Prioritizing Black Women’s Voices

by Victoria I. Brown

About a week ago, Stephanie McKellop, University of Pennsylvania Teaching Assistant (TA), came under fire for admitting that she calls on the Black women in her classroom first, then the people of color, and finally the White students in the classroom. Opponents of this practice have derided her for discriminating against students and detracting from the educational environment of the classroom.  However, I’d argue that prioritizing black women’s voices in this particular class setting contributes to the academic enrichment of all the students.

McKellop is not a mathematics TA. She is not explaining the clear-cut nuances of different formulas to her students. She teaches HIST-345: Sinners, Sex, and Slaves: Race and Sex in Early America – a topic that clearly impacts African American students on a much more personal level than POC or White students. African American students are likely to have personal narratives on how class topics are relevant to their families, their communities, and even their own sexual encounters. Given that certain students experience residual effect of sexualized violence in early America even today, it is critical to prioritize those students’ contributions. Furthermore, students in social science classes benefit immensely from hearing the personal narratives and subjective contributions from their peers. In a setting where all parties are not affected equally, all parties should not necessarily have equal speaking time. Finally, even if you don’t agree that this particular instance of asymmetrical class participation is good, you should consider class participation in other settings. Many times, Black students are overlooked in social science classes and drowned out by their non-black counterparts.

Yet there are some merits to the oppositions’ arguments. The most pressing is how one distinguishes the black students, especially in class which directly relates to the mixing of races over time. Perhaps in an effort to prioritize one black student, she is effectively silencing another lighter-skinned black student. Second is whether a student’s participation explicitly and implicitly affect their grade. Perhaps White students are receiving artificially deflated grades because they aren’t receiving an opportunity to speak up in class. Finally, some question the validity of McKellop’s intentions. Perhaps what she claims to be of the best interest for her students is actually just a perpetuation of White saviorism.

To be a Black woman in a Penn classroom is to live a contradiction. I am one of the few Black people in the room, and it feels as though everyone is always watching. I assume my classmates notice what I wear to class and what time I arrive. I’m sure that they take note of what I say, and pay particular attention to how I say it. Though, while I consistently feel like I am the object of everyone’s attention, I also feel invisible. Professors often overlook my hand for a lighter one in the back of the room. McKellop teaches a class that largely deals with Black women and their narratives. Considering my own personal experience, and the experience of other black women in academia, perhaps it may be a good idea to prioritize our comments, at least just this once.

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