In a nation where the air we breathe is polluted with the ideologies of Whiteness, People of Color are faced with two options: choke on the smog or put on a mask. While it would be ideal for one not to choke on smog, there’s two reasons why a POC wouldn’t wear it. One would be that no matter how hard they try, they just cannot find a mask that’s capable of blocking out this smog. The other reason for a POC not wearing a mask would be due to the underlying issues that come with putting it on.
The “mask” can also be referred to as what we call “code switching”, which is essentially when a POC abandons traits that can be attributed to their culture, while also adapting White traits in order to appeal to White spaces. Though this mask may seem like a harmless survival tactic, the very act of putting on the mask is absolutely suffocating. When code switching as a Person of Color, you’re forced to adopt a persona that doesn’t accurately represent who you are, simply for the sake of seeming “proper.” However, this persona isn’t one that can simply be abandoned after one performance, no, it’s one that must be continuously honed and sharpened, as if it were actually you. The reason for this is because this persona has to be used every time a POC, not only enters a White space, but interacts with a White person in general.
If it isn’t clear why this is draining, imagine you’re a Person of Color at a PWI. Everytime you talk to the White faculty or the other White students, you’re forced to put on this facade, essentially embodying this persona. Since you’re at a PWI though, where you’ll see many White people throughout the day, this persona, or the mask so to say, has to stay on for prolonged periods of time. This mask, which stifles your breathing, has to stay on, and you don’t dare take it off if you don’t want to be perceived as a thug. This is a rule in the POC community told to us by older POC. We have to act in a “presentable manner;” but who decided this so-called presentable manner? That’s right, White people. After being forced to wear the mask for so long, you either finally choke and pass out, giving into the stress of accommodation, or you get used to the breathing of the mask.
Now comes the tricky part of becoming accustomed to the breathing of the mask. You have to constantly be aware of the fact that this mask is on and that at the end of the day, it is just a mask, not your actual face. There are some people, however, who get lost in this and truly believe that the mask they put on is their normal face, what I like to call “getting lost in the code switch.” These individuals are usually referred to as “White-washed” and essentially separate themselves from POC spaces as they feel that the White space is where they truly belong, without realizing that they’ve been having to accommodate to fit into that space. They then become ashamed of who they were before the mask, thinking that they’re better with it on due to their newfound acceptance into a White space.
Now that we’re all on the same page, the question becomes “what do we do now?” One might ask, “why do People of Color need to code switch anyways? Why can’t they just be themselves?” – an amazing question in itself. But the answer comes down to a simple, undeniable truth: Whiteness is the norm, and to act outside of the norm in spaces where the norm is expected further diminishes your character in the eyes of society.
“Why do we care what society thinks?” Well the answer to that is if People of Color fail to code switch, they are then perceived as the stereotypes of their culture, which isn’t fair to them at all. Seeing as how the higher and higher you go in the world you’ll meet more and more White people, since the system is controlled and built upon Whiteness, People of Color have no choice but to submit to this hierarchy. The question now though is, how do we work around POC having to wear this mask of Whiteness?
Just a little side note, I do find it funny that POC are forced to code switch when it White spaces, but the opposite isn’t true. Why is that I wonder?