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On anonymity and identification

| Thursday, August 13, 2020

Those of you who know me know that I have been closely involved with Notre Dame’s Show Some Skin since my freshman year. It is, in my humble opinion, one of the most welcoming, genuine and radically empathetic initiatives on campus. This school year, I’m so blessed to say I will be serving as Executive Director for our 10-year anniversary performance.

For anyone here who is unfamiliar with Show Some Skin or its mission, it is an on-campus student-led initiative geared toward elevating narratives of identity and difference within our Notre Dame community and greater South Bend community. In the fall, our team puts out a call for stories for anyone in our community to anonymously share their experiences, stories, secrets, confessions… their truths with us. We read and discuss each and every narrative, compiling as many of them as we can into a production that actors will perform in the spring, not knowing whether the person who wrote their monologue is a complete stranger or a close friend, only knowing a truth they hold closest to their heart. This experience has been described as “radical empathy bootcamp” for Notre Dame Students.

Now, I am not talking about Show Some Skin to try to get anyone here to join (although the time for that will certainly come). I’m talking about it because at this moment where more members of the Notre Dame community than I ever anticipated are thinking and openly talking about identity and difference, specifically in regard to race, whiteness and Blackness… we must not forget that most of the time conversations like these are left for the underground. I know this because I have watched as Show Some Skin’s promise of anonymity has empowered so many to speak out against injustice and advocate for change.

I’ve read pieces that condemn the perpetuation of white supremacy, pieces that question the popular imagination of Blackness in academia, in the workplace, in the media and in private. I’ve read pieces that recount experiences that have left othering scars on our own peers, professors, faculty and staff. All honorably honest and all, naturally, anonymous. But outside of Show Some Skin, I haven’t read very many names. Perhaps we at Notre Dame have fostered a community where people feel safest without their names attached to these socially aware, specifically antiracist, narratives and ideas. Perhaps we have fostered a community where it is easiest to sit in the Show Some Skin audience and watch these conversations unfold like vignettes from a dystopian world.

Don’t get me wrong, I am incredibly thankful for Show Some Skin’s mission to address the need for more organic and empathetic conversations on campus. But we must ask ourselves: why is it easiest in certain spaces for us to remove our names, our bodies and our affiliations before entering these conversations? Why does safety look like namelessness? I wish I knew.

I will say, through my work with Show Some Skin, I’ve noticed that in sharing our experiences anonymously, some of us who have rarely felt “normative” are, for once, able to put on this guise of normativity. We can make ourselves easy to digest. I myself have submitted stories to Show Some Skin on the topic of mental health, knowing that anonymity was on my side. Knowing that if I don’t mention all of the specific ways that my identities and experiences intersect, people might assume that I am a straight, white, rich, able-bodied man. And then they might be much more inclined to believe what I have to say about my own personal experiences.

Anonymity has been on my side because when people don’t know my presentation and the skin that I embody… they can’t use my body as a rhetorical device. And as we’ve seen in American History, the Black body constantly has been used as a symbol of sacrifice for our own personal journeys toward understanding and change. Anonymity has been my key to evading that fate.

We are not rhetorical. We are real. And I’d like to think that as “normative” human beings, each of us, we are entitled to those meanings. But unfortunately at Notre Dame and in our world, many of us feel most objective when no one knows our names, our bodies, our skin, our hair, etc. For students like me at Notre Dame, our identities are the secrets we keep. Maybe that is why anonymity is safety for so many of us. And that is proven to us year after year after year when stories we never thought we’d hear, and discussions we never thought we’d have, are shared with us for the first time, anonymously. Each year, we are left to only imagine the bodies behind them.

Theresa Azemar is a senior member and Executive Director of Show Some Skin, a student-run initiative committed to giving voice to unspoken narratives about identity and difference. Using the art of storytelling as a catalyst for positive social change across campus, we seek to make Notre Dame a more open and welcoming place for all. If you are interested in breaking the silence and getting involved with Show Some Skin, email [email protected].

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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