In Cassie’s earlier blog post, Navigating Unscripted Moments, she describes a moment in class when she was discussing Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, when a student raised his hand and asked, “Why are Black women so loose?”
In response, Cassie prompted the student to examine his assumptions while also signaling to the Black women in the room that she heard the problematic comment and, implicitly, wasn’t going to let it slide: “I turned to the black women in the class, nodded my head in solidarity and said, ‘Ladies, I got this!’ To the inquiring student, I smiled, tilted my head in contemplation, and asked, ‘What do you mean by loose?’”
I encountered a similar moment in my own teaching about ten years ago. That day, students were discussing an excerpt from Beverley Daniel Tatum’s Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?, when a student (a Black man) commented: “Black men and white men are both attracted to white women, so we have that in common, and I think that’s why we get along better than Black and white women do.”
When I heard the student’s comment, I became hyper-aware of the racial dynamics of the room. The student who had spoken was the only Black man in the room. There was one Black woman in the room. Everyone else was white––including me.
In both this circumstance and the one Cassie described in her blog post, a Black male student made a disparaging remark (directly or indirectly) about Black women. But the racial dynamics of the class made the tone and necessary intervention for each scenario very different.
In this moment, I considered these racial dynamics in the following way:
The Black student who had spoken up rarely spoke up in class, and I sensed he didn’t realize he had said something harmful (or at least, that it wasn’t his intention). I knew I needed to say something about his comment, but I didn’t want to criticize him directly––I needed to take the comment out of his domain.
I knew that if I didn’t say anything, if I took an “everyone’s entitled to their opinion” attitude, I risked letting another student in the class (the only Black woman) be harmed by both her peer’s comment and my silence, which could easily be read as complicity or even agreement. It was possible that she might speak up and challenge the student’s generalization. It was possible that she didn’t hear it. It was possible that she did hear it, and for any number of reasons didn’t feel safe responding.
I was aware of my own whiteness. I couldn’t establish the same solidarity with my Black female student that Cassie could with hers when she said, “Ladies, I got this.”
I was aware of the other students in the room––the white students––and how if I didn’t challenge the student’s comment, some of them might see it as something appropriate to repeat, something that didn’t need to be challenged or questioned.
Even with all of this going on in my mind, I also didn’t want to spend too much time talking about the student’s comment. I didn’t want to give it too much life, which could potentially place too much focus (and burden) on the only two students of color in the room.
In all honesty, I can’t remember my exact words. I can remember that I took the comment out of the student’s domain (something about how our popular media might lead us to assume that all Black men or all white men share the same preferences), that I challenged it by encouraging students to question these attitudes, and by giving a different example of something we might assume is true because of what we digest from our popular culture. I’m fairly sure I was flustered and sweaty, and that I didn’t get it perfect. But I did say something.
I describe this anecdote not to focus on what I said, but to clarify why teacher subjectivity matters. When we encounter tense moments in the classroom, instructors not only need to consider the bodies in the room: we also have to consider our own bodies. In my classroom, I was intervening as the instructor––the authority figure––in the room. In Cassie’s classroom, she was intervening as the instructor and someone who could speak to a shared lived experience with others in the room.
This post is the first in a series about why inclusion can’t be “color blind.” When we pretend that racial differences don’t matter, we may think we’re being anti-racist, but we’re also denying the reality of our students’ differences. In his post on why colorblindness is a type of microaggression, Dr. Aradhana Mudambi offers several reasons such statements like “I don’t see color” are problematic:
“Colorblindness at the most individual level denies people their identity and their lived experiences.”
“At a macro level, being colorblind does not allow us to tackle the macro racism in our society.”
“Finally, colorblindness is a lie. Let’s be real. There’s no way that someone (anyone regardless of race) in the United States sees a person who is visibly of color and doesn’t notice right away that they are of color. That’s normal. By denying that fact, the conversation or relationship in itself is not real.”
Colorblindness, in this context, doesn’t just refer to seeing the students in the room. It also refers to recognizing our own positionality. It was appropriate for Cassie, as a Black woman, to express solidarity with her Black female students, but it wouldn’t have been appropriate for me, as a white woman, to do the same with my Black female student (even if she hadn’t been the only one).
In Cassie’s follow-up post, she discusses the flip side of scenarios like this: what to do when students who share the instructor’s racial identity assume familiarity and cross boundaries during student-teacher interactions.