My senior class has started studying the literature of the Romantic period. One can’t study the Romantic period without discussing the treatment of women during that period and the literature that was produced as a result. Therefore, one of the assigned reading topics was “The Vindication of the Rights of Woman” by Mary Wollstonecraft. Anyhoo, to shorten this a bit, the reading of this article set off a class debate on what makes a woman feminine.
Let me give you some background. I teach in a predominantly white high school in a community in rural Maryland notorious for its persistent racist attitudes. This is the area where I grew up and left 14 years ago vowing never to return, only to find myself back in this place and encountering the same attitudes and intolerance. However, I’m a different person now. Right? I don’t let those attitudes affect me in anyway, because I know they’re born out of ignorance. Right?
In order for a discussion on feminism to ensue, we had to establish what we all thought constituted feminism. While embarking on this discourse, I asked students to cut out images of what they thought represented femininity and masculinity. After reviewing and discussing the images, I began to notice something. So I proceeded to probe a little deeper. Now, I must say that at this point I probably should’ve just left well enough alone, but that’s never been my M.O. when it comes to intellectual discussions. I like to know what makes people think the way they do. Therefore, I proceeded to ask my students if they thought Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey, and a few other well known brown skinned women, were feminine. And much to my chagrin, they all said no. Asked why and one young man said, “Because they’re not pretty.” And I asked why didn’t he consider them pretty. He said he didn’t know. I knew better than that. I asked him and the entire class, “Do you purport that these women are not feminine or beautiful because of their skin color?” Crickets…for about 10 seconds and then…pandomonium. My two brown students were livid and all the female students were dumbstruck with rage. And I…was speechless… for about 10 seconds and then, I too, was livid.
I was no longer looking out in a classroom of all white faces. I was now looking at the faces of the black men that feel the same way. I was now looking at the face of every black professional athlete or entertainer who has suggested the very same thing through their words, their actions, their videos, and their CD covers. I was looking in the face of the black boys I grew up with who made me feel and sometimes told me how unattractive I was because of my skin tone. I was staring deep into the eyes of all the times I was passed over, looked over, downright ignored by black men as they strolled pass with their lighter, white mates and acted as if my presence ruined their perfect picture. And in that moment, it all came to a head. In that moment, I felt extreme pain and frustration. I wasn’t livid. I was hurt. This young man was simply there carrying a message that I had gotten from black men years before. I am not good enough. And I couldn’t look at him any longer. I couldn’t look at them any longer. I wanted them out of my class room. They had to go. But I’m the teacher, I have to be emotionally controlled and besides, this is a class discussion. And I’ve created a safe space for these kinds of discussions. My students don’t get judged or punished for sharing their opinions, no matter how much I may disagree. Unfortunately, the teacher me had stepped out and the little girl me was there and she was hurt and angry and feeling very vulnerable in front of people who thought she was ugly. I explained to him that I couldn’t believe he felt that way and I provided a little history behind this particular vein of thought. By this time, a co-worker came in and we both began to try to explain why this kind of thinking is hurtful. And then, thankfully, the bell rang. The student, who made the comment, hung around for a bit, obviously privvy to the fact that I was upset and hoping to smooth things over. But I eventually told him, and not so nicely, to leave. *sigh*
But I understand that it all had to happen in order for me to continue on this particular path of evolution. After all, I’m EmittingLove, literally and in the figurative sense as well. I can’t just propose to emit love under ideal conditions, when my love is welcomed and accepted. I must emit love even when it’s the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do and toward the most unloving of subjects. I can’t say that we all need to be more tolerant and then turn around and practice that very thing which I am against – intolerance. No. I knew I had to gain the lesson in this and quickly. I’ll share with you my 5 step process on how to love the, seemingly, unlovable in my next blog entry.