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  • Writer's pictureCassie Smith

Navigating Unscripted Moments

It was Fall 2010. I was fresh out of graduate school, settling into a tenure-track job at a research university in the southern United States. I was more than a little anxious about the racial dynamics I knew I would have to navigate as a young, Black woman academic living in a city and working at a university with an especially vexed historical relationship to race and racism.

I was teaching a class about 19th century slave narratives. On this particular day, I had just delivered the lecture of a lifetime on Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.

Or so I thought….

I deftly explicated elements of sexual trauma in Jacobs’s narrative. I explained the problematic relationship between Victorian virtue and enslaved Black women. I talked about the gothic tenor of the narrative with Jacobs’s descriptions of how she hid in a tiny vault-like attic space for some seven years. I spent some 30 minutes walking students through the more salient features of Jacobs’s narrative.

Afterwards, one student, God bless his curiosity, raised his hand and asked me, quite simply, “Why are Black women so loose?”

That was his question. His main takeaway for the day was that Jacobs lacked sexual morality. And not just Jacobs but all Black women both then and now; he asked the question in present tense. How on earth does an instructor engage that kind of question? Do you dismantle its racist assumptions? How do you challenge the statement without appearing as a stereotype—the angry Black woman? Do you call the student out as a racist? Does it matter that the student asking the question is Black? What do you say to the 12 students in the classroom who are Black and female; they huff and puff in their seats, daring you to call out the student.

How do you deal with your own accelerated heart rate, and the immense insult you yourself feel as a member of the subject group targeted by the comment? In the face of racially charged comments, how does the teacher navigate the classroom space to support open, honest dialogue that is respectful of human difference? My experiences with promoting diversity and inclusivity are born out of classroom quandaries like this.

Unfortunately, graduate school did not prepare me to navigate such moments. The last decade-plus of teaching has been a series of blunders. Failures and successes. And here is what I’ve learned so far about building inclusive classrooms. We learn to do this work mostly through trial and error. There is no one right (or wrong) way to teach for diversity and inclusivity. What is more, teaching needs are specific to the historical background and cultural structures of our home institutions. That is to say, teaching a class on the 19th century slave narrative at a university in the South might require a different tool set than teaching a similar class at a liberal arts college in the Pacific Northwest.

At this point, you are probably wondering how I responded to my student’s question about the morality of Black women. Before addressing my response, I should say that I benefited from having established early in the semester a strong rapport with the class, which was 95 percent African American students. We laughed together while playing the dozens; we guffawed over the latest antics of Kanye West; we talked about hair care and the history of racism at our institution. This was a class focused on African American culture, so these topics always led into the day’s reading or came out of it.

Because I allowed them some latitude to take the class conversation where they wanted, I think students were less afraid to try out ideas, to articulate those ideas in class. That was how I received the student’s comment about black women, his effort to engage sincerely with the course materials. That said, I did not immediately respond to him. Instead, 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?” Our conversation unfolded something like this:

Student: I mean they don’t have any morals. (He doubled down.)

Me: And who is this ‘They’? Are you referring to all Black women?

Student: Well not all. But a LOT.

Me: I think I know what you are getting at, student x. There is a common misconception that Black women, more than other races of women, are --how can I put this? -- foot loose and fancy free when it comes to sex. Where do you think that misconception comes from? What’s the foundation for it? Or better yet, tell me what you notice in Harriet Jacobs’s narrative that supports that misconception.

Student: I’m saying, though, she had sex with Mr. Sands. She chose to do that and have two of his babies.

Me: Okay. And this question is for anybody. What does Jacobs tell us about why she made that choice?

Another Student (black female): She didn’t have a choice. (She puts a strong emphasis on choice.)

At this point, other students started chiming in to debate whether Jacobs’s sexual behavior was a result of choices she made or the absence of choices available to her as an enslaved black woman. Rather than the student’s comment shutting down discussion, it became a jumping off point for rich, deep textual and cultural analysis.

Among the scripts we have compiled, there are several that walk you through how to navigate the offensive comments that students (and we) make in the classroom. I would like to tell you that I knew exactly what I was doing in my handling of the student’s response. I did not. It was only in hindsight that I understood why the discussion ended on a productive note -- because the student was given space to grapple with the logic of his comment, interrogate its historical underpinnings, and then, with the rest of the class, think more deeply about what the text actually said. I think about that classroom moment often because it reminds me that so much of what we do is about trying our best and learning from experience.

This is an example of a dialogue gone right. In my next blog post, I will share with you a time when I said all the wrong things. Because we don’t always get it right, and correction is part of the work.

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