• GradHacker

    A Blog from GradHacker and MATRIX: The Center for Humane Arts, Letters and Social Sciences Online


Masked: The Politics and Protections of Concealing

Five disguises you might don during graduate school.

October 26, 2016

Regina Sierra Carter received her Ph.D. in Educational Policy Studies from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She currently works as a Teaching and Learning Librarian at the University of Virginia.

Halloween’s just around the corner. Who or what will you become? Will you be wearing a costume or even a mask? Masks are for kids, right? Not exactly. Masks are for grown folks too. In fact, you might be wearing one right now…


Masks fascinate me. My intrigue extends beyond the ornate outer workings of this facial fabric into the intricacies of masks and their meanings. Masks can be (and often are) considered a type of costume used for decorative purposes or in an attempt of concealment. Masks are incredibly alluring due to their ability to conceal and reveal. Furthermore, masks are enticing because the act of selecting the perfect facial mask is highly personal and political. A haphazard mask can wreak havoc. However, a meticulously selected mask can offer a considerable amount of protection and prestige.


Masking is not a new phenomenon. It invokes politics, provides protections, and serves a plethora of other functions. The act of masking is often employed in order to hide one’s emotions, satisfy the status quo, or simply survive. There are myriads of masks graduate students don throughout their degree programs.


That’s why I have taken it upon myself to list the top five masks that I have donned and/or encountered in my graduate studies and beyond. Some of these masks might be frightfully familiar. Others are less obvious. It is my sincere hope that (if you have not done so already) you will learn how to spot a mask from a mile away and respond appropriately and accordingly. Moreover, I trust that those sweet souls who let the whole world know what they are thinking, how they are feeling, etc. will discover a mask that they can use if the occasion calls for it. I’m not advocating for inauthenticity. I am simply urging you to be wise and smart. Let the mask rollcall begin.   


Most Commonly Worn Masks


Smiley- You know that one person who is always smiling even when circumstances dictate that they should be acting or behaving otherwise? You know... those who don the smiley mask have a perpetual boomerang slapped across their face indirectly indicating that “it’s all good” when, in fact, it might not be. I remember the summer before my last semester at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. After discovering that funding for my last year of the doc program was virtually nonexistent, I freaked out... inwardly. I did not want anyone to know that I was struggling so I sucked it up, plastered a smile on my face, and did my best to keep it moving. I was too ashamed to admit that I needed help, which was foolish. It was only after I set pride aside and spoke about my financial struggles that people helped. That said, I am not hating on smileys. Some people who smile are sincere and legit. I am simply saying that the smiley mask is very handy—especially when you do not want people to know how you are really feeling, what you are thinking, and/or when someone has gotten the best of you.   


Clueless- Don’t expect too much out of these folks because you might not get it. It’s not that the clueless-mask mob is incapable or incompetent—it’s just that that is what they want you to think so you will leave them alone. I saw the clueless mask appear quite often in graduate student organizational meetings. People would show up for free food, people-watching, conversation, and maybe business--in that order. As soon as the executive board shared that some big event was going to occur and volunteers were needed, the eyes of clueless folk (which was sometimes me) would go blank and their bodies became non-responsive. Then it was all over. You might as well be talking to a wall because you would get no help from them. Going around looking clueless is a great strategy to avoid being overworked. However, please understand that coming across as clueless can also be a curse--you might end up being overlooked, undervalued or not taken seriously.


Bobblehead- This one is a tricky mask to don and decipher. Bobbleheads do a whole lot of nodding. These folks agree to agree. There is no pushback whatsoever, but there seems to be plenty of pushover. If you are completely honest, I bet you were a bobblehead at one point in your graduate school career. (I was.) I also bet that you can relate to agreeing with your adviser’s or committee member’s remarks simply for the sake of agreeing or out of fear. You agreed because advisers and committee members hold the key to your degree. Before you start beating yourself up for being a people pleaser consider this: Bobbleheads do not necessarily lack discretion or direction. Instead, they prefer to play it safe now rather than be sorry later.


Mad [insert desired adjective/noun]- Some folks think that I put on the “mad black woman” mask too often. Other folks may simply think that I’m mad. Straight up crazy. I’m cool with that because everybody is scared of crazy. Come to think of it, plenty of people respect crazy, too. Don’t nobody want to mess with crazy. Mad is the mask you wear when you don’t feel like messing with anyone AND you don’t want anyone messing with you. I wore this mask daily while writing my dissertation. At first, I had a hard time saying “no” to people who demanded too much of my time. I tried to be nice and accommodate every request. However, being nice and accommodating was killing my productivity. It was only after I started saying “no” and being very intentional with my time that I was finally able to finish my dissertation and graduate. Mission accomplished. That said, please don’t over utilize this mask because you may diminish its potency. People will either be scared stiff of you or start testing your badness, which (in my humble opinion) is a dire mistake. Sometimes mad is not a mask. It is the real deal. Take it from me, mad masks have their time and place but it does not need to be donned every single day.


Now that you know a little bit about masking, I must make a disclaimer: Masking is not isolated to graduate school, this practice can (and is often) applied to everyday life. For example, do you remember when that random kid ran the shopping cart into your heel at the grocery store for no reason whatsoever? [If you really can’t relate, insert another relevant scenario into the mix.] You could have morphed into a monster. But no… that would have been socially unacceptable. So, smile slowly being sure to flash your pearly whites (or whatever color your teeth are) and kindly ensure the child’s caregiver that everything is perfectly okay. No harm done. Shopping carts go rogue all the time, you say. You are just happy that the little tyke is okay. Liar. This form of masking is socio-political and protective. You know good and well that your shin is smarting from the run-in but you resist the urge to pop off. Children will be children. You are a grown behind being. Suck it up because more often than not you did damage as a kid and someone gave you a free pass. So spread the love.


A thoughtfully worn mask can make or break you. So I end where I began. Halloween is just around the corner. What mask(s) will you be wearing? Choose wisely...


What mask(s) have you or other folks in your graduate program worn? Which ones were your favorite? Please do divulge.


[Photo from Flickr user Connie Ma used under Creative Commons License]


Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


Back to Top