In a class on Social Justice in Education, we were asked to write consider the problems of speaking for others:
“Do you think your white femininity makes you a safe person for every person of color in this country?” (Hurst, 2019)
No matter my intention when speaking for others, I must take into consideration my position as a White woman and how I impact all my students and especially students of color, and those who are vulnerable and marginalized in the power dynamics of the education system.
I was recently listening to an interview with Kelly Wickham Hurst on the podcast Teaching While White. (Hurst is a Black woman.) She was discussing her recent article, A Certain Looking White Woman, and the impact of the positionality of White women teachers in particular on students of color. Speaking to White women she says, “You cannot assume that you show up safe for me or anyone else. As a matter of fact, you are highly dangerous in the history of this country especially in those hidden ways in which you were meant to seem angelic and pure.” (Chandler-Ward, 2020)
As educators speaking for our students, their families or even our colleagues, we should examine the particular power dynamics in a situation, and especially our position in the power dynamics. Are we jumping in to speak, to help and inserting ourselves as central in a situation and so dominate? Do we rush in to fix, to save without examining our impact or the context in which we are speaking? Who is speaking and who is listening?
As educators we have a responsibility to empower our students and to create the conditions where they are supported and are able to achieve. But it is a big mistake to not understand and underestimate the space we take up, how we impact those around us and how what we are trying to do or communicate is perceived. “How what is said gets heard depends on who says it.” (Alcoff, 1991)
Linda Alcoff in her essay, The Problem of Speaking for Others, warns that we run the we run the risk of reinforcing the dominant power and privilege dynamic even though our intention may be otherwise. “Though the speaker may be trying to materially improve the situation of some lesser-privileged group, one of the effects of her discourse is to reenforce racist, imperialist conceptions and perhaps also to further silence the lesser-privileged group’s own ability to speak and be heard.” (Alcoff, 1991)
We should instead strive to listen, to ask how we can help and create the conditions where we are speaking with and not speaking for others whenever possible and thus enable others’ empowerment.
Alcoff, L. (1991). The Problem of Speaking for Others. Cultural Critique, (20), 5-32. doi:10.2307/1354221
Chandler-Ward, Jenna, host. (2020, October 19) “Beyond the Bookclub: Antiracism in Action.” Teaching While White. https://www.teachingwhilewhite.org/podcast/episode-13-beyond-the-bookclub-antiracism-in-action
Hurst, K.W. (2019, May 8). A Certain Looking White Woman. Medium. Retrieved from https://medium.com/@kellywickham/a-certain-looking-white-woman-1f8f2f14bcce