Tomorrow is the day when we get full license to pretend to be someone, or something else. This freedom to unleash suppressed parts of ourselves, fantasies, obsessions, amusements, is both exhilarating and unnerving. Masks enable us to hide from recognition of our true selves, and simultaneously empower us to act outside the boundaries we’ve set for ourselves. They allow us to become some form of other. How we choose our pretend, temporary identities is often more interesting than the costumes themselves. The progressive democrat involved in charter schools dressed as John Boehner; the multitude of teenage girls and young women who dress as some highly sexualized persona; border-line homophobic men dressing in drag; anyone dressing as the devil….
I’m sure many (if not most) strands of psychology consider the ability to playfully and safely explore the “other” parts of ourselves a very healthy exercise. Repression, by contrast, is generally not healthy, nor helpful.
The line of what’s taboo in a culturally accepted holiday devoted to exploring “otherness” is not necessarily clearly drawn, but definitively exists, and mostly manifests around taking on a race or ethnicity outside of one’s own. Most of the students in exalt – due to their disconnect from history – don’t know what “blackface” was historically. And yet, if any of them saw a white person in blackface they would instinctively know how f**d up it was. White Americans’ historical obsession with mocking, satirizing and humiliating black folks has clearly been a form of acting out the dysfunctional and schizophrenic psychological effects of racism. Franz Fanon famously described how racism forces (all of us) to wear masks at some point in his seminally titled, Black Skin, White Masks (1952)
At exalt, one of the commitments our students make is to “act as if you belong.” It’s not a superficial suggestion intended to help them simply “fit in” invisibly in foreign environments. It’s there precisely because of all this messy history and contemporary context I just alluded to – i.e. to let them know we are aware of the challenges they will face internally as they begin navigating new arenas of “otherness”. The reality is, despite the obvious and well-cited symbols of collective progression (Barack Obama), we are still a highly segregated society and our students are well aware of this. We place them in an incredibly diverse range of internships, with many types of people as their supervisors. Many of them, however, enter environments with predominantly white staff, and in which cultural and behavioral norms are very different than what they experience in their own day-to-day. We do not want them to put on masks, nor do we want the professionals they interact with to put on masks. Rather, we are trying to consciously guide both parties, students and employers, to try taking off masks and be bold and vulnerable enough to see each other as they really are.
Have a happy and safe Halloween, and consider taking on an exalt intern.