Yaaass Fall! Come through! I just saw a meme that said “It’s that time of year when all the women are dressed like Han Solo.” I nearly fell out. Cause that’s gonna be me. Rider boots and waist jackets all day (insert hand claps)!
This past weekend, I had the privilege of attending the Justice for Black Girls Conference. When I tell you there was dope hair with laid edges, bold lips and just overall Black Girl Magic in the room, I ain’t never lied. At the event, they screened the film, Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls. It was both sad and uplifting but more importantly, it centered the stories of Black girls, mostly in their own words. A must-see, especially for educators!
In addition to seeing the film, Dr. Monique Morris, who is the author of the book and who appears in the film, was the keynote speaker, dropping gems. #BlackGirlBlessings
One of the main things that I took away from the day are what I like to call the “Seven S’s”:
- Stop feeling shame: Much of what happened to us as Black girls were things that we were not responsible for and therefore, we need to stop punishing ourselves for what was, many times, the adults’ inability to protect, love and care for us.
- Stop looking for a savior: As women, we cannot look for a mate or lover to fix us and make all the bad shit go away. That’s our work! Which leads me to my final take-away…
- Share your story as a means of self-care: Shame will have you thinking that you are the only one who’s gone through what you’ve experienced. Nah, Sis! At the event, an amazing woman shared her story about sexual abuse and the tears that poured in the room validated that it was not only a healing space but that not enough of these brave spaces exist.
That’s one of the reasons I believe so strongly in this platform. During the event, I kept returning to one undeniable truth: society tells Black women that our very being is wrong. This definitely ain’t breaking news so in this episode of the podcast, I sat down with my homegirl and fellow educator, Niquae, to discuss the ways we approach education knowing that the world at large gives zero fucks about us.
As always, please leave a comment and share if the spirit moves you. You can listen to the full interview above.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Enjoy.
BWBK: Alright, Black Women Be Knowing, Episode 5 and I’m here with my baby Niquae. Everybody don’t know Niquae but you gon’ know today. You gon’ learn today. Because Black Women Be Educating in a World That Doesn’t Love Us. So let me just give context. Niquae and I are educators. She’s been in the game longer than I have (15 years.) This is my 11th year in the DoE. Me and Niquae basically clicked. We worked together on a project because we do the same work but in different boroughs and we were just like, “Girl, I like you and you just be saying all the things that need to be said.”
Today, we’re gonna be saying more shit that needs to be said. So to begin, as always, I ask everyone to describe themselves in five words.
N: I would describe myself as compassionate, funny, inquisitive, reflective and gregarious.
BWBK: So being an educator, we’re not directly in the classroom anymore but we started off as teachers. What was your experience in school growing up? Was teaching a calling? Thinking about the way you were educated or schooled, did you feel seen? What does that mean?
N: So, I had a unique experience. My mom immigrated from Jamaica and you know West Indians, education is right up there with believing in God. You love the Lord and you love your books. So my mom would go out of her way to find the best schools. So I’ve gone to parochial school, private school, public school and the one thing I found in all of those schools is that they socialized you.
There was a lot of academics- drill and kill. Being seen is not something you wanted. You were either deemed exceptional or you were in trouble. There were times that I talked too damn much and then my mom was like, “You gotta get it together.” So I learned that it wasn’t good to be seen.
BWBK: Yeah, so I basically went to public school my whole life cause people was broke. But it was funny because I felt like I was seen because when you are exceptional especially in schools that aren’t necessarily high performing, and you happen to be that needle in a haystack, you’re seen in a way where you’re ostracized from your peers. Kind of like divide and conquer.
N: In retrospect, I definitely felt that as a child. I remember this kid, Derrick and being like, “If I’m not gon’ be in Derrick’s group, I know I’m not gonna get anything (like an A or attention) but I don’t really know what Derrick did cause I ain’t never seen him at recess. Maybe I felt it then- that it wasn’t good to be exceptional.
BWBK: So how did you actually get into education? Did you stumble upon it? Was it a dream of yours? Walk me through your trajectory.
N: I always used to say I kind of fell into it. But I think I’ve always wanted to be an educator. I used to play “school” with my teddy bears and with my friends. My first job was as a tutor at 13 years old. Then I worked in the writing center in college and when I was graduating, I applied to be a copy editor at a magazine and the New York City Teaching Fellows.
I’d like to say I weighed my options but in reality I was like, I’m ‘bout to get this Master’s degree and see what happens next. The trajectory was always toward education and I love to facilitate and educate.
BWBK: I was also a Fellow. Cohort 18 motherfucker, Cohort 18! It’s funny cause in educational circles, when they ask about your origin story, people say weird things like my aunt and my grandmother and my mom and my dad were teachers so I’m a teacher at heart. Nope! Bitch wanted to be in Nelly videos. I had no aspirations beyond being in the “Hot in Herre” video.
