We are currently in a moment when Black joy is being vehemently (re)claimed. “Black Panther” recently came out and broke myriad box office records, “A Wrinkle in Time” just hit theaters, and Oakland just hosted its first Black Joy Parade. Everywhere I look on my timeline, Black people are highlighting moments of humor, joy and meaningful connectedness.
I am a self-proclaimed goofy Black woman. I laugh a lot, I find the humor in most things, I adore connecting with people, and I genuinely try to invite joy into every place of my life.
Like most students, I learned early on that joy and humor have no place in the classroom.
As children, we learn the importance of performing intelligence much more than we learn the actual material. We learn scholastic behavior markers: Intelligent students sit up straight, they do not talk out of turn or much at all, and they certainly do not laugh or tell jokes.
As a student with a jovial high-energy disposition, this schema of the “perfect student” felt counterintuitive to my nature. But like most young students, I did my best to perform the narrative of intelligence that had been set before me — I wanted to be seen by my teachers, and I wanted to be acknowledged for my academic value.
The times I have stepped out of this constricting ideal of intelligence resulted in blowback that was swift and painful. Notes on my elementary school report card claimed I was smart but “lacked focus.” Parent-teacher meetings consisted of teachers highlighting that I had potential but “laughed a little too much and needed to learn how to act like a serious student.”
In high school, I learned the ways in which ideals of intellectualism are internalized and reproduced among students. On more than one occasion a friend expressed shock at my level of intelligence and said things like, “We had no idea that you were smart — you talk and laugh so much that we assumed you were a poor student.”
I still look back on these comments because they reveal that intelligence is an ethereal quality that we read onto bodies before even engaging with them — intelligence is racialized, gendered and typified.
I am a Black, goofy woman. First, Black bodies are rarely read as intelligent. Second, I am a woman, and woman are consistently scholastically marginalized. And thirdly, I am goofy — and goofy Black bodies are often assumed to be aloof, nonchalant and purposeless.
When I was an undergraduate student at UC Berkeley, my joy functioned as both a hindrance and a conduit for opportunity. I felt unseen in many student-activist spaces because of the complex nature of locating joy in spaces of trauma. Often times my disposition conflicted with the archetype of the strong, silent and unwavering activist.
But joy also opened the door to myriad opportunities at UC Berkeley, my favorite of which was being a resident assistant, or RA.
As an RA, you are invited into the beauty and messiness of young adulthood — you have the honor of sitting with students in their confusion, pain, trauma and triumphs. It is in these spaces of human complexity that joy truly shines. Joy is not fleeting like happiness — it has staying power. Being an RA and communing with students taught me that true joy makes room for the chaos and pain while holding onto the truth that on the other side there is something better.
My current graduate studies at Harvard University have shown me that not only does joy bring meaningful opportunities, but it is also key to unlocking self-worth and self-belief.
In academia, joy and laughter have become my armour. In the mornings, I cloak myself in humour, I lace my shoes with laughter, and I put on a jacket of joy. I do this intentionally because in addition to normative graduate school pressures, my intersectional identities leave me especially vulnerable to anxiety and depression. As a Black queer woman in graduate school, I often experience microaggressions. But humor allows me to call out the bullshit without engaging in ways that compromise my time and humanity.
My experiences have shown me that we miss so much when we ask people to leave their true selves at the door. By teaching students that they can only express their knowledge in one way, we sanitize their creativity and we erase their unique and valuable capabilities. Narrow ideals of intelligence, power and worthiness can produce feelings of self-doubt and shame.
So I’m calling for an emotionally just teaching method — one that does not require students to fit into the mold, but instead actively encourages them to expand beyond it in order to express their most authentic selves. When we are truly seen, we no longer feel the need to prove we are exceptional through performative intelligence — we know that we are enough, just as we are.
Ciarra Jones is a UC Berkeley alumna and a graduate student at Harvard University. Cal in Color is The Daily Californian’s weekly column on race.