By Beth Davis
At 7 am on a freezing March morning, and a Saturday no less, fourteen undergraduates and I, as the staff adviser, began the long drive from Maryland to Tennessee for an alternative school break focused on relationship violence. Our drive was relatively quiet since most students did not know each other previously. However, our first full day together broke the silence through a series of games, icebreakers, and learning. Before diving into topics such as sexual assault and domestic abuse, we learned about power and privilege, intersectionality, structures of oppression, and responsibilities of civic engagement. Students reflected on their own identity and how it relates to privilege and oppression. This built the foundational knowledge and framework to interpret the service-learning experience as we volunteered at the YWCA, visited a domestic abuse shelter, met with a counselor at a batterer’s intervention program, learned about sexual assault and Title IX policy at the University of Tennessee, and observed a domestic docket at the local courthouse. While these experiences opened our eyes to the many challenges that survivors of abuse experience, the real learning occurred in our everyday interactions and reflections.
Reflections and learning activities brought to the surface students personal experiences with racism, socioeconomic inequality, and sexism. These feelings were raw and always present in our service. Twelve out of fourteen students were people of color and represented diverse income levels. Students were candid with their personal stories of oppression, and their resiliency showed in the way they navigated the longstanding history of racism in the South. We were often in spaces where there were no people of color except for those in our group. To say we stuck out is an understatement. Overall, we were welcomed in the community with Southern charm and hospitality. People on the street approached us to ask where we were from and gave us tips on places to visit. One person even stopped his car to chat with us while we were volunteering outdoors. We had to adjust our norms and push ourselves to be open to strangers, which is an uncomfortable experience for “Yankees,” as we were called by locals.
But then it came: That moment when Southern charm vanished and the legacy of racism reared its ugly head. On our last day, we drove about an hour outside of Knoxville to the Smokey Mountains. One group of students went hiking and a group of four African-American students and myself checked out flea markets along the country roads in the mountains. As we pulled into the parking lot of the first store, the vibe changed as students discussed how to handle a racist situation if it arose and, most importantly, discussed if they were even safe to enter a space that was visibly fueled by white culture. Students decided that they would likely get some stares, but that they would stare right back to show that they were not intimidated. Inside, we found confederate flag memorabilia — from shot glasses, to clothing, to bumper stickers — and there were a series of items with derogatory messages about “welfare queens,” immigrants, and other marginalized groups. Students laughed off these items and were relieved that racism seemed to be limited to inanimate objects.
As we were wrapping up, a friendly sales clerk encouraged each of us to check out the back room of the store before leaving. Entering the room, we found that it was full of what is known as “black memorabilia” — highly offensive caricatures of African Americans that were produced during the Jim Crow era to maintain the racially inferior status of black people. In terms of offensiveness, think Aunt Jemima and then multiple it by a hundred. Jaws dropped as students saw these figures. One student described it as entering “a museum for racist propaganda.” Students felt as if they had walked back in time but were soon reminded that these images are still considered acceptable to a salesclerk who encouraged a group of young, black students to shop through merchandise created specifically to reinforce their inferior place in society and to showcase their history of oppression. Students wondered, “Is this salesclerk completely clueless or is she intentionally trying to tell us that we do not belong?”
To answer that question, as we were walking out of the store, the salesclerk said, “Now y’all behave, ya hear?” To which a student responded with, “We always do!” While this statement might seem innocent, it has a history in the South of being used by whites toward African Americans to remind them of their lower social status. The expression is used to patronize black people as if they are children, to condemn their behavior as inherently bad, and to reinforce domination by whites through constant policing. It is part of the mental colonization process of maintaining a system of oppression. By saying “We always do,” the student was not allowing racism to go unchecked. She countered with positivity, both in her delivery of the response and in a message that reaffirmed the worth of the group. As Michelle Obama would say, she went high when they went low.
I was not as quick to process and respond to the incident as the students. I had to reflect on the intersections of my own identity to appropriately respond. I grew up in the South and being a Southerner is a strong part of my personal identity. My initial thought was to explain to students that the salesclerk was merely saying a common phrase throughout the South and one that had been said to me hundreds of times in the past. However, I am white and that phrase does not have the same meaning or history in its use toward people who look like me. If I had not stepped back to recognize the difference in meanings and interpretations that come from personal identity, I could have potentially responded dismissively and not recognized the prejudice inflicted on students. Additionally, my identity as the older person in the group made me feel like I had to respond with words to demonstrate my leadership as the adviser. But had I said what I was thinking, I could have shut down the conversation and unintentionally been part of the systems and culture that marginalize students of color. With these conflicting identities, I had to navigate how to respond in a way that recognized my personal identity and the privilege that comes with it, while also respecting the different identities of students and their interpretations.
Once I processed everything, I felt it was critical to affirm the student’s bravery in facing down racism and to give students space to dissect the experience through their own lens. With my adviser hat, I let students know that I supported them. At the same time, as a white person in a position of authority, I recognized that my voice could easily dominate the discussion of this experience and that my feelings and interpretations of it were that of an outsider. I can never truly know what it feels like to have to worry if I am safe walking into a store because of the color of my skin or the feeling of being humiliated by a store’s merchandise. Ultimately, I decided it was more powerful to respond by listening than trying to think of the appropriate words. I listened to students dissect the experience and they did so by breaking down the ridiculousness of the items in the store and celebrating the student who responded directly to racism. I let them know that I agreed with them and supported them with a nod or an affirmation. It was challenging to express support for students and outrage at what happened, while limiting my own words. But I found that I did not need to offer any grand words of wisdom or consoling comments to show that I was there for them.
I later asked the student who responded to the racist comment if I could have done something differently to make her or the other students feel better supported or to help them process the incident. She responded that just physically being there was enough for her — that if I had not been there, she would have never entered the store because she knew what she was potentially walking in to. It made me deeply sad to understand how normalized racism is for my students and that they make decisions on what spaces they are comfortable entering based on how they will be perceived, which is something I regularly take for granted. However, the idealist in me is hopeful that as educators we can open doors for students that literally cross racial lines and that by doing this, we can eventually chip away racism so that students do not have to be fearful.
This experience taught me that sometimes you do not have to say anything insightful or do anything special to show students you support them. You just have to be there as an educator, as an adviser, and as an ally.
Beth Davis worked in Prince George's County Public Schools in Maryland, where she increased wraparound services and community partnerships, developed after-school programming focused on social-emotional development and college and career readiness, and strengthened family-friendly school practices. Most recently, Davis completed a Education Policy & Strategy Fellowship at City Year. She has spent the past year working on diversity issues at the University of Maryland, where she is completing a M.Ed. in Minority & Urban Education this summer. In the fall, she will be a Ph.D. in Education Policy candidate at George Mason University.