art of wearing the mask by third grade. Floating at pool parties, careful never to get too close, because although they say color does not matter, I know they cannot handle the juxtaposition of brown skin and blue eyes.
Perhaps, what we mean is that we are not ready to talk about the gaze and the mask.
Let’s end by thinking about our own students, those that have been and those that are to come. What masks do they have to wear to exist in the spaces we have created? Little brown girls forced to wear masks that hide their full joy, lest they be labeled as loud or angry and little brown boys forced to wear masks that cover the passion in their eyes, lest they be seen as a threat. Or our students that are forced to wear masks that hide their sexuality or their faith.
It’s easy to say if I had been alive during (insert major world event here), I would have done (insert incredible act here), but we are dismissing the safety that silence provides. Let’s ask this instead: "What are we doing today to adjust our gaze toward students?"; "What are we doing to ensure that students can be their full selves, with no need for the masks?" Remember, history has no bystanders; inaction is action.