As our group sat sprawled out on the rooftop of Benjamin Asante’s Utrecht home, the sky’s crisp blue fading as the sun cast a cognac gold over everything, Gerard van der Ree stood up to speak about the fragility of the male ego. He smirked disarmingly as we applauded him, and promptly announced that he was not here to teach us how to solve any problems relating to the fragility of the male ego or how to solve any problems at all, really. He went on to alert us that he also wasn’t really going to spend too much time dwelling on the male ego in particular; rather, he would use it as an apt metaphor for analyzing what it is to be in power and why exactly it is that power produces such dramatic defense mechanisms. Van der Ree defined power as “the ability not to have to question yourself” – a definition that gave me pause because it was so simple and yet rang so true. This conception of power was in line with Du Bois’ “double-consciousness” – that is,
“…a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness— an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.
Thus, according to Gerard van der Ree, I am disempowered when I navigate the aisles of Sephora painfully aware that the guard stationed in the shop is trailing me, waiting for me to make one wrong move, to reach into my pocket suspiciously or linger at a display for too long. And I am empowered whenever I can turn off the piece of my mind that forces me to see myself as my observers see me – perhaps when I am driving through the suburbs of Indianapolis with my little sister. The car windows are down and we are blasting Chance the Rapper’s most recent album, screaming along as though the universe is contained within the confines of our ancient Ford Taurus. Power.
Van der Ree made a point that was particularly interesting to me, that “power is always about repression, both for the marginal and dominant side.” The slave is repressed due to the internalization of the gaze of the master, and the master is repressed by her own interior dialogue, her desire to make himself fit into an identity that is not fully herself. When the master doesn’t succeed in outwardly performing as she is expected to, she experiences shame, and according to Gerard van der Ree, shame is evidence that double-consciousness is in play.
So when the cool kid in middle school walks around all day with his fly undone and doesn’t realize it until 7th period, his power has been punctured. Says Van der Ree, “There is repression in the comfort of being dominant.” The cool kid is oppressed because he has to keep on acting and looking like a cool kid in order to stay cool.
Gerard’s response to all this? Get weird. Get weird as a means of engaging with the ephemeral nature of your own power and marginality. Get weird to disrupt the familiar flow of normal, because, “the moment you see something as normal is the moment in which power is at play.”
After we learned about weird things we got artistic with Lilian dam Bracia who spoke briefly about her art installation called “Limbo Citizen.” In this interactive project, she invites four visitors to simultaneously walk through a willowy white maze while listening to headphones giving orders that pertain to their assigned characters. Each character is a real “limbo citizen,” a member of Dutch society who, due to his/her nationality, does not quite fit. As you enter into a forbidden section of the maze, a voice in your headphones may insist, “Sorry you don’t have the right documents to be here. You must leave immediately.” Said Lilian dam Bracia, “We did this project to show that where you’re from defines a lot about what you’re going to do and be in your life.” “Limbo Citizen” invites one and all to engage with the dynamics of power and nationality by participating in particular narratives and occupying the strange liminal space that often overshadows the migration process.
At the end of the night, we got weird with our freshly made Brazilian drinks. And for the next month and beyond, we’ll be engaging in dozens of personal narratives as Humanity in Action fellows.