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Lee: Still wearing the mask

BY ASHLEY LEE | FEBRUARY 14, 2014 5:00 AM

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Sunday marked the 108th anniversary of the death of African-American writer Paul Laurence Dunbar, whose poem “We Wear the Mask” explores the necessity for African-Americans to put on a façade to thrive in a white society.

Arguably, everyone wears a mask. Individuals are required to sacrifice in order to appeal to those in power and better themselves in a competitive culture. However, the masks African-Americans must wear to persevere in and adapt to a racialized white society are different things altogether.

I urge African-Americans to not wear the mask.

Thirty years removed from slavery, Dunbar wrote, “We wear the mask that grins and lies/this debt we pay to human guile.”

Much has changed since Dunbar’s time. African-Americans are no longer considered three-fifths of a person. We are allowed in white spaces, and in theory, we have access to the same opportunities as whites. Barack Obama is president, so the “Negro Question” that both black and white intellectuals pondered in the 20th century is supposedly no longer an issue. The past must be forgotten, and all is well because a black man has been in office for not only one, but two terms.

And so a smile must override the pain; African-Americans are expected to be proud and forever grateful U.S. citizens. 

But anti-blackness prevails. In white communities and even among other communities of color, there is a want to uphold and emulate whiteness at the expense of shaming and hiding blackness because the former is synonymous with privilege and power.

As suggested in “We Wear the Mask,” it is not recommended the world know how African Americans really feel. We have trained ourselves be complacent and smile in the presence of the white gaze. One hundred nineteen years later, we still wear the mask. It’s understandable, but it’s also unhealthy and deceiving.

Descendants of slaves may appear to be content with regards to progress in race relations, but we still live amid white supremacy. Everyone is encouraged to assimilate in some shape or form in order to have access to the American Dream. For African-Americans to be validated in the eyes of the oppressor, we must submit to a white power structure that simultaneously disenfranchises blackness.

The attitudes concerning African-Americans are a paradox — we are feared and criminalized, similar to the way in which murder-victim Jordan Davis has been depicted at a thug in the recent Michael Dunn Trial — while our culture is scrutinized and appropriated by the mainstream.

Part of the reason there is racial insensitivity and so little cultural competency across the spheres of our society is because the mainstream culture has a narrow perception of the voices within the African-American community. Whites and non-black people of color rely on stereotypes, statistics, and colorism, furthering anti-black prejudices.

The mask may be convenient to avoid confrontation and controversy, but it’s important African-Americans refrain from wearing it in an effort to be honest with ourselves and for those across racial lines to understand our reality.

It’s easy to say America has made immense strides when compared to chattel slavery, so African-Americans should have every reason to be happy. But the fact of the matter is, the past carries well into today. By wearing the mask, we deny what’s real. Instead, we must demand more from ourselves and others who adhere to the status quo.


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