Thriving in Hostile Territory: Black Feminism in the College Classroom

1 Jul

In the spirit of Janie and Phoeby, CFs Robin and Crunktastic offer our joint reflections on Robin’s particularly grueling experience in the classroom this past week.

There Will Always Be One–Robin’s Story

I realized this after teaching my first class six years ago and having a student challenge me for the first time, questioning my credibility.  And with that initial challenge came many nights of continued debates in my head about whether or not I had the capacity to open myself up to be judged and evaluated in ways that continually and perpetually make me feel less than qualified because my route has been across dirt roads and not paved ones…


And despite my ability to transform minds and challenge notions of what is “right,” my mama always told me that you can’t please everybody, so what is the point in trying to?  And she said the most important changes I can implement are the ones welcomed with open arms.

My arms, wrapped around my entire body, could hardly contain the internalized pain of the many ways and times I have been the target of somebody else’s frustrations or insecurities.  I am not prepared to carry the weight of all this anger, shame, guilt, pity, confusion, insolence, indifference…

Last semester I was told that two of my students stated to a colleague that while they were sure I was smart, it didn’t come across in the classroom.  I was dismayed and wondered how I could ever come across as “not smart” (with over ten years of training and four university degrees).  I swallowed the criticism in alarm and it joined the other wrongs I have consumed.  My belly is so full of air (my anger) and pity (other people’s bullsh*t) that I sometimes feel pregnant.  And because I am a black woman who writes and speaks authoritatively about lived experience and “grown up words” (like racism and sexism), I am immediately implicated. My body is implicated. My authority is implicated. My intelligence is questioned.

My academic mother reminded me today that I have to find ways to restructure critiques so that they don’t feel like personal attacks, and she said there will always be…


generally clothed in skin and sex opposite mine, predictably white and male, and assuming his white maleness substitutes and/or trumps my black femaleness and degrees.  We struggle for legitimacy.


It has repeated itself in my classes for years.  The generally quiet or silently passive aggressive student rises with a voice of dissent against the majority who feel fortunate to have had a space in the room, a voice in the space…  The attacks have come in assignments (so much so that I have had to add a stipulation in my syllabus that prevents students from using reflective assignments to critique me or the class) and in public statements…like today…seeking an audience for the words of war wielded at me like weapons, and waiting for a response.  But I bite my tongue, hold my composure, and don’t give them the pleasure of acknowledgment or the agency of engagement.  I am not the


And I recognize that the enemy is there all along, camouflaged as an ally, seeming to be open to the progressive politics of classes that challenge privileged positions and attitudes…


who claims my class is sophomoric, my positions unjustified, my rhetoric violent…


And I hear ratemyprofessor says I am an extremist feminist (feminist, yes, extreme, no) who does not dress appropriately (whatever that means) but is nonetheless




I count…




and multiplying,

all the while standing in front of the class in stilettos and jean shorts, long enough to cradle my thigh but not touch my knees, and a tee shirt…

because my wardrobe doesn’t have a damn thing to do with my big ass brain…

and come up with


two, three, four, five black folk in the room who are counting with me.  We are always outnumbered, and there is still inevitably


in the room.

And I generally hold my composure because the last thing I want to do is reiterate an assumption about black women in general as angry or aggressive or crazy…

even though sometimes I feel crazy

in rooms of supposed normalcy

in a culture where the ideology of normality,


and mythical norms claim I don’t know what I am talking about…

But mama said there will always be one…

and she ain’t never lied.

Shake That Load Off: Unbearable Weight–Crunktastic’s Response

The biggest lie ever told is “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt.”

Bullsh*t. Life and death, as the proverb goes, is in the power of the tongue. Yet on a regular basis, women of color in the academy are forced to confront words, discourses, and wagging tongues that would so soon relegate us to the land of the dead. In those moment’s we need our Phoeby’s, our friends who we can trust to take our words and our experiences and treat them, and by extension, us with the care that others are so unwilling to give.

The authority signaled by our degrees and job titles will not protect any woman-of-color from the inevitable challenges, resistance, and downright disrespect she will encounter in a college classroom. Black bodies have never been viewed as repositories of knowledge. Female bodies have never been capable of dispensing rational ideas. Taken together, Black women in the classroom walk directly into a hodgepodge of stereotypes that can literally feel suffocating.

In these moments, we need to remind ourselves that:

1.)  We do our students, our colleagues, and ourselves no favors by doing others’ emotional labor for them.

2.)  Resistance to the truths we speak, truths of our experience, make them no less true.

3.)  Our goal and our purpose is to educate, not defend.

4.)  Everyone won’t like us no matter how hard we try.

5.)  Liberation is a process, not a singular event.

Dr. Alexis Pauline Gumbs helped me to understand this concept of emotional labor when she came to visit my Black Feminist Thought class this past spring. We had read Audre Lorde’s famous essay on parenting, “Man Child,” in which she wrote about the challenges of raising a future Black man. “I wish,” she wrote, “to raise a Black man who will recognize that the legitimate objects of his hostility are not women, but the particulars of a structure that programs him to fear and despise women as well as his own Black self. For me this task begins with teaching my son that I do not exist to do his feeling for him.” Lorde refused to be anyone’s emotional beast of burden, even her own son’s.

Black women, women of color, we need to take heed not only in our lives, but also in our professions. We do not exist to do anyone’s feeling for them: not our partners, not our friends, not our students or colleagues, not the random folks we encounter daily who attempt to draw upon our supposed deep wells of empathy.

