They Don’t Like My Voice! Brown Girls in Higher Education

As young women of color we are often times used to being silenced, neglected, blinded and pushed out. It doesn’t make it okay, but it does condition us to a second class citizenship among those who are no better than us. It impacts a set of learned behaviors, unless or until you learn to navigate such spaces.

I recently experienced a very interesting and somewhat discouraging exchange within a classroom, working toward my doctoral degree and it hit me! They don’t like my voice

Often times as the only black girl or a handful of black girls in a classroom, or persons of color in general, in a space, you’re asked for the “Black perspective“. You’re asked to present on behalf of everyone who looks like you. It is a gross generalization, but it is the only interaction that some white people have with people of color. Not to mention when you enter a graduate class there’s an assumed level of incompetence. People are so interested to know how you got to the graduate level. Who you know, what’s your financial and professional standing. They’re questioning whether or not you belong there. And hell, honestly speaking so are you. But be encouraged my sister/brother, everything you need is already within you.

In conjunction with standard assumptions, there are the individuals in class who assume privilege repeatedly reminding you of the privilege you’re denied and perpetuating the binaries that surface, class, after class, after class. It is exhausting. It is frustrating. It is upsetting. But fret not, you are not without counsel.

It is no wonder that the majority of those within these spaces are not people of color. It comes by no surprise then that blacks are more likely than whites to attend a community college, graduate in six years rather than four, attend school part-time and take remedial classes (National Center for Education Statistics, 2014). It is not shocking then, that students of color are asked to back their learned experiences with theory, explain their standpoint and repeatedly communicate and prove their right to be in spaces predominantly occupied by white people. Hell, even I, writing and posting and critiquing my own blog…..

Higher education is another system of oppression for many people of color. The very nature of the system creates an extended binary, with different perspectives and positions of power. It may or may not shock you to know that the very same institutions that excluded people of color from being admitted, are the primary institutions that continue to practice, encourage and support spaces of inequality and oppression. These institutions ban marching, protesting and acts of solidarity. They are hiding behind diversity clauses and tokenism, by admitting higher international student populations, but failing to support, advise and LISTEN to students of color.

It is then, from functioning within these spaces for far too long that I write to you; frustrated, neglected, silenced and pushed out. It is my way of reaching out to you to begin dialogues across this dark country to address some of the issues at hand, and primarily this issue, and the issues within this system, of higher education. Founded on slavery, built on lies, furthering oppression and perpetuating stereotypes and other false ideologies. Issues that us students of color and primarily, women, deal with. They ask for our opinion and then tell us to shut up. We are invited to chat, and then told what we may speak about. When we respond well to challenges they deem us superwomen, the exception. When we fail we are nothing-less than what we’re expected to be, second class citizens. Servants. the don’t expect to see us as mothers, sisters, wives, teachers and AT THE TOP! I am dedicating my life to the deconstruction of these spaces, binaries and preconceived notions of the brown girl.

And so, as previously stated, I sat in class poised. Ready to discuss readings and everything else I know about black feminist thought, its founders and intersectionality. I was geared up and ready to confront the biases that lie at my front door daily, the assumptions that are so wildly filling everyone’s heads, the micro-aggressions that I face every single day–at work, school, church, the marketplace and other white-filled spaces. More than anything though, I was ready to have conversations about what often times goes unsaid. I wanted to discuss feminist research, its methods and the feminist movements that widely excluded black women. I wanted to unapologetically announce my feelings, perspectives and stand-point on feminism. I was excited to have this conversation for a few more reasons:

  1. The make-up of this course was that of diverse women. Different backgrounds, socio-economic status, academic interests and educational attainment.
  2. The topics outlined on the syllabus were enriching yet challenging.
  3. I declared a semester prior, that I was NO feminist. I enjoy explaining why…

However, it had already been decided that there would be no room for that. We began conversation and a classmate lead the discussion. Showing videos and bringing in examples related to the class topic: black women and their hair. As she discussed she posed questions to the larger group and moderated as people spoke. She turned to a white colleague and asked her to talk about her dreads. . . . the white girl did not understand. She asked with further explanation, asking her if she was purposefully appropriating culture or if her hair choice was a political statement. . she mentioned how many black girls had battled to wear their dreads, at work, in schools and freely. She mentioned how many women of color are labeled, discriminated against and challenged because of their hair choices. The white girl still didn’t understand…. the class sat silently. Many afraid to share, some of us awaiting a response. We later would find out that she felt insulted, shamed, and highly embarrassed. She didn’t feel safe enough to discuss her hair choices with the class. She didn’t feel that our class was a space that she could discuss her dreaded hair in.

So again, I sat, poised, in a space of privilege that did not include me. I sat listening to how a white girl with dreads felt attacked when asked about how she was appropriating culture. I was forced to function within a space that was safe for her and inconsiderate of me. Other white girls spoke about how they agree with how she felt and do not feel that it is right for her to be attacked. They did not agree with the discourse and were not well-versed in black feminist thought. . . as if that disqualifies a person from answering a question about their hair. They went on to express how (in a sense) we (the brown girls) were to be ashamed for not understanding how shaken up she could be over being asked about her dreaded hair. We were suppose to be understanding and kind and sympathetic to her for refusing to share how she felt because this space that was created FOR her, was not safe ENOUGH for her to talk to us. She did not feel safe. . . Ha!

