The Collisions of Selves

Amena Coronado (PhD, Department of Philosophy) researches suffering with a focus on 19th Century European philosophy.

April 27, 2014

By Amena Coronado, Doctoral Candidate, Department of Philosophy 

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Students' work from the philosophy class on hip hop that Amena taught in Summer 2013.

I.

It is both sensible and utterly disruptive to think of oneself, or to be thought of, as underrepresented.

Before I can say more, already I am conflicted. I should write from a first person perspective, using ‘I’ to describe my experience. I can only write from my point of view, after all, and mine will vary greatly from other members of underrepresented groups.

And yet, I am resistant to doing so. ‘I’ refers to a idea I have of my self, to my self-relation, my electric emotional landscape, that unwavering urge to avoid boredom, the way I miss holding the eager hands of my nieces and nephews, the connection I feel to ‘De Profundis’ and ‘She’ and the line from “Revelations” in which Mos Def says “I’m standing in the sun gettin’ black as I want,” and so many other intricate and expansive things. ‘I’ is mine. ‘I’ does not refer to my status as underrepresented. This produces a resistance in me to the pressure to speak in first person about that which is, in some way, ever outside of me.

‘I’ has no visual appearance, which is perhaps what first differentiates it from the female ethnic and social minority that describes my status here. Here: the United States, 2014, academia, PhD program in philosophy. And there is discordance between ‘I’ and that other identity which is dependent on categorization. But there is more. In some sense, ‘I’ and ‘female-ethnic-and-social-minority’ describe entirely different things. Largely, ‘female-ethnic-and-social-minority’ speaks to my biology, lineage, and interpersonal history. It references my outer self. ‘I’, on the other hand, represents my inner self, my inner world. It describes the way that I am much more than it describes the what that I am.

Certainly, the unfolding and continual redefining of each is influenced by the unfolding and continual redefining of the other. And the nature and extent of this intermingling may largely be what determines the nature and extent to which the development of one’s inner self is impacted by the aspects of one’s outer self: ethnicity, race, gender, social status, sexual orientation, disability, age, and so forth. But this only speaks to the way experiences matter to one’s self image. And this intermingling is not harmless. There is discordance between identities, between selves, the way that I am experienced by others and the way I experience myself. The inner self of the ‘I’ and the outer self collide.

This returns me to where I began: the resistance to using the language of the inner world to discuss an outer identity shaped and given a name by others. When I speak of my membership in groups that are underrepresented I speak from a perspective that is imposed on me, that is not mine. ‘I’ am not underrepresented. ‘Female-ethnic-and-social-minority’ is underrepresented, but ‘I’ am right here and ‘I’ am as real as those by which I am surrounded.

II.

Am ‘I’ as real as those by which I am surround? I remember an evaluation, in which a student in a critical thinking class I taught wrote this very brief message in the comments section: “Teacher too attractive—very distracting.” Certainly I wonder, when receiving feedback about my appearance (and this is not an isolated instance) how the idea of “college instructor/professor” impacts students’ responses to the person standing in front of them. The image many have of a professor is older than me, whiter than me, more male than me. And that image is disrupted by my presence. Here is the site of another colliding—between the fact of my body (including its pleasures and the recognition of it that is welcomed by me) and the burden of embodiment.

No matter how varied and unforeseen ‘I’ am, the categories that the body I inhabit places me in will always constitute—for others and, to some extent, myself—some static and restrictive part of my identity. It is the qualities of my outer self that led a student to suggest that paying attention in a class for which I spent considerable time preparing and much focused effort delivering was impossible. My hard work was not impactful in this instance because of aspects of my outer identity. For that student, ‘I’ was obscured, invisible, perhaps unreal.

The conflict between the idea of “professor” and the constituents of my outer self is harmful in another way. In the classroom (and elsewhere) I experience the desire to be clear, the sensation of heat or cold against my skin, the joy of great discussion, and so forth. I forget my outer self, which I cannot see and only experience in a secondhand manner, reflected in my treatment by others. I forget my gender, my ethnicity, my age. What I am most conscious of in individual moments of my inner life—and this is the place from which my teaching efforts spring—is how I feel, what I desire, what irritates and what inspires. The rhythm of those experiences is pierced when gender or race or socio-economic status is suddenly forced on me from outside.

Thus, one of the ways in which the reality of my unreality is articulated is in the fact that my mere presence in the classroom—the presence of my outer self, that is—will sometimes result in perpetual distraction, no matter how competent and diligent ‘I’ am as an instructor.

III.

Conversely, my outer identity as ‘female-ethnic-and-social-minority’ can also give rise to a sense of welcome and inclusion. There have been, for instance, female students who have expressed their happiness, and sometimes their relief, at having had a woman instructor. In some cases, they deeply appreciated that it gave them access to a different perspective and it others it made them feel more comfortable in classrooms in which they are often the minority. So the components of my outer self can result in exclusion or inclusion—both for me and for students in the classes I teach. I have also received, however, many emails and evaluations from students over the years expressing that our time together in the classroom produced real advancement in their thinking, real changes in their lives—affirming that the efforts that began with ‘I’ have resulted in connection and growth. Thus, there is a third collision that has already been suggested: that between the very real presence of ‘I’ in academia and the sometimes unreality of ‘I’ in academia.

This staging of contradictions and collisions is only one way to speak the meaning and experience of underrepresentation. The sort of complexity presented here is an attempt to characterize the experience of being both within and outside, of being minority, other, exotic, the stuff of fantasy and fear and oversimplification.

One of the most used motifs in our culture is that of light. Keeping in that rich tradition, it seems to me that perhaps the images that best characterize the experience of underrepresentation—in its varied forms—are the intrusive, unforgiving spotlight on a stage and the neglected, burned out streetlight in a ghetto.

One is at once more, and less, visible.