Get Over Yourself

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:

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. I do the work I do for these very reasons.

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. We gave them space to be heard. We need educators who are down to create space for the rich identities of their students to thrive, and who are down to be schooled by their students as authorities of their own voices and narratives in the classroom.

We need educators who have the courage to do the internal work of critical honesty around their attitudes toward students. Is there space in your classroom for the realities, perspectives, and identities of your students? What is your attitude toward your perception of their cultures and how does this affect the interpersonal dynamics of your pedagogy? So much of the rhetoric around colonialism, imperialism, and American chattel slavery had to do with giving civilization and Christianity to people who were “less fortunate.” Do not align your pedagogy with the same narratives that perpetuated so much evil in our world.

If you think you are giving students of color a voice in the work that you do, get over yourself. They woke up like that.
If you think you are giving students of color a voice in the work that you do, get over yourself. They woke up like that.

Jamila Lyiscott is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Institute for Urban and Minority Education (IUME) of Teachers College, Columbia University. She also serves as an educator, community organizer, consultant, and motivational speaker locally and internationally. Jamila’s work focuses on contexts where the cultures, literacies, and literatures of young people of color are critically engaged and humanized for social change. Her scholarship is situated in Culturally Sustaining Pedagogy, Literacy Studies, and Black Literature. Jamila is the founder and co-director of the Cyphers For Justice (CFJ) youth, research, and advocacy program, apprenticing inner-city youth as critical researchers through hip-hop, spoken word, and digital literacy. She was recently featured on Ted.com where her video was viewed over 3 million times. Along with several publications, she has lectured and directed educational justice projects widely. Through her community, scholastic, and artistic efforts, Jamila hopes to play a key role in forging better connections between the world of academia and communities of color outside.