I laugh even now considering the very language used and those things that were not said. Her. White. Privileged. Supported. Cradled. She didn’t feel safe talking to me. . . honest. oppressed. transparent. direct. patient. unsupported and forever standing in the line of fire. [each of those descriptors, purposefully lower-cased]

Interesting ain’t it?

Well of course I thought so. So I asked, stated, or demanded, depending on which context you want to take this in, like she, who felt “caught off guard” and “challenged” to name a few ways that she felt this space could function differently… I demanded that she answer the question. Regardless of what she may be feeling in the moment. The very sound of my voice, sway of my head, and roll of my eye, caused her to be threatened. Threatened by me. The woman who’s representative of those raped, beaten, shut out, neglected and silenced. The most endangered species in America. The very woman who’s men are being gunned down, castrated and buried, while their killers, her brothers, walk free, laugh and later write books about it…. The woman from the very people her people owned and continue to enslave, murder, oppress and criminalized. . . I am, in her eyes, a threat. Threat being defined as an intention to inflict pain, injury or damage or other hostile on someone for retribution for something done. How is it that I am a threat, with no inflicted pain, intentional damage ?

Rather than engaging in a very critical conversation and further discussing why she, a middle -aged, white woman was walking around with dreads in her hair, she declined to respond. She declined to share. Everyone agreed they wanted to know. Only one student asked. As we waited for her response we got nothing, but more privilege. She refused to discuss. She refused to confront. We faced additional epistemic privilege. She had the choice to decide whether or not she wanted to speak to us. Whereas the women of color in the room, were forced, directly asked and repeatedly asked to engage in this conversation. They wanted to know How did we feel? Why are we asking? It wasn’t until the ball was back in our court, so to speak, that the question was returned to her, Why in the hell doesn’t she want to answer!? I finally spoke. . . directly looking at her and then at other white girls in the room and discussed how frustrating and pragmatic it was for her to decide she didn’t want to discuss her hair, but we’re asked to discuss our hair, experiences, background and perspective in all that we do, especially and repeatedly in this course.

As a black woman I am asked about my hair daily. About how it kinks, coils, straightens and styles. How it is smooth yet wavy, brown and slightly red. I am asked how I got it to twist, lock, curl or stay. . . I am asked about my clothing and my physique, how well I talk, and carry myself. Being a doctoral student, I am asked what my parents do for a living, how much they make and their level of educational attainment. I am asked as a mother whether or not my child has an involved father, if he’s aggressive or smart like me. I am challenged, approached, judged and belittled by white people every single day in the most dehumanizing ways. Yet I, a black woman, cannot ask a white woman about her dreads? About how she wouldn’t for a day choose to be a black woman, but wants to use her privilege and freedom to style her hair in locks. . . Dreadlocks date back to thousands of years ago. Originally worn by people of color and deemed dirty, disgusting, nappy and unsophisticated. Now to only be worn whites when they feel like it or want to make a political statement. Problematic as it might be, I don’t have a problem with her having dreads. I respect the fact that she’s not afraid to admit, like most whites, that they love black culture, but not the very people the culture belongs to. I am frustrated and bothered by her refusing to discuss cultural appropriation and how it undermines the very fight for freedom I face every day. . . yet we answer. We continue to answer questions  posed about our hair, family dynamics and whatever else they want to know. We talk, chat, explain, educate w/o fail, for their benefit. Do we ever really want to? I know I don’t. But I’ve never made a claim to feel unsafe, or declined to discuss my hair. . . Now that I think of it, I never really even considered myself to have a choice. But this white girl declared it. That privilege… boy, that privilege.

I say all of this to say, we are daily faced with the privilege that other people so casually tote around. We are told to accept it, understand it and embrace it. We are silenced and generalized. It is unfair, but it is familiar. It is disheartening and it is bullshit!

As black women we have to come to the place where we are not afraid to question these binaries and go a step further to confront them, challenge them, stand firm on them and deconstruct them. It is time that we declare our own privilege. No one is going to do it for us. We in our daily lives are challenged about our hair, our appearance, our culture, our lives, our intellectual capacity and asked over and over again to justify why we march, why we cry, why we riot and why we react the way that we do. We are asked to assimilate into a culture that is created to keep our necks under someone’s boot. We are asked to put our fight to the side and surrender to the beast of systematic oppression and when we don’t , we are killed! Both figuratively, academically, emotionally and culturally. We are stripped of everything that we love and we are criminalized for culturally, normative behaviors. We are told our behaviors are irrational, our opinions not wanted, our being not valued. We can only be here as we benefit the people of America.

As black women it is taken a step further. Completely defined and confined- or so they wish- by our womanhood and our blackness. We function within these spaces differently than white women and differently from black men. We have our own set of epistemological beliefs, ways of knowing and ways of doing things. We often times are not given a choice or a voice, so we demand them, we create them, we implement them. We are such relentless beings. We conquer every odd and excel all expectation. Though I am frustrated and disheartened with the current state of the black woman, specifically in higher education, silenced, neglected and pushed out, I am truly empowered by how well we’ve prevailed, over and over, and over, again.

My classmate reminded me of just how much further we have to go, how real and relevant cultural competency or the lack thereof is, and how truly empowered, unapologetic and blessed I am to be a black woman. In the words of bell hooks, “I will not have my life narrowed down. I will not bow down to somebody else’s whim or to someone else’s ignorance. ” I ask that you join me, rise and vibrate higher. No matter. Whatever.

Keep Queening

[originally written August 2017.]

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