Written by Gabriella L. Brown
Feminist knowledge in the eyes of the academy is rarely seen as legitimate or shared among academics. Since feminist knowledge is always being questioned, the production of it in the world or in academia is slim. The academy continually aims to silence or hide the various feminist knowledges in the world by devaluing the ones that are produced. The importance of feminist knowledge is that it brings new insight to the writer and readers. If feminist knowledge were valued as much as other knowledges, then there would be no need to continually explain the importance of sharing it. The feminist knowledge that will be the focus of this essay is the Black feminist knowledge coming from Black female teachers working in private education. This knowledge aims to uncover the obstacles that Black female teachers face when trying to enter predominantly White institutions (PWI), which continues even after they have entered, and the changes their knowledge has on private education.
The obstacles that Black female teachers face when teaching in private education take a toll on their mental well-being, but are not without their due rewards. They must juggle the thought of whether they are being hired as a token or not for the school. At these institutions they not only hold a place of heighten visibility due to their skin color, but have to be hyper vigilant and aware they may be considered as representatives of their race. Having to deal with both racism and sexism these teachers abilities and actions are constantly questioned by the administration, parents, and even students. They face social isolation due to being different from their White colleagues and having to deal with the psychological effects of working in this sphere. When they enter into these predominately White spaces (PWI), more often than not, they have an impact on the current curriculum at the institution, by introducing Black figures and literature to their students. For students of color, they take on the job of being a safe space in which these students can vent and find solace. These are some of the many hurdles that Black female teachers must jump over, yet they manage to do this so elegantly that it needs to be uncovered.
In an effort to uncover this knowledge, an interview was conducted with a Black female teacher who has worked in private education for twenty years. My interviewee, Shelby Stokes, currently works at Riverdale Country School as a high school English teacher. Stokes is the product of private education. She attended Hotchkiss, a boarding school in Connecticut, and Wesleyan University, a liberal arts college in Connecticut, so she is more able to understand the struggles students of color go through alone combined with the struggles of being a teacher of color at these PWIs. Stokes currently teaches tenth grade English and Black literature at Riverdale Country School.
The Black literature class that she teaches is an elective at the school, and one of only a few courses that educate students on Black accomplishments in writing. In the classroom, Stokes is a role model, especially to the other students of color, for students struggling to maneuver at a predominantly White institution that still subliminally tells students of color that they are not welcomed by making classes covering their history electives rather than part of the standard curriculum. She is an example of the slightly new, yet rising Black feminism, where highly educated Black women are able to take up space in the predominantly White dominated sphere of private education. Stokes has managed to climb through various PWIs to earn her education to teach at predominantly White private schools despite the various obstacles in her way.
There are not many Black people in private education, let alone Black women. Many times they are the only ones among their colleagues that are a woman of color. These private institutions were created for the White elite to have access to and to exclude people of color. Due to historical events like the Civil Rights Movement and the increasing need for institutions to appear liberal, PWIs have attempted to have what can loosely be called a diverse staff. Black female teachers are among the people who have been hired by PWIs and are sometimes considered token minorities. They are viewed as tokens because more often than not they “find themselves working alone or nearly alone” since they will be one of the few minorities employed at a particular institution (Alexander 5). Black teachers may have chosen to work in this environment, but it is an environment that they must enter in order to destroy the “hegemonic, narcissistic environment created by White men” and open the door for more teachers of color (Alexander 11).
Black female teachers face two problems when they are seen as tokens. They not only feel a heightened sense of visibility, but are also asked to act as representatives of their race. Every action they take will be noticed. Whether they are late to class or absent from a meeting, every action is viewed hypercritically, because they are one of only a handful of people who are Black. This causes them to have to be cautious of what they do and aware that any mistake or misstep will be noticed, yet their accomplishments will go unnoticed.