So I’m gonna return to the original ask. I asked you to describe yourself in five words and I’m gonna ask if you would change, add or remove based on how you would describe yourself as an educator?
N: I think those qualities are what sustains me in education because I feel for my students [and I’m here] beyond, “I’m here to collect this check.” Without those qualities, I couldn’t do this job but as far as being an educator, I would also add patience. I don’t think I’m generally patient, especially with adults. But when I have to teach or show, all of the sudden, I get this grace. I’ll even start talking softer.
Now my work is facilitating learning for adults and those qualities are especially important when working with them.
BWBK: I’m glad that you mentioned the word patience because we know that change takes time. We hear that a lot especially when there’s a new initiative and we want to have patience. But we also have to understand that there are children sitting in front of us despite the initiatives, despite what the adults can’t get right, so there’s still a sense of urgency.
I also like that you mentioned that reflective piece because everybody wanna blame someone else and never look at themselves.
N: That reflective piece is what changes generations of dysfunction. You wanna say, “this mama didn’t do…” but what about you? You are literally pouring all of your biases on this child and taking away all of their happy chips. Then you wanna blame this baby for not learning. We wanna blame the immediate household but the system [educational system] has a lot to do with that [dysfunction.]
BWBK: You talked about pouring biases on these kids. CRE! We got this Culturally Responsive Education and we got everybody reading the books. We got everybody quoting folks. So where do you think we are in this? Is this a win for Black and Brown folks or is this a Nah for us?
N: This CRE thing is done so wrong. This is what CRT- Culturally Responsive Teaching looks like. The word problems always got hair bundles, tamales, dumplings [in it] or you’ll see Shakespeare on the reading list and then [throw] Walter Dean Myers in there and [say] we can read this real quick but [centering] Shakespeare.
But on the flip side, at least it has us having the conversation on what we’re teaching our children. We have traditionally had this curriculum that is totally white washed. At least now I can go into a school and have a conversation about their unit [reading] list. Now we’re saying let’s talk about these people sitting in front of me.
Now, is it being done properly…? Probably not, but I’mma let them live because things take time.
BWBK: One of my biggest complaints is around who’s trying to train me [in CRE] about my experience. Yes, white women are dominant in Education but at some point you need to say I don’t get to talk about this. I need to take a back seat and learn. Even if you’ve done the research- you’re still doing this from an outsider’s perspective.
You talking about equity-everybody wanna talk about equity cause that’s the key word but you look at the makeup of the teams and you’re like “Oh, diversity for you guys must look like a blonde, a brunette and a red-head.”
So how are you getting any varying perspectives when you don’t have any variety within your own teams?
N: That’s literally it. It’s about what’s palatable. With this kind of initiative, they’re still trying to make it palatable. Black women are the most educated people in the world but to have a Black woman at the head of the table just debunks so many systematic ideologies that we support through commercials, our systems, etc. so they don’t want us at the helm of this work.
BWBK: There’s a lot of Hannahs (White women) in the system, so with this initiative it ends up being what Bettina Love refers to as “I read the books.”
So you can say, “I read the books. Zaretta Hammond. #Woke.” It becomes this white washed version and ‘praise us for doing a little bit of the work’ situation. The fact that I’ve made an effort means you should center me.
N: That is the privilege of being white. There is data that shows white men will walk into a job interview and not even know what the fuck the position is about, talking about I wanna be the Director. That is White privilege. I read the book so I can run this shit.
Society has fed me that I’m not worthy so not only do I have to come with some receipts like some degrees and certifications but you also need to have five years of experience. That privilege extends to White women because they have been told that they deserve to be at the head of the table.
BWBK: Based on what you’re saying, it now warrants me to ask the question: So at what point did you realize the world was not particularly good to Black women and how did you try to address or correct that through education?
N: I realized when I was in my 20s, and earlier. But in my 20s, I had a raggedy White woman tell me, “Oh wow you speak so well.” I’m like “Bitch I’m on an interview. Did you expect me to start spitting Wu Tang lyrics?”
I was like what exactly are you getting at?
I grew up in Brooklyn, in an area that is predominantly Black, but when I branched out and went to college, it was 99% White folks. I was like, “What is going on in this world?”
When I became a teacher, I worked in my home district. So when I first started, I worked in East New York, Brooklyn. Let me tell you, I used to go to work in Sheath dresses everyday. I had a Principal who was trash and a person of color. And she said, “Don’t be coming in here looking better than me” or “Since you like wearing all these little dresses, we gon’ take you around and get some money.”
I taught middle school and the kids would ask, “Why you dress like that?” And they would always be in awe of my ‘fancy clothes’. That made me think, ‘from here on out, I’m gonna dress like what I think they deserve to see.’ They would say, “When I go to work, I’m gonna look just like that!”
BWBK: What does it mean to be a Black woman educator? A lot of times when I go into a school to meet with a Principal, I’m either a sub- paraprofessional or a parent coming to pick up my child. I find that there is a lot of undermining, condescension and just straight out fuck shit.
