• Dr. Atira Charles

Dr. Atira Charles, The Art of Unmasking: Identity as a Source of Awareness, Action & Activism

Faculty, staff, and administrators must identify and understand the role identity plays when supporting students. Without understanding which aspects of one’s self is present in any particular moment, or which mask an individual is wearing, administrators become challenged when serving as advocates for students. Today’s Institute ended with Dr. Atira Charles using Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem, We Wear the Mask as a way to convey a message that everyone has an individual identity and a collective identity. “If we are human, we bring it all to the table,” Charles said.

We wear the mask that grins and lies,

It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—

This debt we pay to human guile;

With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,

And mouth with myriad subtleties.

Why should the world be over-wise,

In counting all our tears and sighs?

Nay, let them only see us, while

       We wear the mask.

Charles discussed the many roles affecting her interactions with students, being a mother, an administrator, a faculty member, and a wife. Trying to suppress any one identity impacts work quality. Using the example of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, Charles explained how noticing the emotional impact students received from the earthquake affected her ability to work. Charles’ developed the identity of a “fixer” with the goal of supporting and giving voice to Haitian students. “We have to understand the social landscape embedded within our work,” Charles said. Understanding identity and how the surrounding environment affects the individual is crucial in supporting students. Charles continued, “If we’re fearful all day, how can we tell students not to be? We have to be confident in our wholeness journey.” Upon examining the fatigue affecting administrators when navigating multiple identities and creating spaces for students to feel affirmed, Charles said, “think about students who don’t feel like they belong or the students who are unsure of their own identities.” Charles discussed the difficulties administrators face when navigating their own identities, while still supporting students. However, Charles asserted that students face similar challenges while experiencing uncertainty of their own identity. Charles challenged the audience to think about how passionate football fans receive negative threats from opposing teams, but at the end of the day, football fans remove the shirt supporting their team. Comparing this analogy to identities such as sexuality or race,  Charles continued, “Imagine how it feels to be a part of a group receiving  messages of negativity. You can’t take off an identity for the day.” In addition to threat of identity, students are still required to meet deadlines for school, despite the sensation of fear. Dr. Atira Charles advised the audience to think about how to affirm students. “Affirmation is not just positive thinking,” Charles said, “affirmation is transforming how students process emotions and thoughts in a positive way.” Moral commitment and ethical leadership are discussed usually in black and white, asserted Charles. When working with students,  we often live in the grey. Charles continued by asking the audience, “What masks are you wearing that hold you back from effectively supporting students when working in these grey areas?” Ending her time at the Dalton Institute, Dr. Charles left best practices for the audience to consider:

  • Self awareness curriculum
  • Individual student coaching
  • Social media campaigns
  • Inclusive campus wide programming