Critical Perspectives: The Sunken Place
Updated: Feb 19
When Daniel Kaluuya, who portrayed the protagonist in Get Out (2017), was asked about the sunken place, he stated, “you're paralyzed in your life, you want to express an emotion, and then it comes out in rage elsewhere, because you internalized it, because you can't live your truth.”
My own personal sunken place is induced by the whirling of a film projector. The clacking of computer keys as students scrawl out typo-filled notes as our film screening plays.
If you haven’t guessed, what my “seemingly white liberal girlfriend entrapping her Black partner in the middle of nowhere” moment is, it's Clark Univerity’s Screen Studies Department.
While I studied abroad, I was shocked by the lack of diversity within the Umbra Institute program. But now that I’ve returned to the familiarity of my home campus, I am kindly reminded of the inequalities at Clark.
With my return to campus, I can’t help but think back on my time here and reminisce about all the welcoming racist comments I have experienced and witnessed on Clark University’s campus but specifically in the classroom…ah the good ole days.
Growing up in the white bubble of the Upper East Side, I thought I was prepared for Clark. I went to a nearly all-white school, was taught by nearly all-white teachers, and had nearly all-white friends. But what I never did was live with solely white people.
From Kindergarten through twelfth grade, no matter how the bullies (teachers and students alike) treated me, I went home to my Black Abuelita (grandmother for the gringos), mother, and sister. We barbecued and laughed with friends of different races and ethnicities. And my mother encouraged me to partake in racially diverse student programs like The Junior Scholars Program and Maysles Documentary Center. Whether during my first year or now, Clark can feel like I am lost in a corn maze, but every kernel and cob are the faces of white people.
Many students of color across Clark’s campus that I have spoken to, or bonded with, have felt silenced and unseen by professors and peers. And this is no exception within the Screen Studies department. I have found that people at Clark heavily weaponize the “Loud Latina” or “Angry Black Women” stereotypes in order to silence us. I want to highlight women and people who experience misogyny because I have had few classes with men of color and have a closer proximity to racialized misogyny and misogynoir.
These stereotypes are a larger theme in Clark’s classrooms. Whether my white peers and I talk the same amount or if they talk more, I feel like I am associated with being loud, taking up too much space, and being disrespectful; professors never stated this outright, but microaggressions signaled this. While this was not a new experience for me, as it happened at The Nightingale-Bamford School and in countless other white environments, I am usually the only Black/Brown/Latina kid in the class needing silencing.
Now that I am one of two or three students of color in the class, I witness Clark’s community muzzle students of color in class. So, I speak up despite the hefty emotional tax I pay. I do this not for myself but to try and protect my peers of color, who often do not have the little fraction of privilege I have by being half white.
Unfortunately, the most systematic silencing I have witnessed and experienced happens within my own major’s department: Screen Studies. The Department is composed of three white cisgender male professors, one white transgender professor, and one woman––who happens to be the only faculty member of color in the department. This demographic is reflected in the student body of Screen Studies students, and last fall, the Screen Studies department’s true colors were shown.
As the department lacks diversity, this whiteness trickles down to the syllabus and class discussions. During the Fall 2021 semester, I was in a Screen Studies course named Critical Perspectives on Television. As a television fanatic (hence the blog), I had been waiting for a class designated for the discussion of television. But, oftentimes, I left the class confused, hurt, and furious. Because once again, white stories dominated the syllabus, as the series mostly had white-male protagonists. And when there were shows with predominantly people of color, the discussions facilitated by the professor led to distressing conversations. During these discussions, I sat still until the rage slowly bubbled upwards and out. I was forced, mostly by my stubbornness, my inability to let ignorance win, and my need to feel somewhat visible in the classroom to speak up.
My goal was to pressure my culturally ignorant peers to understand the macro impact of their continual off-hand comments disguised as scholarly insight. For example, when commenting on Reservation Dogs (2021), a show about Native Americans, one student brought up the higher rate of diabetes/kidney disease within the Native American community. One of my peers referenced poverty and their food choices as the reason for the characters’ medical conditions. The professor, the student, and the class as a whole accepted this as fact, and I was forced to describe the systematic racism within the medical industry and economy that led to limited job and food choices.
