A Letter to the Masks We Wear:
I do love Halloween. I’m a several costume type of gal, and I insist that my family wear matching outfits. Yes, I drive around scouting the best Halloween decorations in the neighborhood and hope to catch sightings of the 12ft Home Depot skeleton hauntingly standing in front yards.
This is the time of year when you are most obvious. We all hustle around, discussing what we or our kids will be for the Halloween season. We spend hours helping our children find the most perfect costume. We take joy in being something and someone else for a day.
Actually, I find the whole practice fascinating and refreshing. It’s the time of year when we all admit we find comfort in being someone else. We get deeply intentional about the identities we adopt for one night of the year. Some of us don wigs and polyester clothing to pay tribute to our temporary identities.
As children, we learn early that to survive, we must mask our identities. Society, our teachers, coaches, parents, and friends taught us to wear masks as a way of life. Masks became a tool we used to protect who we really are, what we really want, and how we want to spend our time.
Here’s how it plays out for us. I hear my friends, colleagues, and children tell themselves stories that are rooted in “shoulds.” “Shoulds” are a way of wearing you, dear mask. We all do it.
What if we decided to stop? What would it look like if we rejected the idea of you as a tool for survival? What if we accepted that to thrive, we must actually make friends with unmasking?
You are something I’ve mastered. As a Black woman, I can read a room and figure out how I need to show up to be successful in it. I sometimes pick up a mask without even realizing it. I admit there are times when it has served me well. But, it has always come at a cost.
I woke up ten years ago and decided to embark on a journey to let you go and reject the “shoulds” and the assimilations. I started simple. First, I decided I would stop straightening my hair. Then, I donated all the clothes I thought made me look “professional.” After that, I started using my identity as a Black woman as one of the foundations of my brilliance. And, soon I learned to talk about myself as brilliant. As I dropped you, I started to feel joy and elements of liberation.
Life changed when I stopped picking you up and started picking up this new unmasking mindset. I started to see the world differently, and the mental gymnastics fell to the wayside. I started to heal myself and made space for others to do the same. This experience was and still is profound. I wish I started unmasking sooner. Actually, I wish I was never taught about you.
So, I learned two habits that have supported me in letting you go that I’ll pass on to our other caregivers because as we build a world that amplifies, cultivates, and celebrates Black brilliance, we have got to stop relying on YOU.
Begin with the final scene: If we want to have strong, independent Black and brilliant humans and abolitionists, we have to teach our kids, from jump, to love themselves fully. Instead of saying, “You’re so disorganized” say, “In this situation, it would be helpful to have quick access to your paper and pencils. How might we get them in a place you can access easily?” This subtle change removes the label of who they are and replaces it with what they can do. The reframe makes things less permanent and allows free and diverse thought to emerge.
Focus on the possibility of an alternative ending: Limiting possibility leads to “should” and “can’t”. Instead of saying, “You can’t run in the hallway.” Try saying, “We keep our hallways safe. What are all the possible ways we could do that?” The latter focuses kids on what we can do, which leads to them seeing the robustness of what they can and will bring into the world.
Make room for a comeback story: Concentrating on what didn’t work can leave us angry, stuck, and disappointed. After you address mistakes with your kids, make a habit of moving on. At the end of a conflict or a mistake, ask “How might you move forward?” or “What has this mistake taught you about who you are?” Exploring these questions can teach our kids that our brilliance is built over time through good times and tough times.
So masks, Happy Halloween, and boo to you! May we pick you up only one day a year and pick up true, beautiful, and brilliant selves the other 364.