Black Skin, White Shirts

Image of five black men in a line, all wearing white shirts, black ties and blue suit jackets.
Illustration: Marianne Hernandez
Exploring the connotations of clothing, Matthew Gomes wrestles with the second self that wears his crisp, white shirt.

This article was made possible by donations to the Black Creatives Fund. Donate now.

Exercised, showered, fed. Time to collect myself.

I start by looking into my closet, and considering who the world wants me to be today.

“Well dressed but not the best dressed,” I remind myself.

Jeans, khakis, Italian wool dress pants? Corduroy jacket or a V-neck? Club tie, quirky pattern, or a bold, classic red? Coordinate: socks, tie, cufflinks (optional, of course). Pick a cologne to match the weather and the colour scheme. Foggy, rainy? Perhaps a leather chypre. Bright, sunny? A day for a fougere.

Crisp, starched, white shirt.

Dressed, time to face the world, see how I’ve done.

“Looking sharp today.” I intone, ritually, half-looking at my own reflection as my hands check the lay of button and collar.

Check tie is straight and shirt flat. Fight with wrinkles. Give up. Sigh. Out the door.

Frantz Fanon, doyen of Afro-Caribbean philosophy, talked about his struggle with the French language. A native of Martinique, he spoke French fluently, and as a first language, but as a black man the French fit him imperfectly, bore into his mouth the legacy of violence and domination that carried the language to his tongue.

Like Fanon and his French, I wear the shirt only imperfectly. It wrinkles on my skin, the buttons rub against my tie. It becomes a persistent itch, just out of my reach.

I do try to scratch the itch; I inhabit it. I walk within the discomfort as I walk through the world. For the itch, I let them tell me, is my ticket. The itch, I tell myself, is my armour.

“Can I help you, sir?” No, thank you.

“Oh, do you work here?” I do, yes.

“Can I just have your staff number and I can find you in my system?” It’s ——–, same as yesterday.

I watch myself in every exchange, noting the shortcomings I assume they find, restraining myself in my reply, never daring to answer but politely, meekly, warring with myself.

Don’t they see the shirt? The crisp, starched, white shirt?

French social theorist Jean Baudrillard, in his seminal work, The System of Objects, describes the role that objects play in how we construct our worlds. We collect ourselves, says Baudrillard, as we collect objects. We assemble things of which we are the meaning. But, as I am black, I must collect myself twice. I must be doubly conscious, as Du Bois observed, mindful of that meaning which is my own and that which the world tells me it wants, or that which I tell myself it wants.

I have constructed my world, my self, in relationship not with myself but with others, with those I must please, must appease, if I am to thrive, to survive.

“Looking sharp, as always.” Didn’t help me at reception.

“I’ll look like a slob next to you in there.” Ah.

“If anyone asks, we’ll just say you thought it was black tie!” Of course.

The white shirt is an icon, a totem, a fetish: a physical manifestation of what I desire in owning it, ironing it, starching it, wearing it. It is the incarnation of safety.

But this, says Ellison, is insane. Ralph Ellison, Afro-American novelist and essayist, describes my naivety: I have accepted the fiction that my education and erudition will ease the anxiety that is born of my blackness. But really, I have internalised that anxiety, constructed myself around it. Here, again, lies the double consciousness Du Bois observed; the second self imposes itself upon the authentic self, the outside seeps in and becomes a second inside.

“I’m tired,” the ritual words. “Think I’ll head straight home.”

“Where they can’t see me,” I don’t let myself finish.

Behind the obscuring curtain of my front door I can shed myself. I can rest from myself. But I live within myself. Even without the shirt, I itch.

Throwing the shirt across the room, I still itch. Would the window help? No, I’m not made of white shirts. Well, one of me is.

Friday tomorrow. Freedom. And stress. Freedom and stress. Open collar, maybe? Too office. T-shirt and a jacket? Too “stree… Maybe I can think about this in the morning, for once.

Maybe I can rest. Just for a while. 

Consider throwing a few more things. Sigh. Iron a shirt for tomorrow in front of the news. God, the news is depressing. Maybe a nature doc. Watch someone else get eaten.

God, don’t say things like that at work.

My dual consciousness is not one of authenticity and safety but of fear and madness. I am not protecting myself: I am deluding myself and so am constructing a false self. A second self collected from slights, looks, and half-heard words.

Dual consciousness becomes deluded consciousness becomes dyadic consciousness. Two mes: me and the-world-in-me, the-world-I-fear-in-me.

Laying my head down on the pillow, I review. “Too familiar. Too distant. Didn’t smile. Smiled too long.” God I itch.

“[T]wo souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”

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