by Jezebel Delilah X
When I first began teaching at the community college level, I was 25 years old, in the middle of my Mills College MFA program, slowly easing into radical queer community, and madly in love with my very fledgling constructs of using the academy as a vehicle for liberation. My pedagogy was simple:
- Fuck hierarchy! Replace cultures of power and authority with community accountability!
- Community accountability is dependent on everyone feeling, and helping others to feel, loved, valued, and respected.
- People are more likely to learn and sustain information in fun, creative, welcoming, nurturing environments.
- Academic equity can help de-racialize economic and career access, and is a form of sociopolitical activism.
While I am still willing to scream those values until my throat is blood-drunk and raw, I’ve very painfully learned that the ease of my initial confidence was rooted in the delusional privilege of having been taught that I was entitled to love, respect, nurture, and protection from adults in positions of authority. I passionately believed all people were, and I was excited to bring that sentiment with me into the classroom. I saw this as an opportunity to serve my community, my culture, and my society something other than the capitalistic drivel of production, racial-scapegoating, production, cultural exclusion, production, exploitation, and so on. My classroom was going to be a righteous revolution where all students, especially those who have experienced marginalization and ridicule, could reject conformity and take the agency to look at their education through a lens of love, compassion, and community.
Once my students realized what it meant for me to reject hierarchy and power dynamics in the classroom, I heard more criticisms than Bey did when she argued she was a feminist. Every single day, it was: “this is hella, bootsie!” “why we doing this?” and “you can’t teach.” I tried to insert more transparency so my students could fully understand my intentions and expectations. The criticisms shifted away from pedagogy and began to tease at my character and ability to establish authority, “you too nice,” “you’re a push over,” “don’t no body respect you.” My colleagues, and the few students who recognized my agenda, advised me to shut things down and kick the disruptors out of class. However, the USA has a long legacy of systematically silencing the oppressed groups that populated my classroom, and I refused to replicate that dynamic while doing something I believe in so whole-heartedly. I didn’t want to be the politician who just nodded emptily at disagreeable feedback only to rig the voting machine. So, I tried to find a way to marry the sort of structure and discipline to my free-spirited approach. In the process, however, I slowly internalized their disregard for my open-hearted-pedagogy capitalism and patriarchy socialized them to disdain. I felt rejected by a population that I wanted to give everything to, and like I was betraying them with my failure. Not only did I lose a sense of respect and compassion for myself, I lost my vision.
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I became a hippie/Joe Clark (from Lean On Me) fusion. It wasn’t a good look. Joe Clark is a caricaturized conglomerate of all the things I detest in patriarchy. He’s a stern, emotionally distanced, disciplinarian. He demonstrates his love through punishing, insulting, and publicly embarrassing the people he cares about. But, the violence in his behavior is difficult to discern because he does it with altruism and devotion to fighting injustice while providing resources and opportunity for economically/politically oppressed Black and Brown folk. He shows up for a community accustomed to being abandoned, neglected, disregarded, and feared. He hands people back their ability to be gentle by offering protection. He’s the father figure who smacks students out of the stereotypes and desperation enforced by racism, capitalism, and poverty, forcing people to be their best using very militaristic measurements. But, as much as we may want to applaud his tenacity, military is violence. He brought the structure and discipline that many said was necessary for that community, yet it was a bullet-sprayed demand for assimilation that threatened exclusion from school to the noncompliant. That behave-or-be-punished dynamic reminded me of the prison-industrial-complex, and worse, the plantation.
In order to maintain hierarchy and subordination, slave owners spent a significant amount of time with the enslaved and provided them with food, housing, violence, abuse, degradation, grief, death, and celebration when they were obedient. Obedience means being a subservient, subordinate, non-disruptive participant in the roles assigned to you. In other words, oppressed and dehumanized. That was the last thing I wanted from my students, yet they (unwilling to participate in a class structure dependent on self-regulation, agency, and community accountability) were adamant in their demand for discipline, seeming to conflate fear with respect. They needed me to force them to adhere to certain standards of integrity and dignity, wanted me to verbally chastise them when they stepped out of line. Momentarily, I gave them all of those things. I screamed, insulted, publically chastised, kicked people out of class, gave them rigorous exams that tested their ability to remember information (as opposed to think critically), and shut down all of the sensitive, tender, loving parts of me that were feeling so fragile. My classroom finally felt peaceful, my students participated in the expectations I set up for them, and no one was accusing me of being “bootsie.” In the process of making them terrified of my authority, I had finally gained their respect. But I had lost respect for myself. The last thing I want is to be feared. In fact, as a Black person in America, fear carries a very dangerous consequence.
- Renisha McBride was shot in the face and killed by Theodore Paul Wafer after she knocked on his door to ask for help when her car broke down. He claimed to be afraid of her.
- Jonathan A Ferrell was shot and killed by the police after he ran to them for help post car accident. The police were called by a white womyn who was afraid of him when he knocked on her door.
- Connor and Brendon Moore, the young son’s of Glenda Moore, a Black womyn, were killed in Hurricane Sandy after Glenda’s white neighbor refused to open his door to provide her with help. He claimed to be afraid she would rob him.
- Famed professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. was handcuffed and arrested after his white neighbor called the police, afraid that he was a burglar.
Lives are lost. Families are separated. Folks are deported. People give up their humanity. All because of fear. Racist laws and policies, like SB1070 and Gang Injunctions, are voted into legislation because of how much our nation fears Black and Brown people, especially when they are poor and working class. The prison industrial complex has become a multi-billion dollar industry that creates criminals to exasperate already racialized fears of crime. And my students, those most impacted by these fears, wanted me to perpetuate that dynamic in an environment where I just wanted them to feel safe and loved. As much as they begged for it, bribing me with promises of participating, I did not want to role-play police officer or plantation overseer. I wanted the soft tenderness of my humanity back, and I wanted them to demand theirs with the same fervor that they demanded discipline and consequence. I found myself experiencing one of the most blatant examples of internalized oppressions I had ever encountered; it made my soul hurt so much. I’ve been teaching for nearly five years now, and I still find myself spending the first month of each semester fighting to prove to my students that they deserve my respect without having to prove anything and struggling to understand why. Why are we so intensely invested in protecting the cycles of oppression that have plagued our communities for centuries? Why are we so determined to ostracize and alienate individuals in our cultural groups who aspire towards something different? As my friend The Lady Ms. Vagina says, “why can’t we have nice things?” Why are we skeptical when people treat us kindly? I don’t blame my students for participating in these cycles of internalized racism, but I angst at our determination to validate and normalize the remnants of slavery in our lives. I pain at the interchangeable relationship between fear and respect. I feel, occasionally, terrified and trapped by how thoroughly this system works to exploit my people. As much as I believe the academy can be a place to teach inquiry and liberation, it is more frequently used to bully people into complacent, robotic workers addicted to consumption and mistaking production for accomplishment, goading the rhetoric and personality of elitism and socioeconomic hierarchy that is killing us in a plethora of physical and spiritual ways.
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Jezebel Delilah X is a queer, Black, femme, Faerie Goddess Mermaid Gangsta for the revolution. She uses a combination of performative memoir, theatrical poetry,and feminist storytelling to advance her politix of radical love, socioeconomic justice, anti-racism, and community empowerment.
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