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.

To Kneel or Not To Kneel

I have written a few articles and opinion papers on community violence. Most recently, I have written on the impact of the shooting of unarmed Black men and brutality by police officers. This brutality and abuse has been headline news for some time. It permeates the lives of our families and neighbors. Most Black parents know the anxiety of wanting to make sure our children know how to respond if confronted by the police. I have told my children, their job is to make it home. It is not right! It is unfair! We know however that we have to teach our children because, a wrong step, move or word could mean their arrest or worse, injury or death.

When Colin Kapernick began his protest of the oppression of Black people and other people of color by not standing for the national anthem. I was proud of him. He was using his platform to make a statement. Before 2009, when the anthem was played, athletes were not required to stand or even suit up. Some are saying that he is disrespecting the flag or the military and that he, and any that do not stand, lack loyalty.  “Where is the loyalty to the Black men and women who supported a country that would not support them? The paradox of loyalty is that African American people love a country that does not love us. We pledge (to) the flag, drenched in blood, because we want something better” (https://newpittsburghcourieronline.com/2017/10/05/this-flag-is-drenched-in-blood/). And some, despite the history, still think better is possible here.

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses Black people and people of color. there are bodies in the street and people…are getting away with murder.” – Colin Kaepernick

While Mr. Kapernick has sacrificed his career and relationships, his protest is bigger. He is standing for what he believes, his principles! His protest has made others take a stand against the injustice in America. The media and politicians can try to make this about something else, but WE know it is about inhumane treatment and continued inequalities in our communities.

After 300+ years, the national anthem continues to not be for us. In 1814, the song was written after a bloody battle at Fort McHenry when the British offered refuge and freedom to slaves who joined them. The British and those who joined them were defeated. Francis Scott key, upon seeing the flag still waving the next morning was inspired to write including the verse we don’t sing-

“No refuge could save the hireling and slave from the terror of flight or the doom of the grave. And the star spangled banner in triumph doth wave. O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

So where does that leave us today?

I have traveled enough to know that I don’t want to give up the distinction of being an American citizen. However, this country has continuously and consistently made it clear that basic rights afforded to some in this country are not afforded to all. Frederick Douglas said, “Power concedes nothing without demand”. Our constitution gives us the right to demand justice. Mr. Kapernick’s protest is the beginning of a demand.

His protest makes people uncomfortable. Talking about race in America makes people, particularly White people, uncomfortable. We should talk anyway. We can’t change the past, but we need to acknowledge its existence, make amends if possible and ensure the past is not repeated.

#45 continues to tug at the societal and cultural fault lines in America and politics. He dog whistles with comments that incite white supremacists and their sympathizers. We have to recognize the dog whistle and decide we are not going to let that derail or distract us from our mission. it is our right to protest. It is our responsibility to stand for social justice and against inequality. it is not only the right and responsibility of people of color, it is the responsibility of all good people to stand against evil. If standing means sitting during the anthem to call attention to injustices, then I, too, will take a knee.

“The greatest tragedy in life is not the deeds of evil men, the greatest tragedy is the silence of good ones”, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Should We Conform

By Colleen Winn

She walked into my office and closed the door behind her. I sensed that whatever she had to say she needed to do it in privacy. I also noticed that her look was pensive, directive, and hyper serious. I didn’t know whether to hide under my desk or mirror the seriousness of the moment that she had created. What I did was greet the Center Director and sat back in my seat with a weird smile on my face that spoke more to my youth than to my mood. She was a leader who did not mind the fact that her subordinates called her Ms. B*!#@ behind her back.  She was building, crafting and creating a legacy of future leaders and the culture she had constructed was one built on “her” strict interpretation of professionalism.  Like it or leave it!!

My mind raced to preview what I could have done to warrant this visit but before the tapes finished playing in my head…..she spoke.  “Winn, I am sending you home to change into something appropriate to this setting. I know where you live so you have one hour to return to center.” I was outraged at being reprimanded for my dress. I was a 34 year old darn woman who had some working years behind me. No one had ever sent me home for my attire….no one. I dare you to be dismissive of my decision of what to wear. I never just roll out of bed and somehow just fall into my cloths. No, my attire….what I wear, I give priority and thought to. (I thought in my head). She had totally unarmed me.

I looked at her for a second and tried hard to fane a blank (I heard you but it really did not phase me) expression and picked up my purse and said, “I will be right back.” Since that incident occurred some time ago, I cannot honestly detail what I had on that day. It could have been pants that she felt were not professional teamed with a blouse that she felt was too “low cut” or it could have been a dress that she considered too short. Who knows; but what I did know is that if I wanted to succeed in this environment I had to determine what was appropriate and wear it for her. Okay, I was a bit of a slow learner, basically because of my obstinacy, but I did get the lesson without too many bruises.

On my way home and then back to center, I kept asking myself, what does my dress have to do with my work ethics and how brilliantly I perform at my job? I kept coming up with the response that it didn’t. I read recently in a Business Insider article that, “in the big picture of ultimate reality, what one wears neither defines who you are as a person nor determines your value as a human being.” Even though I have been known to push the boundaries and fight back at established mores, I have had to initially bow down to some fiercely imbedded realities, people judge us by the we walk, talk, look and how we look includes how we dress. I just hate that reality but humans are humans and known to be subjectively objective …. and ….. fair is not always “fair.”

I worked in that environment for 19 years. The last 14 years under several other directors and at times (with her not being at the helm), I would slip back into my way of interpreting what is professional attire. Just let me add that my interpretations have changed with time and growing and aging and metamorphosing. Life affects our ideals and our temporal belief systems. If you don’t agree, you are still young and testing the waters.

I now work in a different environment and climate. Being in higher education I witness so many different nuances of professional dress. In some environments on campus it is all about ones intellect and degrees. This appears to give credence to ones degree of self-expression. So I welcomed being in this environment of individual expression and artistic interpretation. Dress is art, right? So I self-expressed.

I again had the talk……”in the workplace especially, clothing influences how others perceive and respond to you.” So we are back to a perceived reality …. back to where I started  this conversation. Perception is everything; whether you hate this reality or not. What we wear stands out in the minds of others. It is an indicator of how well adjusted we are, of how we are able to interpret the culture, and how we play by the rules. Are we always looking to bend them or can we conform to the established order? It drives others perception of our intelligence, trustworthiness, success rating, and suitability for promotion and advancement. Have I just happily jumped on the band wagon? Not really, without much inner turmoil, but at times a lot can be said about conformity.

I did feel a sense of relief when I visited the Comcast Center here in Philadelphia, where many of the offices are highly efficient despite the lack of a strict dress code. Business casual has become the new business formal and weekend wear is the new business casual. For some working environments more emphasis is being placed on productivity than “lookability.”  But for now I will ride the wave with the 1990’s research that correlates clothes with being smarter. Dr. Adam D. Galinsky, professor at Northwestern s Kellogg School of Management, coined the phrase “enclothed cognition.” His test findings concluded that “cloths invade the body and brain, putting the wearer into a different psychological state and makes others think you’re smarter.” For now, when I want to feel the “power”, I will suit up. When I feel powerful enough to push the confines of normalized organizational behavior, I will wear fish nets or black panty hose.