Yes, our work requires a fair amount of emotional labor, of radical empathy, of critical commiseration and sustenance. But frequently, we confront the reality of illegitimate emotional labor—that which the person is perfectly capable of handling, but instead places upon you as a “natural,” if unwilling surrogate. We must learn in this case to make a critical distinction between their “stuff” and our “stuff.”

With our less-evolved students and colleagues, we must not do their work for them. We must not internalize their reactionary, emotionally driven critiques and criticisms of us, our work, our politics, our teaching style, our style of dress, or any other ridiculous vitriolic targets they can imagine. We must not be willing targets of our students’ and colleagues’ misguided rage. We have to recognize such attacks for what they are—attempts to make us do someone else’s work—be it internal or external—for them. The transfer attempt has been successful at the moment that you leave a space weighed down and stressed out, while your student or colleague leaves feeling vindicated, uber-rational, and oh-so-wrong.

Sometimes such attempts will present in ridiculous end-of-semester, hail mary requests  for all kinds of accommodations: make up tests, make-up assignments, sob stories that will induce you to excuse the student from his or her assignments, and angry outbursts when you refuse to crack.  This, too, is the kind of labor that we should reject.

And let me toss this in for free: Black men’s status as an “endangered species” is also not a legitimate reason to become their emotional whipping posts.

We all have to carry our own emotional load. Gone are the days when black women’s bodies, minds and spirits are the beasts of burden able to carry the load of the world. That kinda labor might make us stronger in the short run, but in an even shorter run than everyone else, it kills us. In fact, let’s retire that “If it doesn’t kill us mentality.” I reject the notion that the only strength worth having is the one I must risk my life for.  Hear this: if it ain’t a labor of love which brings forth life, abort it. Quickly. Your life depends on it.

A little Outkast is appropriate on this one I think. . .


13 Responses to “Thriving in Hostile Territory: Black Feminism in the College Classroom”

  1. Gloria July 1, 2010 at 7:35 AM #

    Great post, ladies! Especially love, “I reject the notion that the only strength worth having is the one I must risk my life for. Hear this: if it ain’t a labor of love which brings forth life, abort it. Quickly. Your life depends on it.” And thanks for introducing me to an Outkast track I wasn’t familiar with; it’s very fitting

  2. Erika July 1, 2010 at 8:31 AM #

    OMG. Thank you both for writing this. Although my career field is outside the world of academia, the attitudes and actions still persist. And for a sista who has chosen not to go “natural” and nix the face paint, with the exception of gloss and occassional eye liner and mascara, with an afro that is finally righteous in all its massive glory, I feel you!

    I simply say, Thanks! Because this could easily become an essay in itself.

  3. beatrice July 1, 2010 at 11:59 AM #

    Thank you for posting this- i wept as i read it for it is the lived life of so many of us in academia. i’m the only blk prof at a small liberal arts college and face the barrage that you articulate daily. coupled with the self doubt it makes me wanna holla, scream, throw erasers and leave. thanks for reminding me i aint the only one. this is why i love this site.

    carry on sistahs!!

  4. Phil July 1, 2010 at 6:16 PM #

    thank god i found this site is all i have to say. passing it along.

  5. Rasool July 1, 2010 at 6:49 PM #

    Right on, and Thank You… Your strength is contagious. I can’t relate @ all but I think I understand. The only thing I’m sure of is that your strength is contagious, thanks again.

  6. [dave] July 4, 2010 at 9:24 AM #

    “your strength is contagious” … cosign. thanks for persevering and writing about it.

  7. rboylorn July 5, 2010 at 9:17 PM #

    thank you for all of your comments and feedback. the moments of vulnerability i describe having had in the classroom leave me feeling wounded–and i couldn’t capture every tear that fell from my eyes in reaction to the disrepect, disregard, and dissemination of ignorance and intentional unlearning of the things i reached deep within and without to speak. and while i am concentrating on focusing on the greater percent of students who are thankful for the experience and opportunity to talk about diversity and strategies for learning how to communicate about and across difference in our ever changing world, there may always be a hater. i am grateful (for the cfs and for this site as an outlet and open space) that there will also always be an ally. your kind words and empathic understanding has truly touched me…and your strength, grouped with mine, is indeed contagious! 🙂 let’s spread the word! 😉

  8. Heather July 6, 2010 at 8:04 PM #

    I try to hold onto a saying once passed on to me, “never let anyone rent space in your head for free” in those moments, but it’s much easier to quip in a nice mantra than to actually evict them and lock up the mind.

    Thank you for the very intelligent, thoughtful posts. I have these challenges all the time (also the recipient of a comment on ratemyprofessor that I dress too “informally for someone who insists on being called Dr. instead of Miss”). It can be hard enough to get out of bed and into class as a white woman. I can only imagine the extra exhaustion of the soul for my colleagues of color. For what it’s worth, I am so glad to have you at my sides and to do my best to be at your backs.

  9. cellardoor10 July 7, 2010 at 5:44 PM #

    Thanks so much for this post – a lot to think about, even now that I have left academia.

  10. Ben July 13, 2010 at 7:07 PM #

    That is a great post. I have a sense of how hostile it can be. I teach in the Business school and I get plenty of flack for pointing out white male privilege even though many will admit that it exists. I also enjoy privilege which means I am able to walk away without the weight that students place on you.

    Thank you for what you do.

  11. amandaburnett October 11, 2010 at 5:01 PM #

    A very good post that definately left me thinking.


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