What kind of situations have you been placed in that may be similar to this?
N: Most recently, I was in a meeting and my visitor’s [pass] fell off and I put it on my leg. I was walking through the hall with an Assistant Principal, and a dean or AP of Security addresses the AP I’m walking with and says, “Who is she? What is her problem? Why is her visitor’s pass on her leg?” And the whole conversation [took place] as if I’m not even standing there. I’m thinking, I’m walking with one of your colleagues so how dare you not include or acknowledge me?
BWBK: I don’t want to make it seem like being a Black woman is so terrible because it’s dope. Black women are dope. You do have to make sure that you’re showing the entire picture though. I really want to know what’s the most rewarding part of being a Black woman in this field?
N: I think being a Black woman is my superpower because I see shit that escapes other people, that’s flying over their heads, that they can’t understand. So I come from a space of knowing shit that nobody else knows which makes me invaluable. Sometimes being a Black woman, it feels like there’s a lot of kryptonite that comes at us, but through all of those adversities is the building of skills and knowledge and not a Hannah out here can attest to that.
BWBK: I think what you said about the way your middle schoolers saw you is important because I think the way I walk through spaces in not traditional. My hair is very big; my nails are very long; I have a piercing in my face and if you took me at face value, for people who can’t suspend their biases, It would be like “What are you doing here or how did you get here?”
I’m very professional but I’m also very much a Black woman. There’s space for every type of Black woman at the table. I’m like you gon’ see these nails. I am Gina and Shaneneh mixed up in one person. It’s rewarding that our kids are getting the message that they don’t have to get rid of their whole selves or throw themselves in the garbage to be in some of these spaces.
As we kind of come to a conclusion, I wanna know, who were you 15 years ago? Who was that Black woman who came into education and 15 years later, who are you now?
N: I was super naive. I was definitely a product of a system that churned me out. There was a lot of naturally assimilating. I was still boisterous and people would say “Wow, you really are passionate” which really meant ‘different.’
BWBK: When I came in to the DOE, almost 11 years ago, I had a lot more energy. I was younger and I was only 10 years older than my students. I came in at 24 years old and they were 14 cause I taught high school- 9th grade. When I think of what CRE is trying to do, I’m like “Biiiitch! I was doing this 10 years ago. I came in thinking like that. My first theme of the year was “The Year of -Isms.” We discussed racism, sexism, classism…I showed the scene from School Daze, “Good or Bad Hair” and taught Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “We Wear the Mask” and showed the movie Bamboozled…
I realize with the platform I have now that I have the ability to reach more people. When I taught, I had 100 kids’ ears. Now, I have 100 educators’ ears and I need to disseminate all of this knowledge that I have inside of me. And not just my knowledge but really [working alongside educators] to help them see their students so that they’re visible and not in the way that you mentioned earlier. Not [focusing on students’] behavior, but can you actually do this work from that compassionate place?
N: There was really a mindset shift because I started off saying, ‘let’s do it for the kids.’ Now I rebuke that because children just emulate adults. We’re talking about anti-bullying campaigns but the biggest bullies are in the teacher’s lounge/offices then we wonder why these kids are being mean to each other. They are simply emulating us. So don’t do it for the kids. First do it for yourself. Change yourself.
Keep peeling away that onion. Ask yourself why do I think these kids can’t read? Why do I feel like these kids won’t ever do better? Cause that’s how you really feel. As soon as you change you, that baby gon’ look up to you and follow your lead.
BWBK: That leads me to the final question, so what do you actually want cause we stayed in this field. I know a lot of Black women who stayed because we know that representation matters and me perfecting my craft is important. So what do you want for our babies?
N: Honestly, I wanna network. I want professionals like you and I who beget more networks like us and in that way, we can promise our children a better future. I gravitate towards people who are hardworking; who share my philosophy on bettering our people and people in general. I want us to build a fort and do what these nepotists have done but as usual, better.
BWBK: That’s exactly what needs to happen. I wanna see these babies leading. When I tell you, the young people are saying the Things because they like “ Bitch, I don’t have a fucking union or a job that I need to protect right now. I’m balls in.” They are like we are not interested in your standardized tests and making us ‘do school.’ They want to be able to address and solve problems that are happening in their own communities. That is why you go to school.
I don’t have no other job but to make you better able to better yourself and your community.
With that being said, I just want to thank you for being here. Any last words you wanna take us out with?
N: Thank you so much for having me. I think you’re a dope Black woman and you know I stay studying dope Black women. When you asked me, I was so honored and just solidified, I’m a dope Black woman too.
BWBK: [We got the] same birthday, same major, same minor! Thank you so much baby!
Black women be educating the babies of tomorrow.
Black women be interrogating the system.
Black women be regulating on whoever ain’t for the advancement of our people.
And if you don’t know, now you be knowing.