It’s an experience to read the humble and assured confidence of Airea D. Matthews. She exudes grace and intelligence at every turn. We found this interview to be enlightening, and it gave us a lot to turn over again and again in our heads. The ways in which Airea D. has acknowledged and rejected the misogyny in the industry, and confronted instances and folx that need confrontation are inspiring. We found that while she has of course experienced racism, sexism, ageism, and much more; her relationship with herself is for her and her alone to adjust and empower.
We think you’re hot. Do you get that a lot?
Well, thank you for that compliment. I don’t know if I’ve ever considered the frequency of a particular compliment; I’m grateful when they come. Hotness seems like an outside appraisal, an approval given based on your physical characteristics. I can see myself more clearly outside of the physical—flaws and all as they say. For that reason, I find myself to be complex and beautiful in accordance with my own standards. I’m sure there are physical characteristics that others might like, and some might not. But, no matter, because I love myself wholly. I know my heart and my intentions and, after many years of feeling outside my body, I know I am strong and capable. All of those things attract me to my higher self.
We think you’re smart. Do you get that too? In your academic sectors?
Thank you again! I feel competent at what I do and try to keep my ego at bay while doing it. I study what I teach and teach what I study. There are tons of things I don’t know and many more things that I’ve gotten wrong. When I’m wrong I try to be accountable, and course correct. When I’m right I try to remain humble. I miss the mark sometimes, but the attempts matter.
Do you find people who say they want to engage with you “academically” begin to come on to you sexually shortly after?
I have to say I have never had that experience (at least that I was aware of). I think it’s chiefly owing to the fact that I have very solid boundaries professionally and personally, and I’m often perceived as intimidating or aloof (when in actuality I’m quite warm and simply practice healthy boundary setting).
In what ways has your appearance affected your career and the way people perceive you, your agency and validity, and the way you navigate male-dominated spaces in the industry?
In my 20s and 30s, I deeply cared about aesthetic perfection and how I came off to folks around me. I had a mild form of body dysmorphia and never thought my mirror reflected what other people saw. That mental short circuit caused me to observe abnormal eating and exercising patterns. Since I’ve only been able to hold one obsession at a time my focus on appearance wound up distracting me from my real work. Instead of finishing my book, I’d exercise compulsively. I practiced trying to look good more than I practiced understanding the craft. And while I may have caught a quietly attentive glance here or there, I came to realize I wanted the gaze on my work and not on me.
Now, I always direct conversations back to the work. Always. I take up space with the work and thinking about ways the future might be shaped through words and not through intrigues.
Have you felt like you’ve had to prove yourself more- your intelligence/staying power, etc in the industry because of your perceived beauty?
I went to public schools in which I was one of the few black folks in the district. As a kid, I wanted to be seen as more than just an entity or identity. I wanted to be seen as one of the best students, regardless of race. That equated to me leading with my intellect, a trait I’d learned in those years.
Yesterday I was talking to my friend and told her that my earlier poems observe something and now I want to feel something in my work. The observation part is sort of meta. While I was writing those poems I was aware that someone might one day read them. I observed observation and wrote with the awareness of readership, which caused me to write in a way that was intellectually performative. Now, I write with the awareness of personal satisfaction and want to be viewed as human, just human. Nothing more and nothing less. I suppose I have surrendered to being instead of proving.
In an interview, Morgan Parker told Rachel Zucker that not often enough people say her work is smart. Do you ever feel this way? That often beautiful artist/creators are called beautiful more than they are smart? Was there a specific moment that solidifies this for you?
Because of the filter of race, it’s hard for many in marginalized communities to be viewed as either classically smart or beautiful. Those who know themselves as smart, no matter their race, want to be viewed as smart. While those who believe themselves beautiful want to be acknowledged as such. It’s nice to be validated and seen as you see yourself. However, in America, the plight of black womxn is fraught with neglect and abuse, where some who behold both our intellect and beauty can’t seem to assert us as either.
In certain instances, we are not viewed as rational or reasonable but stereotyped as angry and crass. On the main, the historical standard of beauty is exclusive and dictated by a media that exoticizes and fetishizes black womxnhood while simultaneously amplifying more easily appropriated aspects of it. For my sanity, I choose to opt out of external validations of the obvious. These days I am most interested in balance and not binaries like beautiful and smart to describe womxn writers. There’s so much terrain between those poles, and I am no longer interested in studying the lens of a machine built to erase me. In the end people can label me or read me. I am only interested in the latter option.
Do you find when you tell people (primarily men) that you write full time, they react by patronizing or underestimating the validity of your work?
They better not. I would laugh in the face of anyone who calls into question how important timely and well-reasoned writing is. But, that said, I have been underestimated before. It’s happened quite a bit. People underestimate my age (and assume me to be younger or less-experienced than I am). I get underestimated based on some invisible calculus of race and gender. But I believe in defining myself and inhabiting my own power. So, I try not to let people with failed imaginations take up too much space in my personal ecosystem. It’s taken me years to truly understand that people’s lowered expectations, which are the source of underestimation, are a reflection of their erroneous presumptions rather than my own failing.
Have there been times in business meetings, phone calls, interviews, academic spaces, etc where you’ve had to assert yourself more or speak up more because you were talked over or your comment disregarded? How did you handle that situation?
All the time. I deplore that; it shows a disdain for voices outside of ones’ own. To tackle the problem, I tend to use the sandwich method where I kindly acknowledge something the other person said, level my criticism about overtalking, and make my point. After which I end with a positive statement.
It might look like this:
“Hey, Bob, your point about xyz was astute. However, you interrupted me before I finished my point which was (fill in the blank). At any rate, I look forward to continued collaboration and balanced sharing with this passionate and energetic group.” (End Scene)
Have you had professional colleagues or business folks make passes at you? How did you handle that?
Not really. If something like that happened, I would handle it the way I handle other uncomfortable situations—with firm truth. I believe in the power of directly heading off unwelcome advances with the simple imperative “Do not.” Rather than the direct hit, I mostly wind up in situations where people subtly or overtly say racist things. I use the same imperative then, too. In those situations, I usually have to follow up with a verbal annotation of the offense (ie- explaining what might be construed as racist). Then there’s the requisite mumbled apology followed by a space filled with the absence of words. I don’t mind silences that allow consideration. Silence can be a comfort and an assurance that I don’t have to tolerate microaggressions on any level. And make no mistake, truthfulness may feel awkward, but inauthenticity or not showing up for myself is excruciating.
What advice would you give young women entering the business?
Focus on the work and don’t play any game in which the rules were written absent your input.