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The importance of taking up space

August 22, 2017
By Desirée de Jesus

Recently, in conversation with a senior film scholar, I received some sage advice: “Don’t be afraid to take up space.” We’d been talking about film education, research and programming within public institutions, but something about our conversation was connecting with me on another level.

So, I shared with her an experience that occurred fairly early in my graduate education. I had been cautioned to reframe my approach to researching matters of diversity lest it cause others to dismiss my work and me. The concern was that my passion and advocacy would be misinterpreted through the lens of my racial and gender identities, and that I would be labeled an “angry black woman.” I needed to establish a greater critical distance in my work, which would minimize opportunities for others to reduce me to a racialized stereotype.

Navigating racial stereotypes in the intellectual landscape

While rethinking how I approached my research questions enriched my work and created opportunities for interdisciplinary collaborations, it also reinforced a message that has appeared in various iterations since I was a little girl: people of color were responsible for managing other’s perceptions of them. It was clearly a privilege to live without the fear of triggering racial stereotypes and the experience of discrimination.

All too often, for many people of color, expressing opinions passionately and directly can elicit responses that: a) focus more on the speaker’s identity categories instead of the opinion’s validity, and b) perceive the impassioned opinion as being symptomatic of some inherent cultural or racial characteristic. Since this was already a phenomenon with which I was well-acquainted, the prospect of lessening its occurrence as a graduate student was appealing.

At first, I chose to distance myself from any self-presentations that might resemble the “angry black woman” stereotype, which often meant staying silent in contexts that would’ve benefited from my informed opinions. Even in supportive scholarly environments, I was afraid that my access would be revoked if my personal investment in matters of diversity was seen to eclipse my intellectual interests. To be sure, this form of self-censorship is directly opposed to the aims of critical thinking and conversations and it’s enormously isolating.

Imagine then, my relief and disappointment when I discovered that many researchers of color, across a range of disciplines, had shared my fear of being stereotyped and sidelined at some point during their careers. They had also experienced “double consciousness,” a term the historian and sociologist W.E.B. DuBois used to describe what it’s like to always see yourself through another person’s gaze. The difference was that these researchers didn’t see a conflict between the work of thinking critically about their subjects and expressing themselves authentically. Instead, they chose to take up space, even at the risk of being stereotyped.

You need room to grow

Respectability politics, the belief that you can be exempt from mistreatment and stereotyping if you appear nonthreatening, is dangerous because it disguises how practitioners become complicit in their own marginalization. When a researcher of color holds to this view, she agrees to take up less space, limits the reach of her work and her own development. However, making yourself smaller doesn’t have any benefits.

The irony of being a film researcher who analyzes how transitional spaces onscreen (e.g. hallways and hotel rooms) represent marginalized girls’ coming-of-age processes and understanding of how they’re perceived in society isn’t lost on me. I’m just thankful that despite my temporary conflation of scholarly critical distance and respectability politics, the bonds between my intellectual pursuits and lived experiences thrived. And, I think that recognizing my own need to take up space, regardless of possible consequences, signals a significant phase in my own coming-of-age process as a scholar.

About the author

Desirée de Jesus is a PhD candidate in Film and Moving Images at Concordia. Her research has received various scholarships, namely the Bourse d’études Hydro-Québec de l’Université Concordia and a SSHRC Doctoral Fellowship. She is currently producing a series of video essays about girls in popular culture and video walkthroughs of games featuring playable female characters.

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