WGST classrooms not immune to prejudice

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WGST classrooms not immune to prejudice

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I debated whether or not I would write this article. However, I feel my only choice is to tell my truth, my whole truth about my experience. I am proud to be a Women’s and Gender Studies (WGST) and African American Studies double major. Ina Seethaler’s Introduction to Women’s and Gender Studies class showed me the writings of Audre Lorde, a famed black activist and womanist. Amanda Izzo’s Women, Faith and Social Action class exposed me to the faith-based activism of women from abolitionists like Angelica and Sarah Grimke, and Fannie Lou Hamer, a freedom fighter at the vanguard of the civil rights movement. While I have taken many formative classes in the department, and have been deeply inspired by many of my professors, my experience has been one rooted in racism, patriarchy and queerphobia – the very forces my department professes to resist.

My first experience with explicit and overt racism in a WGST classroom came last semester. In this particular class, my white male professor began speaking about so-called “black-on-black crime,” and how it was hurting the black community. After confronting him with the fact that crime across the board happens interracially, he told me that I was wrong and should consider actually looking at crime statistics.

My professor’s ignorance and white male narrative is not exclusive to him; rather, it represents larger institutional and systematic ideas about the value of black people, and black women in general. His condescending treatment of my perspective continued throughout the semester. At one point, he told me the historically racist “feminist” movement was, in fact, inclusive of black people from the beginning, and to suggest anything else was a rewriting of history. Never mind the fact that Susan B. Anthony, largely considered to be one of the Founding Mothers of this movement, said: “I will cut off this right arm of mine before I will ask for the ballot for the Negro and not for the woman.”

Now some of you may say, “Aren’t you overreacting?” Well, a WGST classroom is supposed to be a sanctuary from societal oppression. It is meant to be an academic space where it is appropriate to share our perspectives and stories, and to have them taken seriously. When my academic classroom becomes an unsafe place for me, as a black, queer woman, then we have a problem.

This professor was not my only encounter with oppression within the walls of my academic safe haven. On the first day of class this semester, my professor said that “Transgender is a sexual orientation,” and lesbian, gay and bisexual are gender identities. As a long-standing member of Rainbow Alliance and the queer community myself, I knew this information was not only incorrect, but perpetuates harmful stereotypes historically attributed to queer individuals.

A few weeks later, my fellow classmate claimed that the reason a black author used black colloquialisms in the book we read was because black women are not educated. My professor said nothing in response.

Some may say that my experiences with these particular professors are outliers. I question if that even matters. When I prepare myself for battle every time I step into a WGST classroom, that’s problematic. When I look to my left and right and never see another black student in these alleged “academic safe havens,” that’s problematic. When professors profess pedagogies of intersectionality, but do not understand how privilege and oppression work and operate on micro and systematic levels, that’s problematic. When white, “progressive” college professors wait until the end of the semester to talk about blackness, that’s problematic. When I have to step outside the WGST department and go to the African American Studies to be taught by a black professor, that’s problematic.

I want my sort-of safe haven to be a real safe haven. I love this department. I love the professors. I love my classmates. WGST should be a space that is safe and nurturing for ALL, and it’s just not that space right now. Feminism is not just for white women, so WGST shouldn’t be either.

My hope for WGST is that we heed the words of Audre Lorde when she wrote: “It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.”