As a child, were you ever prompted by an older person to “be on your best behavior” at something like a wedding, dinner party, or trip to the amusement park? I certainly have, or at least in a Vietnamese language version of it. While I was no perfect angel, I would obey and make sure not to disappoint my parents by doing something silly. As I reflect back on these moments, I realize that the message that I was given is quite interesting. Being given a reminder to be on my best behavior implicitly meant that there were certain moments that called for me to behave a certain way. What was it about these settings that called upon me to be the most polished version of myself?
The main, underlying issue is that these moments happen to be highly public, where all of my actions may be seen, heard, or felt by others. If I were eating with my fingers while watching TV at home, it would not bother anyone. However, doing so at a high profile awards banquet might draw the disgust of people at my table. This dichotomy of public and private spheres informs how I behave at any given point in time, and asks me to consider how this translates into settings where social justice education is at the forefront.
The Social Justice Training Institute (SJTI) is a longstanding organization that sponsors a race immersion experience for those who work in higher education. I’ve had the privilege of attending this institute, and had the type of transformational experience that provided me a very real understanding of the pervasiveness of oppression. On day one of the institute, participants are encouraged to take off their teacher hats and become engaged as learners. To my surprise, this proved to be quite a challenge for myself. I entered the space with somewhat of a “know-it-all” attitude and a certain level of self-consciousness. I felt like I needed to prove my credibility and worth as a social justice educator to others. Looking back on it now, I can honestly say that it came from a place of narcissism – being overly-concerned with how I was perceived by those around me. I let the fear of shame dictate my every word and move. I made sure that I was on my best behavior.
Is that really such a bad thing? I just want people to like me and see me as a credible professional/educator. I don’t want anyone to be harmed or negatively impacted by anything that I say or do. Everybody is happy if I am simply my best self, right?
I analogize being my best self to a performance. When I am in speaking to a group of people at the front of the room, or performing with my choir on stage, I make sure that I and delivering a polished, well-rehearsed product. The more that I practice saying or doing something, the more refined I become at that thing. If I deliver 20 presentations on undocumented students to faculty, I will hopefully have figured out all of the “proper” things to say by the 20th time. But at what point does this honest, live performance turn into a studio recording? When do I feel only comfortable letting people hear the high quality production instead of the show that may be littered with imperfections?
Of course, there is a factor that complicates this idea: people have something to lose. People’s livelihoods are at stake based on their job performance. Most job interview processes are set up in a way where people are pressured to conform to the professional expectations that we clearly have all agreed upon. Those who receive the most acclaim and recognition are the ones who put forth the most polished and refined product. “Beauty” is a value that is held high within higher education, and I know that I fall into the trap of worrying about how things look rather than the impact that they make. After all, the school with the nicer, flashier website will probably draw more applications than the one with a dated, clunky interface.
I feel this syndrome in many spaces where I only want people to see the best version of myself. That is not to say that I should unconditionally bear my soul to everyone that I encounter. It is also not to say that I am not showing up honestly. It’s more of a filtered honesty. And it affects me because I leave these social justice spaces feeling like I have two different identities: a public one and a private one. How do I challenge myself to merge the two? What are the barriers that keep these identities separate? In an idealistic way, bringing my public and private lives together to form one entity would eliminate the need for me to worry about being on my best behavior. I would simply show up as myself, and let others respond to me how they may. Moments that I have been able to show up genuinely in this fashion are those where I leave feeling most fulfilled and connected to others. Those live performances give people a truer sense of who I am as a person compared to the recording. It requires courage, vulnerability, and limiting my negative self-talk. It requires for me to show up, and not worry about being on my best behavior.
Vu Tran is an incoming Ph.D. student at Ohio State University’s Higher Education and Student Affairs program, whose scholarly interests lie in the areas of age identity and social privilege. He currently serves as a co-coordinator for ACPA’s Institute on Social Justice. Vu identifies as Asian American, College-Educated, Currently Able-Bodied, English-Speaking, Heterosexual, Man, Male, Middle-Class, Millennial, Raised Catholic, and Vietnamese. You can follow him on Twitter at @VuderTran.