The interesting part is that they will remain almost completely “invisible among the large White [faculty]” in terms of their capabilities until “their presence is needed to serve as the ‘diversity’ voice” (Patton, Catching 714). There is a heightened necessary awareness when it comes to being a Black teacher when many of the people around them are White. Since they are the only Black person among White people they will likely be asked to speak for their whole community under the assumption that the Black community is just one big community. They are believed to be “all knowing about everything Black” and asked to explain “the African American experience,” which not only can lead to embarrassment, but the need to be hyper vigilant about their words (Alexander 5). The pressure of speaking for the whole Black race is one that takes a toll on Black female teachers given that one wrong move can reinforce the stereotypes their White colleagues may already have.
Black female teachers teaching at these PWIs are obviously competent and educated enough to work at these schools, yet their abilities to teach are constantly questioned by either the administration, parents, or students. The largest source of pushback that Black teachers encountered surprisingly comes from their students who will challenge their authority and knowledge. Stokes faced this obstacle when she was teaching at St. Paul’s and put together her American literature elective curriculum to be made up of nearly all authors of color. The students who took her class “were mostly White and infuriated that [she] had done that” and went so far as to say that the class was “not an American literature course and [was not] what [they] signed up for” strictly on the basis that they were reading Black authors. Saying that Black-American authors are not a part of American literature and disrespectfully challenging their teachers because they are introducing work written by Black people just shows how resistant White students are “regarding issues of diversity” (Patton 714). No teacher should be “subjected to unwarranted attacks on their credibility”, leading them to feel that they need to explain to their students the curriculum and its importance before they even cover the material (Patton, Catching 720). Being a teacher is already a challenging job, but Black female teachers realize quickly that in these PWIs, no matter how long they teach, they will consistently be forced to explain their reasoning for including material pertaining to do with Black people.
Teaching while Black at PWIs potentially leads Black female educators to becoming isolated in their work environment from their White colleagues. This is especially true for young Black female teachers who are new to teaching and are trying to learn the ropes. They feel as if they cannot open up to their White colleagues due to the issues that tokenization at institutions and the questioning of their competence cause within their psyche. They may begin to “feel less powerful” due to their inexperience and age, causing them to make the decision to stay silent and watch the other teachers in an attempt to improve their own teaching (Cozart 28). At PWIs, it is hard enough to be new, given how cold these places can be when someone is new. Being both Black and a woman generates an intimidating atmosphere they must enter.
Black female teachers may feel out of place and disconnected among their colleagues who may be “cordial and conciliatory” to them, but will make no further effort to share important information about their teaching ethic or act as mentors to them (Alexander 6). These teachers of color are left out and forced to figure things out on their own, only contributing to the idea that they are not qualified or educated enough to teach in such a space. With this mentality it is no wonder that Black female teachers will not associate with their White colleagues and would rather be alienated or interact with others like them.
At Stokes’ first PWI, she was supposed to be mentored by two older teachers during her teaching fellowship at St. Paul’s. When discussing her experience at this institution, she made sure to emphasize that she was putting the term “mentored” into quotations, because they would not let her teach at all. The purpose of the fellowship was for her to watch, and eventually teach some of their classes, but instead these two teachers “pretty much put [her] in a position of observing only for most of the year” until Stokes went to her department chair. Stokes had to be reassigned to another group of mentors that would actually allow her to teach part of the class and show her skills.
When asked if her first two mentors would not let her teach due to her race or gender, Stokes said, “it was because of a lot of things; I was young, I was Black, I was female”, while they were older, and one of them was a White man in his forties. She felt disappointed that they would not let her teach when she had just graduated from Wesleyan University and was quite capable. The fact that at the end of the year, St. Paul’s made an exception and offered her a position speaks to the blatant racism, sexism, and ageism she faced as a new teacher. Stokes is not the first and, unfortunately, will not be last Black female teacher who faces this kind of alienation and hindrance from White colleagues.
