It’s finals week! And I finally finished all the pre-finals grading last week. One of my students, a white woman, wrote in her event reflection paper, “Two articulate intelligent black teenagers spoke about the impact of gun violence in their lives.”
I was triggered. So I provided feedback on her paper that these words “articulate intelligent black teenagers” can be quite triggering and asked, “Why wouldn’t youth selected to speak at a large public assembly be both articulate and intelligent?”
The student emailed me with great respect and asked genuine questions, to which I just spent the last hour responding to her thoughtful comments and questions. Teaching is not easy. It’s a very personal and challenging art form with which I continue to struggle and immensely enjoy. Here is my email to the student…
Thanks for your thoughtful response to my questions and feedback. I appreciate that you’re struggling with understanding your emotions in reaction to the event. It’s not always easy to understand emotional reactions. However, I encourage you to keep struggling to do so, because it is an important task in participating in and reaffirming social justice and to be a change agent.
With regard to your comments:
"I could have been silent on race and intellect and made the same point without being triggering. This gets to a comment you kept coming back to during class…..intent vs. impact. I keep thinking about this and trying to figure out if/when my impact is negative in my interacts when my heart/intent are not.
I am curious, if I was non-white and wrote what I wrote, would the words be as triggering? Would you or others question my intent? Are triggers triggers regardless of their source/author?”
These are really good thoughts and questions. Let me first answer your questions by saying that if you were not white, the comment would still be triggering for me. I end with “for me,” because I can only comment on how I react to these descriptors of Black youth. Working in predominantly non-white spaces in New Orleans and Los Angeles, I have heard such comments about young people of color (not just Black youth), and I do cringe regardless of the source/author. I think perhaps part of it is that for me I’ve too often seen people in general assume that young people of color cannot be intelligent and articulate. For me, it truly short changes the amazing contributions these youth can make to all facets of society.
With that said, I do also believe that it is important when we are interested in social justice work to always be reminded of our identities (target and privileged) in how our words can be received within the interplay and intersections of terrains of social interactions. Like you, I have multiple identities. As an Asian American, perceived to be young/professionally inexperienced, highly educated, faculty member with power over students’ grades but with limited power within the rank and file of her workplace, U.S. born child of immigrants, an American with all legal rights of U.S. citizenship but often perceived to be a foreigner, cisgender straight woman, Christian, temporarily able-bodied … my list of identities (target and privileged) could go on and on. At any given moment in any given social interaction/context, my words can have great power or no/limited power, both intended and unintended. It is extremely challenging to constantly reflect on the different dimensions of my identities and how they can influence or cause how another person (with all of that person’s identities) within our social interaction can be affected by my words or actions. Despite these challenges, I continue to reflect on them even when I feel wary because I am committed to social justice.
At the same time, I am often reminded of my blind spots, which can bring me down. For example, I recently had a social interaction with someone who is a Masters student at a program at another school that reminded me of the multiplicity of my identities. On the one hand I felt that the young white male masters student had disrespected me, and from what I could gather it was because I am an Asian American woman. In response, I used my faculty identity and power to shut him down, out of my own quick anger. Was it just for me to do this? It was certainly, in the moment, very satisfying. However, I regret my response now that I realize the extent of the power my faculty identity had on him. I continue to reflect on the layers of identity and power I have as an educator. I recognize that I continue to be a work in progress. We’re all human. We’ll always be imperfect works in progress. So as I reflect on my power in my new identity as a faculty member, I continue to work on coming to terms with the new responsibilities that come with this new privileged identity.
In the same way, I hope that you will continue to reflect on your multiple identities, including what it means to be a white woman. While the “intelligent and articulate Black youth” comments in your reflection paper would have been triggering for me regardless of who wrote them, this fact should not be a barrier to your continued struggle to reflect on and understand your identities and the difference between intentions and impacts in complex social interactions. The fact that you are white brings an additional depth to your words, because of the privilege and power you have that comes from our social system of whiteness. And with great power comes great responsibility (yes, I just quoted Spider Man’s Aunt May).
Thank you for your thoughtful comments and questions, R. They challenged me to engage in my own process of continued reflection. I hope this email will support and push you to continue your own process.
Good luck with the rest of your finals.