Secret Societies of Double Agents: Music, Life, and Teaching

Since my blog a few days ago covering Amanda Marshall‘s music, I’ve been thinking about her music, the music industry, and people in a particularly different kind of way. In particular, her purely autobiographical song “Double Agent” has been on mind.

In this post, I discuss larger implications of the notion of “double agents” and conclude that we should all recognize we are all “double agents” because we have hidden identities, we process information on multiple levels, and use and/or perceive said information in unintended, “prohibited” ways. Some of these ideas are still a bit sketchy. 

Take a listen to the song first:

Google defines “double agent” as:

an agent who pretends to act as a spy for one country or organization while in fact acting on behalf of an enemy

Marshall’s definition is much broader and has important everyday uses. In essence, she is saying she is a double agent because 1) the complications of Whiteness and Blackness make her constantly in two worlds given a White father and Black mother; 2) because she “looks White” and people assume she is White and say things that only White people are “allowed” to hear; and 3) Blackness is “the enemy,” that she embraces that aspect of her identity, and if people knew, they could see her as Black and as the enemy. People tell her things assuming she is on their side (i.e., White), when she “isn’t.” And as lyrics on the song go:

I don’t have to volunteer and say
That I was born a particular way
I got not uniform, I’m camouflaged in any light

In the interview about her album Everybody’s Got a Story (linked above), she explains that many times people have said things to her they wouldn’t have said if they knew she has Black ancestry. 

And, and not to lessen the importance of her song and the racialized meanings, all of this got me thinking about the ways in which we are all, all kinds of “double agents.” 

For example, people regularly say things to me they would not say if they knew I had physical disabilities or if they knew I was a college professor or if they knew that I will remember and think about what they said and perhaps blog about it in some form or another! They assume automatically because of my Whiteness and Maleness that I am basically just like them and thus am on their side. They don’t know I am a “double agent” in some regards. We all have such differences that others can’t see. 

Changing what we say or do not say based on what we think someone thinks based on quick impressions involves notions of the “double agent” – we filter what we say for fear that the person is a double agent, isn’t actually on our side. This can be good and bad, per se.

What are the implications of this as far as teaching for professors and students? All of our students are also all “double agents.” In other words, they all have life experience we can’t see and may never know about. Some of what we say (or don’t say) may offend them or hurt their learning. And they will all use what we teach (or don’t teach) in other places without our directly knowing. On the note of being offended, I always aim for safe, productive classrooms, but I also tell students you should be offended at times taking History or any class and you should talk about your feelings. 

We should never assume students are on our side per se – in that they think like us, have the experience we do, and fully understand the nuances of what we say because they don’t, they can’t just yet. We can eliminate most sides of the “double agent” by being as direct and clear and considerate as possible. 

White male professors are–according to many, many studies–accepted much quicker by students and given higher student evaluation scores. These professors are seen as “insiders.” Women and Professors of Color typically have to work harder to get students to accept them. They are sometimes seen as a threat by their students. In other words, these minority professors are “exposed” as “double agents” because they can’t be an “insider,” aren’t “safe” for many, many students based on deeply rooted mores of sexism and racism. 

In sum, being sensitive to other peoples’ feelings and needs and being flexible is important, as is always being honest – say what you are going to say with care regardless of who you think is in front of you. Notions of the “double agent” overlap with notions of privilege, stage theory / role playing, and Dramaturgy, but very specifically look at the full consequences and full relationships involved.  

Thanks for reading.