In my everyday conversation with my Dean of Student Affairs, we got to talking about code-switching and role playing in the field of student affairs. He intrigued my curiosity in Erving Hoffman’s dramaturgical analysis. Hoffman states that we are all living “actors who have both a ‘front’ stage behavior and a ‘back’ stage behavior.” However, this type of acting pays way less than your average actor, sometimes nothing. I got to thinking about the evolution of our social justice lens in student affairs as we move in, out, or about in the field.
I am half way through my second year out of graduate school and back in good old Texas. For those of you who know me, I am proud of my Tejana identity, but it took a trip to Vermont for me to discover that. I did not realize it then, but I was living in my ‘front-stage,’ putting up a façade fulfilling society’s stereotypes and expectations for people like me. While I battled with the instinct of confronting the dominant narrative, I constantly felt myself falling short of my personal expectations. I come from a working class family where my parents worked the fields to put food on the table, and lived my life hiding behind my visible and invisible disabilities, both learning and physical disabilities. I succumbed to the labels of classism and ableism and thought it okay to academically and physically underperform. I settled for my performance, and struggled to find the self-motivation to try harder, smarter, and better. I was a B student when I knew I could have been an A student. I settled for alternate forms of physical activity as opposed to gym class or track because of body image issues. This outlook changed when I entered college. I slowly engaged in leadership roles and challenged myself to continue learning outside of the classroom. Now as a student affairs professional, I am an example of the success student affairs professionals and involvement have on our students.
Today, I find myself in a small east Texas town continuing to challenge the dominant narrative and seeking allies. I have learned to skillfully move in and out of various roles to communicate ‘appropriately’ with my changing surroundings. With change come new stages, new actors, new props, and new masks. I think most of you would agree with me when I say that no matter the job, no matter the people, no matter what literature says, we still have to wear our masks to move forward in a society like ours. In this case, I try not to live up to societal expectations, but break down the stereotypes by utilizing the tenets of assimilation. In student affairs, we talk about wearing multiple hats, but where is the conversation of wearing multiple masks? I do not believe it is a horrible thing, but it is something we must recognize and acknowledge in order to understand ourselves, our peers, and our students. While we may go around saying “he/she/ze is two-faced,” or “I don’t play that game,” the institution of oppression has forced us to wear these masks, and make it a part of our everyday existence.
Through his research and practice, Goffman tries to answer the questions:
- Why do we perform?
- Are we expected to perform?
- Do we perform to be accepted into society?
- Do we not realize it, or is performing just embedded into our everyday life?
I have informally toyed with Goffman’s theory and have concluded that our stages lay on a spectrum between front-stage and back-stage (and these may be different for you). When we look at a play and analyze the location of actors on a stage, some of them never make it to the other side, some are more towards the front to emphasize their story, and others are back characters. But just like every location and every actor completes a play . . . every space, every mask completes our lives.
Most of us have heard the cliché “we are the only ones.” That concept was introduced to me during a professional Latino caucus at a national conference. I thought, “But there are a lot of us, look at us, there is a room full of Latino professionals right now.” After I left that space to come back home, I evaluated my surroundings, and to my immediate surprise, I am the only Latina in my department (I think with today’s social network, I subconsciously believed I had more Latinos in my ‘space’)and currently, am the FIRST Latina in the institution to hold this ‘high’ of a title (interim director). WHAT?! But it’s 2012?! There is still much progress needed. So, when I am outside of the space of the Office of Multicultural Affairs, my front-stage mask comes on. This front-stage moves on a spectrum from the building that houses our upper-level administrators like our Associate VP, to the office of our Dean, followed by our Assistant Dean and so on and so forth. My back-stage includes the movement between my office desk/space, to our office area, and to the offices of my allies outside of student affairs (that includes faculty spaces).
My front-stage mask includes:
- Intentionally speaking slower
- Speaking in a way that hides my accents
- Taking more time to think before responding
- Wearing a blazer, preferably black
- Wearing my name tag.
- Walking and standing straighter (to elude a sense of confidence)
My back-stage mask includes:
- Letting my Spanglish flow (I tend to speak faster then)
- Wearing bright colors
- Wearing a fleece jacket (my students have threatened to burn one particular fleece that I store in my office for when it gets cold, they say it is not professional or goes with my outfit(s))
- Casually launching with the loud crowd in the office(mainly students, they can get pretty loud and sometimes heated given some discussions that occur in our office)
- Feeling more comfortable
- As opposed to being formal in professional settings; the students in the OMA office expect for me to be one of them, get comfortable, and play a casual game of spades
This is what I believe exists on my respective stages; however this does not necessarily reflect your stages and masks. There are also props and actors, and I can create a visual of how my stages look and we can analyze them deeper, but that’s for another post. Now, what happens to our masks when the characters in our front-stage enter our back-stage space? Or when our back-stage characters enter our front-stage spaces? This can be compared to affinity spaces. When upper-level administrators enter my space, I feel less scrutinized, less pressured to act assimilated, and I move closer to my back-stage mask on the spectrum. When a student enters my front-stage spaces (meetings with upper-level administrators), I have to learn to straddle my masks between front and back stage. Or when a student enters my office/desk space, I know I have entered their back-stage.
So, what are we doing in student affairs to talk about our multiple masks? How can we start talking about it? Do our students notice the way we shift our masks? Is mask-shifting, role-playing, or code-switching healthy or unhealthy? And to what extent? First, we must start with ourselves, what define your stages? What are your masks?
Amanda Flores is the Assistant Director for the Office of Multicultural Affairs at Stephen F. Austin State University. She identifies as a straddler navigating her Tejana and American culture, as well as her working-class background with her middle-class status today. She is a proud alumnus of the Social Justice Training Institute, Class 22. Amanda welcomes your feedback about this blog post and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.