Last week, I held a video conference with one of my distance learning students to discuss her last two papers for the writing course she was taking from me. One paper instructs the students to write an analysis of a word’s origin and history, the other is a traditional research essay. In discussing the etymology of her word, American, she said that she was interested in the changes to the concept of nationality as an American, particularly in context of immigration. I nodded enthusiastically, and then I made a fateful statement: “You could also think about this in the context of the phrase ‘Make America Great Again,’ particularly because we’ve come to see that it’s really referring to white America.”
My student nodded, and I could see the wheels turning. “Do you mean I can talk about politics in my essays? I’ve tried to avoid getting too political in my essays.”
I replied, “Absolutely, you can.” I paused for a brief second, weighing whether or not to say what I really wanted to include. I try to be neutral, I try to be nice to students who fall into different political camps, I try to keep communication open, and I try not to ignite inflammatory sentiments from unstable students in an effort to preserve my life and those of my other students. But sensing that my student had a need, I decided to forge on. My intuition told me that this was no time to be afraid. I added, “I don’t see how we can avoid politics, especially in this administration.”
She gave a quick laugh, and then she launched into what she was really thinking about for the paper: the idea of “American” and the racist ways in which it has been configured, especially recently. It was a terrific argument, but I was completely startled. Where had this been? Would she have mentioned it if I hadn’t said anything? It makes sense, though. She is a woman of color, and I am a white woman. 55% of white women voted for Donald Trump, a statistic I will bear with shame for the rest of my life, even though I ardently voted for and support Hillary Clinton. There is a major power inequity between us, not only because she is my student and I am her professor, but because I am white and she is dark-skinned. By virtue of my skin color, I hold social capital that she must fight to possess—and, frankly, may never possess for reasons that are never her fault. Because I am her professor, I can exploit her race and mine and cloak them under excuses: “insubordination,” “disrespect,” and other disgusting terms that hide fragile hurt feelings, guilt, and defensiveness.
Therefore, it is up to me to bridge the divide and invite her freedom of expression, even if—especially if—she disagrees with me.
And this is why I spoke up. I felt that it was crucial to let her know that her ideas have a place at this table and that it is my responsibility to hear them with professional respect. The rest of the conference was an eager and engaged dialogue about how she would organize her ideas. We ended with a brief note about the research essay (problems in bullying) and how much I looked forward to reading her final work.
Today, I read her research essay. From the very first page, she discussed the way Donald Trump bullied women, the way he bullied Hillary Clinton. Sexual assaults by Bill Cosby and Brock Turner. The way men bully and abuse and exploit women for their own gain and get away with it time and time again. It was a powerful moment of reckoning, because it relayed the routine contemporary injustices that she faces, that we face, as women. I don’t think I’ve read something this angry before—but what a genuine, necessary anger it is. It’s anger at being held hostage to fear, anger at mistreatment, anger at the minor and major injustices enacted against women by virtue of their gender. How long has she had to hold on to this anger alone? How long must she have hidden behind a “brave” face, because she knows the retributions for expressing herself are swift and brutal and even more damaging than hiding?
I never understand the power that vulnerability holds until I find myself in conversations or situations in which I make a choice to be vulnerable (often at very little cost to myself) and then invite my students to do the same—knowing that the stakes for them are much higher than they are for me. I remain respectful when they do not reciprocate, because I can only guess at the kinds of social and cultural chess matches in which they are enmeshed in all their personal and professional relationships. But when they accept my invitation and share, I have learned to sit and hold their words, because it is the very least I can do.
I write this, because it’s reminded me of the solemn duty I must acquit every day as a Christian feminist professor: to treat other students with fairness and respect and to cultivate a safe environment in which to invite their intellectual honesty, even if, especially if, it makes me uncomfortable.
In the weeks following the 2016 Presidential Election, I careened between fear and hurt. I sobbed over stories of naked bigotry and racism, over the hurtful words of a minority white population who had spent eight years being angry that a black man became one of our most beloved and popular presidents of all time. I worried over my safety and that of my fellow women, cis and trans, straight and queer. I kept my tone in class as politically neutral as I could muster, venturing to make a few “safe” statements in the spring. But I knew, somehow, that it wasn’t enough. It’s taken me a long time to emerge from the fear and face it without flinching, but what has awakened me is seeing other women, less privileged women, dealing with that same fear at far greater cost to themselves and with greater consequences than I would face. Surely I cannot leave them to carry this fight alone.
Conversing with young women (and women of color especially) has taught me that in order for them to be safe, I must not be safe. I must take enormous risks for them, because they cannot and I can. I must take up the torch for those of my friends who are in much more vulnerable positions than I, and so I must make the most of my cisgender, able-bodied, straight white privilege and channel it in ways that help people who are not me. Crucially, I must do so without fanfare or acclaim, because acknowledgment of my part in this fight is not the point of fighting. I cannot be silent, and so, I am moving into this next semester with fearlessness, determined to be as judicious and fair, yet vulnerable and honest, as I can possibly be.
This, my friends, is a time for boldness.
*If you are white and would like an excellent resource, I highly recommend Robin DiAngelo’s What Does It Mean To Be White? which helped me frame and understand my privilege in the classroom.
**If the concept of female “anger” is uncomfortable to you, I urge you to read Laurie Penny’s essay, “Most Women You Know Are Angry–And That’s All Right.”
***You may notice and want to point out that I do not address male students in this post. I absolutely do engage with male students in respectful and open ways and wish to address this, but that’s a completely different post and requires a different kind of focus and vulnerability in light of gender power dynamics. What I’m saying is, stay tuned! I’m already thinking about the next post. 🙂
****Finally, for the sake of disclosure, I do monitor my comments, because this is my private blog. I accept respectful conversation and disagreement, I do not accept trolls or porn bots.