Opinion | Silenced in the classroom: the invalidation of black voices in social work

There are some tears, breaths and emotional discharges that come out of your body and leave you feeling violated, because you never gave those tensions permission to enter. There is a sense of fear, because you are not sure how to avoid carrying that heaviness again.

That’s what he taught me on the last day of my graduate program. Class ended, I closed my laptop, inhaled deeply, and before the breath could leave my body through an exhalation, I broke into uncontrollable sobs.

I walked into my first master’s class in social work excited and completely naive about how emotionally challenging the journey would be. I have always been aware of the anti-black racism that permeates every facet of society. The educational system is no exception, however, I believed that those seeking this title would be eager to discuss and oppose all injustices.

In my mind and heart, social work programs would be a safe haven in the midst of the anti-black educational system. I quickly learned that there is currently no safe haven for Black students, even at institutions with bold commitments like “think ahead” and “take action.”

Discussions have long been my richest educational experiences. The process of questioning the perspectives of others and having my own perspectives questioned has often given rise to new ideas to contribute to a more equitable society for Black communities that I am so passionate about supporting.

As a community worker who has helped Black clients navigate the downsides of unfair systems, the discussions helped me envision a better experience for Black service users. As I prepared to face my teachers, I anticipated that classroom discussions would help me move closer to actualizing these imaginations.

There was no shortage of discussion in the classroom, just as he had expected. Dialogue on gender inequality, reconciliation of indigenous peoples and the impacts of capitalism. However, every time I raised the issue of anti-Black racism, I was met with silence.

When silence was not observed, he encountered a student who suggested that white people touching black people’s hair was possibly their attempt to “learn.” When I explained that this is an inappropriate way to express curiosity and shared personal experiences of feeling violated, silence returned.

The next day, the student cried and claimed that I assaulted her, resulting in her “never wanting to talk about things like this again.” The most painful thing was that after all the commotion, the teacher and most of my classmates contacted that student to make sure she was okay. They never communicated with me, I never felt more silenced.

Professors who pride themselves on challenging students’ thought processes, encouraging critical thinking, and prompting self-reflection often abandon those commitments when it comes to the topic of anti-Black racism. If there are conversations, they are hastened by the individuals’ discomfort at the sound of the word Black. And that longing to bounce off other people’s thoughts, ideas, perspectives, and complaints goes unfulfilled, because the issues of black communities are rarely on the minds of those in the classroom.

As a black woman, anti-black racism is not something I can ignore. Austin Channing Brown wrote that the foreboding of black joy manifests as a level of apprehension forged from the knowledge that “racism is the silent stalker that is ever ready to tear the joy out of our lives.”

In my experience as a Black student in this program, racism squeezed the joy out of engaging in thought-provoking and challenging discussions in the classroom.

That’s where the tension started to build up in my body. The tension of accepting that I will have to learn through the context of whiteness and finding ways to distort that learning to benefit black communities in my practice. The strain of realizing that preserving my mental well-being meant remaining silent, while acknowledging that silence was robbing me of my most powerful tool for learning.

On the last day of school, as she took deep breaths and sobbed, that tension was releasing. It was the realization that I had come to the end and would not have the educational experience that I had hoped for in the first class. I was grieving

I have an interesting relationship with resilience in relation to the black experience of oppression. Resilience has kept us alive, but ironically, the constant need to activate resilience is killing us.

Nonetheless, I am ready to return to the ring on a mission to advocate for spaces within education where Black students have the opportunity to discuss issues that are central to us and our communities. My dedication to fighting for black sonority, in a world that constantly silences us, has never been stronger.

Breanna Phillip is a social worker, therapist, and writer. Follow her on Instagram @breannachanelle_


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