Black Women & Equity at UPenn

JyarlandBy Jyarland Daniels (right), founder of Harriet Speaks, doing diversity differently by providing a Black voice and perspective in diversity, equity, & inclusion

Today my newsfeed greeted me with a story of a PhD student assistant at The University of Pennsylvania with the following headline:

This instructor calls on black women first and white men last. Critics want her fired.

In a world where we are bombarded by information and everyone wants to be in the know, going beyond the headline can seem passé. Yet, being “Headline Hoppers” is one way we give our implicit consent for the media to dominate the narrative on race in a way that does not reflect reality; these narratives are why, in a recent study, 55% of whites reported they believe they are discriminated against, but a much smaller percentage say they have actually experienced this discrimination.

Those of us who are committed to the work of racial justice–and to America living out its promise to the most marginalized–must be in the habit of looking beyond the headlines of stories about race and reframing those stories in a way that is both honest and productive. When I looked beyond the headline of the story about the UPenn teacher who calls on Black women first, other POC next, then white women, and white men last, a few thoughts came to my mind:

The class in which this practice is happening is called, “Race and Sex in Early America.” I could probably stop there. Why? Because that matters! The people who are most EQUIPPED to talk about this should be the people we make a DELIBERATE effort to hear from. In a conversation on any other subject, reasonable minds would make an effort to hear first from those with the most knowledge and/or personal experience. But for some reason, people seem willing to dismiss this basic idea. Why is that? Because in the words of Malcolm X, Black women have been and continue to be, “…the most disrespected person in America.”

Equity and equality are not the same. If you are looking for equality, then your commitment to racial justice is suspect. What is happening in this class is what EQUITY looks like. Please understand the difference between equity and equality. If you have multiple kids, you (hopefully) don’t treat them equally. You treat them equitably. This means you give each child WHAT THEY NEED. Imagine if one child is sick and the others aren’t. Equality means they all go to school, no matter their circumstances. Equity means the one who is sick stays home and the others go to school. Now, will the children who aren’t sick complain they had to go to school and the treatment is not “fair” or “equal”? Probably. Should you listen to them? Probably not. To continue this analogy, it is important to understand that in Predominantly White Institutions (PWI’s) Black women are often IGNORED in classrooms. They are the kid who gets to stay home; they are the ones who should get to speak first when we are talking about “Race and Sex in America.” Everyone else needs to deal with it.

Those who don’t get why we should make an EXTRA effort to hear from Black women in a conversation about “Race and Sex in America” are a part of the problem. What is the real issue here? The real issue is white men are mad. They are mad because they aren’t used to having to wait to hear anyone speak FIRST before adding their two cents – even on issues of race and sex. White men (and women) are not used to listening to Black people, and they especially aren’t used to listening to Black women.

Why does this matter? If white folks want to be down for racial justice the FIRST thing they have to do is to LISTEN. That is what they have to do in this class and it is uncomfortable – even for those who are not in the class! This discomfort leads to it being portrayed as unreasonable for a white man (or woman) in a class called “Race and Sex in America” to have to LISTEN to Black women and listen to them first! This discomfort makes it unreasonable to put a premium on Black women’s experiences and perspectives – ever. This is the unreasonableness the story would lead you believe if you only pay attention to the headline. But what is really unreasonable is that the need for some white folks to center themselves is so great that it prevents them from doing the work they say they want to do. What is unreasonable is when we see equity, given it is so foreign to our experiences in this country, it causes discomfort.

So, sit down, be quiet and listen to Black women talk about race and sex in America.

Jyarland can be reached at jdaniels@harrietspeaks.com.

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