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Why is a white woman teaching a black feminism writing class?

small girl, big ideas

This year, for first-years taking the Fall 2019 Writing 101 courses, a course called “Black Feminism in Pop Culture” was offered. The course explores topics such as intersectionality, how black women continue to be marginalized today, popular cultural movements like #Blackgirlmagic, and more. What is interesting about this course is that a white woman, Jessica Covil, is teaching this class, which analyzes historical and current issues of race and inequality through a black feminist lens. To understand more about the dynamics of a white woman teaching this course, I contacted Jessica Covil to ask her a few questions about her perspective on teaching and advocating for black feminism. 

When I asked Covil about the course as a whole, she stated that “Teaching writing through a Black feminist lens offers a mode of inquiry that might differ from other Writing 101 courses. In it, one finds an attention to self, an impulse to build through community, an understanding of legacy and linkage across distinct time periods, and much more.” In this statement, Covil essentially frames the black feminist lens as not individual to a black feminist, but an overall manner of thinking. 

When I asked her about how she felt her role fits into the discussion of black feminism, she responded that she is “merely hoping to contribute what [she has]—in intellect, in creativity, in empathy, in energy.” Covil’s intentions and her professionalism regarding her role as a teacher in this field seem well-founded. However, I still continue to question the true validity of the empathy one can have when describing the social identities of a marginalized group in which they have not understood the collective experience. 

At Duke, this issue is not only embodied in the one instance of a white woman teaching a black feminism course. In fact, upon coming here, I was surprised to stumble across a larger culture in which people try to be too “woke.” Super-liberal, non-marginalized people attempt to involve themselves in the narratives and struggles of marginalized communities to a questionable degree. In a way that may be masked by good intent, their advocacy for other groups can actually replace the voices of those who actually possess that identity. 

I don’t want to single out this specific course because I think that in a way, this example, although glaring in the sense that it has occurred on an institutional level, is realistically a less extreme example in the way that Covil has maintained a distant stance. One student from her class made the observation that she never speaks about her own experiences in relation to the plight of black feminists. However, this student also explained that Covil has not experienced how her background affects her understanding and credibility about the subject in general, which is something that should be addressed. 

Yet on a student level, I believe this happens in a more blatant way. In an attempt to support the plights of different marginalized groups, some people try to overlook their own privilege in order to occupy a position of empowerment for these communities. 

It can be big things like assuming what communities of color want on campus or it can be the little things, like when that one white heterosexual male goes “Ugh, white people are the worst.”

When I hear something like this, I roll my eyes. Okay Chad, how would you understand the reality of white oppression in a way that makes that statement genuine to your own perspective?  Instead of acknowledging their identity in conjunction with their perspective, some people try to adopt the assumed viewpoints of marginalized people in some type of outwardly show of social liberalism.

Furthermore, in an attempt to swoop in and be a voice of power for these communities, these people actually may take opportunities away from those with marginalized identities who have a deeper connection to the issue. Cashawn Thompson, who first popularized the #BlackGirlMagic movement, stated that “At its core, the purpose of this movement is to create a platform where women of color can stand together against the stereotyping, colourism, misogyny and racism that is often their lived experience.” 

If a white woman without this lived experience is teaching students, specifically students of color, about this cultural movement, are the deepest cultural impacts and relevance really still there?

Don’t get me wrong, it’s great that people with privilege support those with marginalized identities. However, at the same time, people do need to respect the boundaries and acknowledge how their identity defines their perspective. Sometimes, you really do have to just stay in your lane, especially when it comes to collective experiences of race, identity, sexuality, and gender that one simply does not have. 

At the end of the day, being woke is cool. It’s important for people to be aware of issues concerning racial and social injustice. But being woke to the point where one ignores the reality of their non-marginalized identity and takes key positions advocating for the plight of other communities can be detrimental. 

This performative wokeness takes the focus off those who understand and have a real, lived connection with personal issues of racial and social injustice. And in this way, it’s not helping anyone at all. We need to all be aware of our identities, experiences, and perspectives and not try to overstep those of others in order to be seen as this beacon of empowerment and social liberalism. In communities that are not your own, you don’t need to scream; not everyone needs to hear your voice. Sometimes, it’s better to just listen. 

Sana Pashankar is a Trinity first-year. Her column, small girl, big ideas, runs on alternate Fridays.

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