If You Think You’re Giving Students of Color a Voice, Get Over Yourself

Photo credit: William Stitt
Miss, miss! What the C.O. toldju about us? They already gettin’ in y’all heads right?
Miss, we human! I’m a human! We have families….
-Rikers Island Youth Workshop Participant

The walls on Rikers Island are the same as the walls in my high school. In a facility six security check-points deep, where it takes myself and my team of social justice educators over 1.5 hours to get from the first screening to the classroom where we run a workshop with a small group of incarcerated adolescent boys, the walls are the same style of brick as every inner-city school I have ever attended or visited. While I am struck by the visceral effects of this very concrete reality for these young men who have attended public schools across the five boroughs, I am not at all surprised. Still, within the physical, psychological, and emotional confines of this space that they navigate daily, I am the one who often feels the deep constraints of internalized social attitudes and perspectives about young Black and Brown men, who they are, what they need, and how they should be engaged within the context of the classroom. The possibilities of our time together are tethered to my internal work — The shedding of any savior complexes and constant collective reflection with the team to live in the tensions and questions of our work as critical educators.

So imagine my horror when on a recent phone call, a white educator who expressed interest in my youth development work, squealed with congratulations and awe for the way that we “give so many young people voice.” Her words were deeply disturbing, but hardly surprising. Grateful that in our last email I chose the ‘phone call’ over the ‘in-person’ or ‘facetime’ option for our meeting, I rolled my eyes, and promptly ended the call.

I should not have ended this call. I should have said to this woman, “if you think you’re giving students of color a voice, get over yourself”… then hung up the phone.

So what’s the big deal? Why get caught up on words when you know that kind well-meaning woman only meant to celebrate the work that you are doing?

Some of the most deeply problematic issues of inequity within the field of education are sustained by well-meaning people embracing progressive politics without intentional frameworks of self-reflection to guide their praxis in a healthy direction.

Here’s the problem:

  1. It’s paternalistic. Webster’s defines paternalism as, “the attitude or actions of a person, organization, etc., that protects people and gives them what they need but does not give them any responsibility or freedom of choice?” The idea of “giving” students voice, especially when it refers to students of color, only serves to reify the dynamic of paternalism that renders Black and Brown students voiceless until some salvific external force gifts them with the privilege to speak. Rather than acknowledge the systemic violences that attempt to silence the rich voices, cultures, and histories that students bring into classrooms, this orientation positions students, and by extension, the communities of students, as eternally in need of institutional sanctioning.
  2. Paternalism was a huge part of the rationale for slavery. When we operate with the mindset that we are “giving” students voice, we align ourselves with a deeply problematic and historic orientation. So much of the rationale for oppression through slavery, colonialism, and imperialism, had to do with “giving” civilization to people who were “less fortunate.” Do not align your pedagogy with the ethos of slavery and colonialism.
  3. They woke up like that. When the young men at Rikers share their work, I am fully intimidated by their uses of extended metaphors, similes, and other literary devices. But all we did was lend them an ear. They woke up like that. We did not give them a voice. What we gave them was space to be heard. Students navigate powerful spaces of learning every single day in their homes and communities. Especially when it comes to students of color, the skills, experiences, and rich knowledges that shape their voices are devalued in the classroom, but are still powerful and have absolutely nothing to do with our “salvation.”

What does this mean for our classrooms?

copyright: Jamila Lyiscott, 2017

Jamila Lyiscott

Jamila Lyiscott is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Institute for Urban and Minority Education (IUME) of Teachers College, Columbia University, and a professor at Long Island University where her work focuses on the intersections of race, education, and social justice. The recently awarded Cultivating New Voices among Scholars of Color fellow also serves as a public speaker, community leader, and educational consultant locally and internationally. Her scholarship and activism work together to prepare educators to sustain diversity in the classroom, empower youth, and explore, assert, and defend the value of Black life. Jamila’s recently featured TED Talk, “3 Ways to Speak English,” was viewed over 3.5 million times. She has also been featured on NPR, Huffington Post, Upworthy, The Root, Radio New Zealand, Lexus Versus and Flow, and many other media outlets and her scholarly work has been published in several peer-reviewed journals. As a testament to her commitment to educational justice for students of color, Jamila is the founder and co-director of the Cyphers For Justice (CFJ) youth, research, and advocacy program, apprenticing inner-city youth and pre-service teachers as critical researchers through hip-hop, spoken word, and digital literacy.