I walk into my African American History class with coffee in hand, heaving my purse onto the floor. I am always anxious in this class, and I am resenting it now. I am the pariah in this class. I am the angry one. I mentally prepare myself for another three hours discussing what I already know about society. I do not know if I wanted to be reminded. As a Chicana, I am tired of “progressivism” that doesn’t seem to address real issues I experience at the intersections. Academia is one of those spaces.
Students start to pile into the classroom. The professor, who sits in front of the classroom, smiles widely. This smug man, steward for freedom of expression, hands neatly placed in front of him, notes ready, pretends to listen to a student. How opportune to sit another day at the front of the classroom as a grand facilitator of knowledge. I am already over this class. But I ponder if it is my arrogance or lack of patience that is causing my resentment. I kick myself for being too critical about how power is distributed in the room. I am desperate to know more about how to heal, and how other people negotiate with racism, sexism, heterosexism, and classism. I want to learn to not be angry anymore.
I thought it would be an interesting semester with this self-professed “feminist” professor of color teaching the course; however, each class meeting I lose hope. Today, we are going to continue our discussion on stereotypes of men and women in contemporary hip-hop videos. We tread over familiar ground about how women are perceived to be “slutty.” Some of the students comment that not all black women are “slutty.” But isn’t this acknowledging that there are some women who are? I begin to protest in my mind but my body language says it for me first. “Slut” suggests women should be ashamed to follow our desires. I hope the professor responds to this. Instead, he agrees.
Chicana theorist Ana Castillo writes that “we exist in the void, en ausencia, and surface rarely, usually in stereotype.” I have always felt the intense need to categorize myself in a neat box. There has long been justifications for shaming us. In this academic space, I want to pull it apart. I wear my corazon outside of my chest, and I tell myself, “I am not alone.”
As the conversation ebbs and flows, a woman raises her hand to contribute to the discussion. “The other day I went to pick up my son from school. I was dressed in a really cute tight dress. He later told me that he didn’t like the way the dads were looking at me. I am not going to wear that dress again in front of him!” I recently went through something like this with my younger brother. I went to his school to watch his football game. It happened to be a hot Texas day and I didn’t realize I was getting “attention” until my brother gave me a large t-shirt to cover my cleavage. He did this passively, but it perpetuated my own insecurity about my large breasts. My brother told me, “My friends were making fun of you.” He didn’t mean to sexualize my body but it happened. I internalized the idea that I am an object for lust and possession.
Naturally, I tell my story to the class. My honesty can be a blessing and it can be a curse. It is chaos. I receive dirty looks from a woman two rows in front of me. A woman behind me quickly tells me I am wrong for believing I should be able to wear what I choose without fear or persecution. “Boys will be boys,” they tell me. “You cannot enter into teenage boy’s world.” This is painful. We were discussing dismantling racist structures and institutions so that women can become empowered. Now, I am told I have to accept the patriarchal ways of society in order to avoid conflict.
I make eye contact with the professor hoping he will facilitate this discussion to encourage an honest and safe space. It doesn’t happen. Instead, the professor tries to mediate the situation by telling the class, “Please do not say anything too personal, you may not like the comments you receive.” The professor limits my freedom of expression and he breaks my heart. I am disillusioned because this space is designed for discussion, yet there are limits to what I can disclose. Eventually, I muster the courage to tell this African American history professor, and the class, something which I have barely accepted myself. I am going to make this a safe space even if I cry. “As a queer woman of color, I would like a more inclusive space for me to share my own experiences that relate to the history of the civil rights movement.” He doesn’t know what to say and gives the class a break.
I recover silently. I gave that classroom everything I could offer. Between the lines of my self-righteousness and arrogance, I told them I needed them, as much as they needed me. We needed each other to think through the workings of patriarchy. But I also needed the space to be safe. A safe space doesn’t mean every student in the class has to agree with me; it means there is a facilitator who understands divisive social constructs, who can identify and intervene when students engage in oppressive narratives, who can guide every person to share without fear of being attacked. I wanted an opportunity to share what it means to identify as a queer working class woman of color. All of these identities that shape my understanding of history were ultimately ignored. A feeling I’m very familiar with.