The curriculum at PWI’s is more often than not built around Eurocentric and western material, but when Black female teachers enter private education they have a powerful impact on changing it. These institutions “inadequately frame people of color through deficits” and choose to talk about them in relation to European history as if their history did not exist before European influence (Kohli 5). Teachers of color are the ones who actually think to introduce material written by people of color, which helps to lower “the hostile racial climates” that students of color must learn in (Kohli 4). When introducing new material, they have to “work hard to get departments to buy certain books” and then to get the students to read them, but it is all in hopes that teaching this material will open their student’s eyes (Kelly 245). For Black female educators this could be their only chance to teach Black literature or history to students who may never have to learn this kind of knowledge because the rest of their teachers will be White. For students of color, this is their only chance to actually feel like their history exists and matters.
Stokes has experienced the impact of changing a school’s curriculum and the positive effects it has had on some of her students. When she spoke of the time she changed the American literature course material and the uproar from the students, she also mentioned that down the line she found that it made a difference. Stokes was told by another colleague that one of her students, who had gone off to college, realized that “they did not understand what Stokes was trying to do at the time, but that it really opened their eyes in the way that it needed to be opened”. Stokes fought hard to prove to her students that Black literature is American literature and that it is a legitimate source of material to read. Her choice to change the curriculum was able to open one of her student’s minds to the fact that they did indeed “have a narrow perspective of the what the material was” because they were so resistance and unwilling to be open to material that was unfamiliar. Stokes has realized that with teaching, she never really sees the impact she has on her students, but that it is only later, once they have walked out of the bubble of private education, that her students have this realization.
When working at these PWIs, Black female teachers not only serve as teachers, but as a safe space for the few Black students. When Black students gain a private education it comes with the realization that they will struggle and feel discomfort in school. The knowledge that they will be one of the few Black students in the class or grade and face many of the mental strains that teachers of color face working in private education. Black educators are aware of the marginalization the students of color face, thus many times they serve as “a formal and informal mentor for” these students (Alexander 9). This role that teachers of color take on may not be in their job description, but they assume them because they know how it feels, especially if they attended a similar institution. The teachers come to the same school that their students attend so they too feel “their struggle, their pain, and their disappointment in the system” in which they must live in (Cozart 28). This is why many Black female teachers will “keep an open door policy where students [can] feel [welcomed] to come” (Alexander 9) and talk about the impact on their mental and physical well-being. It is important for students of color to have this safe space within such a hostile environment and feel as if they have an ally within the institution.
While I was interviewing Stokes, the topic of teaching Huckleberry Finn came up, and the impact she has on the students of color. She serves not only as a safe space for them, but as a defensive wall against the ignorant comments White students may say. She makes sure to set clear boundaries for the entire class. Stokes stated, “as a black teacher teaching this book there is no way [she could not] have [such a] conversation” because she knows that ignorant comments hurt her just as much as it does her students of color. She recognizes that her presence in the classroom makes the students of color feel as if they have an ally and empowered to be able to stand up to ignorant comments from classmates themselves. Stokes has the power to check them and the fact that she makes all the difference to her students. White teachers in a classroom with Black students are “able to avoid it because they can” and do not need to recognize how racially charged this book is and the effects it has on the students of color. The presence and safe space that Stokes, and teachers like her, provide is one that makes students incredibly grateful to have a Black teacher.
This essay and interview together, show how crucial Black feminist knowledge is within private education. Obtaining a first-hand recording of Shelby Stokes’ narrative of her over twenty years of experience in private education legitimizes the various sources used within this essay. Neither I, nor other writers who have written about feminist knowledge, should be questioned on the legitimacy. This research essay was able to uncovered just a few of the many hurdles that Black female educators face in PWIs, including tokenism, having their capabilities always in question, and isolation. It showed the change that their presence has on the curriculum and students of color when they enter these spaces. One of the most important things highlighted in this essay is that it shows that Black female teachers are just as valuable, if not more, to the school, its curriculum and its students.