Monday, January 20, 2014

Entering Troubled Spaces: Navigating Predominately White Classrooms as a Woman of Color

One semester, I walked into our classroom eager to get to know the students and to explore the content of the class. I walked into a room primarily filled with self-identified Euro-American, middle-class students. Including myself, there were three identified people of color. This is not necessarily new for me. For most of my career I’ve taught in White spaces.

As I distributed the syllabus something caught my eye. Sitting dead center in the classroom was a young woman. She appeared like the typical student. But there was something, something that made my breath catch in my throat. What drew my attention to this one student in particular was the scowl she wore. I’ve had students look at me cross-eyed from time to time. Shoot, I’ve even had a student throw paper at me as a means of expressing anger. But there was something compelling about this young lady. Something that brought me up short for a little bit. In that moment I had to take a mental break to regroup. Her stare was that intense.

I thought her expression would change once as the semester progressed. Well, I was wrong. For the entire semester, there she sat—dead center with a look of hatred permeating her essence. I decided that if she did not disturb the class then I would leave her to her feelings. However, I cannot say that this young woman didn’t have an affect on me. Now she might be an extreme case, just like the student who banged on my office door yelling “bitch” and other expletives. Regardless of how explicit or subtle these types of experiences, whether at the hands of students or colleagues, they affect us. They affect us in the short term and the long term. Sometimes, the affects are intense and at other times, they are subtle (see "Paper Cuts Hurt Too"). Regardless, we have to find space in our lives for living as a Black woman (or other minoritized body) in these primarily White classrooms.

What I offer are three tips that I hope will help you, over the course of the semester, navigate these spaces and create the space that you need.

Creating space. Creating space is not just about creating physical or even intellectual space. Others such as Manya Whitaker have documented the challenges women of color faculty members face in creating such space. However, what is sometimes missing in these discussions are other types of space that we need to create in our efforts to survive and thrive.

Creating space for me also involves the opening up of psychological space—a space where we can (re)affirm that we belong in these spaces that sometimes tell us other. Part of creating your space, in essence your sanctuary, might involve using essential oils in your office so that you can generate and encourage synergy between the senses. I combine scent, with music and visual reminders—art, books, etc.—to create a sense of wholeness in my office. One element of creating such space requires that we think critically of all that brings us joy, but not at a superficial level. I’m talking about the type of joy that reaches you deep down in your core.

Putting it into practice:

Pause for a moment and close your eyes. Ask yourself what can you do on a daily basis that (re)affirms you in what might be a troubled space. Don’t worry about what you think others might put on their list. Don’t worry about how your actions might be viewed by others. Have a moment of honesty with you so that you can reveal, in time, what nurtures you at your core. Listen to your heart not just your head. Write down the first thoughts that come to mind. Now, ask yourself, what can I do today, in a week, in a month to manifest these thoughts? If at first you cannot imagine what you might be able to do, then don’t force yourself. As you go through your day simply pay attention to what you do and how you feel and then reflect on how you might align your actions in a way that supports you.

Creating a mantra. Sometimes we find ourselves in situations where we can’t easily retreat, where we have to square our shoulders and keep moving forward. Again, using the case of the student I mentioned above, I had to continue teaching the class. Consequently I had to find a way of literally and figuratively shaking off her behavior each time I entered the classroom. In such situations we need to center ourselves, we need something that we can use to metaphorically bring us back and ground us. Creating a mantra was helpful during this time.

When mantras are silently repeated during meditation, they help us disconnect from the thoughts filling our mind and slip into the gap between thoughts. Think of mantras as ancient power words with subtle intentions that help us connect to spirit, the source of everything in the universe (Deepak.)

I don’t think that we have to wait for a period of meditation to benefit from a mantra. It is technique of simply being that we can deploy at any time. A mantra can be one word, a Bible (or other religious text) verse, or a song lyric. For me, the mantra has to have meaning that is reflective of the particular stage of my life cycle. In other words, it must resonate.

Putting it into practice

If you don’t already have a mantra you can review readings that resonated with you to help you create one. Again, pause for a moment, close your eyes, take a deep breath and allow your thoughts to flow. What invites you in and says, “come in and sit down”? What feeling do you want to focus on today, next week, next month? Sometimes, my mantra is one word “peace”. At other times, it’s a sentence. Once you have found a mantra that resonates with you, write it down.  Write it on note cards, on a note on your phone or computer. Put it some place (or in my case places) where you can see it and be reminded of it every day. Repeat it every day. Finally, don’t be afraid to change your mantra as needed. When you walk into a situation that makes your breath catch, or even before walking into such a space, repeat your mantra. When you are sitting in that meeting and something is said that makes you want to audibly gasp, repeat your mantra. Doing such creates space for us to invite other feelings/responses.

Being Vulnerable: Sometimes we need to create space for our vulnerabilities. This can be challenging given that academe constructs itself as a place of “non-emotion”.  One way we can find an opening in this environment is to rely on our ancestors and the wisdom they have left behind for us. The wisdom of our ancestors provides us with a means of breaking the silence around our experiences. Recently, I found myself relying on the wisdom of Audre Lorde to get through a rather racist/sexist/classist/misogynistic episode. I felt as though I had been abandoned and I simply could not articulate my feelings. Others reached out to me, but I needed to retreat for a moment and allow myself to feel that my feet were once again planted. I cannot explain how I meandered my way to the writings of Audre Lorde, but I did. In her words I found comfort, theory, explanations, and a voice. She showed me a way out of the muting that I was experiencing. And so I clung to her words until I was ready to expose my vulnerability and hurt to others.

Putting it into practice

Again, take a pause for reflection. As painful a this might be, reflect on a moment that caused you pain. Sometimes, it’s easy to stop there and put most of the focus on the external event, without thinking of what really caused pain. I encourage you to not only focus on the first level pain, but also what underlies this pain. As you do this, you have to practice what I think is key to being vulnerable—self-love. So as you allow yourself a moment to think of this situation—do so without judgment of self or others. The goal is to simply gather information. Once we can be vulnerable, we can begin to heal. This is where Audre Lorde became important for me. Her writings offered me that healing space. Who might you turn to help you through your healing process? Who has articulated your pain in a way that allows you to recognize your pain and that gives you the words to articulate such pain? Who gives you a way out of that pain? Once you have identified the pain and nurtured yourself in the words of your ancestors, consider writing your story and sharing it with others. Give others an opportunity to be vulnerable so that we can collectively heal.

The above strategies have helped me to negotiate the often trouble spaces I encounter as a Black woman in predominately White classrooms. What I can tell you is that the key to it all is my willingness to be honest—to be honest when I am not able to endure the challenges of being a Black, immigrant, woman in academe; to be honest, when I need others to help “carry” me. It is this honesty, at and individual and institutional level, that allows me to survive and thrive and to have some level of success in academia. I wish you all a healthy semester.


  1. I often feel this when I walk into the class room to teach. Recently I was told I should take a sensitive course and could not teach anymore course until I attend the course. I was unable to attend the course because of the illness and death of my Mother and was dismissed.

  2. Dear Anita: I'm so sorry to hear of your experience. The spaces we operate in can at times cause us great angst. I hope that you have found a way to move forward and have found in an environment that values your humanity.