In this course and many similar ones, the professor created a classroom and department where people of color no longer felt seen or safe. One of the few Latina Screen Studies majors recently dropped their major to a minor to pursue new opportunities, but also so they could spend less time in Screen Studies classes. The hateful comments endorsed in this class became so overwhelming that the two other women of color and I would take our breaks outside so we could have the privacy of a safe space to breathe, yell, and cry, but most importantly, attempt to digest the horror we were experiencing in an educational setting.
After one atrocious class, I, the Loud Latina/Angry Black Woman that I am, ended up writing a 1000-word email to the professor and the head of the department (also known as my advisor), explaining my visceral reaction in the class, and the impact of the racist theories and analysis of the professor and students.
My testament brought attention to the systematic problems within the department, using this specific class as an extreme example of the shortcomings of the department. In my email, I asked why 83% of our class time was about The Office (2005) and the remaining 17% about Reservation Dogs. Reiterating that by focusing on white storylines, racially diverse cultures are silenced and further disconnects students of color from them, also advancing the segregation of white people’s relationship with non-white groups. Let me restate, in my class, Critical Perspectives on Television, it seems that the most important perspective was of a white situation-comedy, based on a whiter eurocentric show.
My email got the attention of my professor immediately, and at first, he seemingly tried to make time to meet, but always happened to be busy during my availability. The professor soon stopped trying to meet and began canceling class. After three weeks of canceled classes, my advisor proved his email worked by sending an email to the entire class stating that “[the] instructor…has decided, for personal reasons, that he will no longer be able to teach the course. This decision was not arrived at lightly, and is effective immediately.” My advisor never spoke to me about my experience in this class.
And just like that, he was gone, without ever giving any context or having conversations with me. This action didn’t attempt to fix the structural problems with the department; the Screen Studies removed him quickly and quietly as if he was a series regular on a television series who had been accused of nefarious behavior.
Now you might be wondering, “Faith, why are you comparing Clark’s Screen Studies Department to Get Out?” Well, every time I walk into my film classes, I am forced to mute my Blackness, to silence my Blackness, or my Latina-ness, in order to forge through hours of class time.
Returning to campus after 8 months away, I realized that I had forgotten my bubble wrap at home––the protective material I wrapped myself in to deflect all the racism, inequality, and sexism. I have been hypnotized into the sunken place with no protection, the ghost of past racial abuse, and the people who pose themselves as white allies.
And yes, while after every sunken-place-class, I awaken and cling to the few friends of color I have here and the white friends who are actually allies. I sit in my film classes, often as the only one or two students of color, but feel completely alone, as I am often the only one who fights back. And do not misconstrue my words, I understand the silencing they are facing and support their right to attempt to glide through Clark unscathed, but I become filled with more anger and sadness that my peers adhere to the silencing instilled by Clark and the Screen Studies department.
When I reached out to my professor and advisor, I needed Clark and the department to learn from their mistakes and want to be inclusive. Not just for me, but for my friends unfairly silenced, for the incoming students of color who have yet to perpetually feel alone within the department. When I pleaded with them to restructure the courses, their decision was to never speak to me, to never fix the systemic problems, and to keep their image pristine while leaving me with a complimentary racial trauma gift bag!
Before even starting at Clark, I remember meeting my advisor/the head of the department as I sat in on the screenwriting course. (This was available at Clark for incoming freshmen in a pre-pandemic world). I, shockingly, remember going home, and I told my mom that this professor was tough but fair and that he had a lot to teach me.
What I didn’t realize was that he would personally educate me on the toxicity of the“post-racial world” that we live in. That his department-wide decisions and the atmosphere it fosters would provide examples of toxic whiteness and the lack of empathy Clark exhibits toward students of color.
My Get Out reality isn’t being forcibly tied to a chair and hindered immobile as white people hypnotize me. At the end of every semester, I am forced to pick classes often always taught by white professors. I am pressured to sit silently as professors poorly attempt to broach materials about race. But oftentimes, I am glued to my chair, forced to watch the plights of countless white characters, painfully analyzing films and television series through a white lens, rarely encountering counter opinions.
What does your Get Out look like? Where’s your sunken place?
Note: My advisor has stepped down as head of the Screen Studies Department and has since been promoted to Head of The Visual and Performing Arts Department, a department encompassing the totality of the Screen Studies department and numerous other artistic areas of study. But these actions which impacted me negatively were not done in this new capacity…yet.