I’ve spent the majority of my educational career in classrooms where I’m the only black face. Now, this isn’t an oddity, it’s not revolutionary ― most of my friends could tell you the same exact story, just in different institutions. It’s one of the things you sort of resign yourself to when you make the decision to attend a PWI. Or maybe you don’t resign yourself to it, maybe you reject it, maybe you petition university presidents and have sit-ins in the administration building and demand more minority acceptance/enrollment. Or maybe you do neither of those things.
I’d like to think that I exist somewhere between those two ends. I believe in the necessity of a diverse classroom, not just for my own mental health and wellbeing but for the educational benefit of everyone involved. I’ve heard it a hundred times, when you have more perspectives influencing and challenging a discussion, the discussion is better for it. So I reside in the gray area. It’s not my ministry to lead the die-ins and it’s not in my nature to be silent.
But I can tell you one thing: I always, at the very least, show up.
For the most part, I hold up my end of the bargain when I’m at the table. I come to every class, participate in discussions that seem revolutionary to everyone else in the room (but is really just dinnertime conversation for my people) and for 17 years I’ve acted as the resident spokesperson for the culture when reading the work of black writers in English or lit classes. And that’s fine.
Well, okay maybe it’s not fine but I’ve learned to tolerate it.
I do it because I believe that part of checking my privilege is recognizing that simply having access to the spaces I have access to affords me with a great deal of responsibility. I do it because I want to create a classroom culture that challenges the dominant narrative and forces other folks to recognize their privilege as well. I do it because I believe in this work, the movement, and the power that one person and a few words have in the fight to dismantle white supremacy.
But sometimes I need a break.
Today in one of my classes, a question was posed about how race and gender have been addressed in previous workshops we’ve been a part of. I mentioned that in one of my first experiences of my MFA program, a writer said something about their use of race (or rather, how they didn’t address race at all) that really stuck with me. Not only did I wrestle with it when I walked out of the classroom, purely from a craft perspective, but I reckoned with it as a black woman. As someone whose work is for black women and about black womanhood, I couldn’t understand how someone thought that delineating between races wasn’t an important part of any narrative. Past important even, crucial.
There’s not a day that goes by that my interactions with the world aren’t affected by the body that I live in and the way I present.
In that moment, I realize now, I felt erased.
No one in my class challenged the idea. And neither did I. Instead, I sat there, slightly deflated, and waited for the clock to run out. I’m not sure if it was because I didn’t have my bearings yet, or if I just wasn’t sure how to articulate myself right then.
When asked about it today, when asked whether I challenged the writer on it at the time, I felt a pretty deep sense of shame that I hadn’t spoken up.
But that’s dead.
There was a room full of other people just as capable as me of speaking up and speaking out. And they also chose to be silent.
I’m not going to feel guilty anymore for not always answering to the undue burden of responsibility that has been placed on my shoulders, and the shoulders of my sisters, to educate white folks. Instead I’m going to challenge y’all, particularly white women, to do your own work. And I don’t mean just in the classroom, though that’s where I experience it most often. I mean everywhere: in your activism, in this movement. I’m asking you to do the research on what has been my lived experience for the past 22 years. I’m asking you to stand up, in your positions of privilege, in the spaces with other folks who look like you and Do. The. Work.
Safety pins are cool and everything. The clever signs and pink hats were super fun. But the true test of allyship is how you answer the call when no one is around to post you on Snapchat. It’s the way you stand up even when the march is over. It’s how you step in, in moments where I just can’t anymore, and take up arms for me.
‘Cause in the words of Jesse Williams, “Just because we’re magic doesn’t mean we’re not real.”
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