“What does it mean to be a woman in education?”
This is a question I’ve been struggling to answer for at least a year, if not the entirety of my career in education. Its root question, “What does it mean to be a woman?” is something I’ve been grappling with even longer.
So, when I was asked to co-host this month’s EduColor chat about women of color in the classroom, it meant actually figuring out what that meant to me. I’ll be honest: I was a bit stumped. I stared at the screen for a few minutes, unsure of what to say.
I think a lot about talking with my students about their identities. I wonder how I will help them navigate gender, race, sexuality, and all the ways their many identities intersect. In #EduColor and other educational work I am involved in, we often talk and teach about the need for intersectionality in our practice and discussion. But it was something I wasn’t really taught to make space for or explore within myself during my training.
The thing is, it is difficult to teach things we don’t understand about ourselves. It is easy to overlook important gaps in our knowledge and practice that need to be filled, or fail to find empathy or empowerment because we haven’t looked within ourselves to understand our own intersectional identities. For women of color in this work, it is critical to be role models–to show other women of color what it means to know, name, and own your identity in all its fullness.
But when have we ever given ourselves the time and space to do that? With the amount of love we often throw wholeheartedly not just into our work, but merely to survive in a system built to oppress us, who has ever given us the time to ask what it means for us, how it feels for us, to be in the classroom and work with students?
So, I had to make some space for myself to think. I sat there, closed my eyes, and asked myself what it means to be a woman of color in the classroom. At first, my mind was completely blank. Then, I answered myself:
The burden of being a woman in the workplace is well documented and discussed, but adding the additional layer of being a woman of color (in my specific case, Mexicana and Filipina) means that there’s at least one additional level of nuance to navigate with every choice. A raised voice isn’t just unseemly as a woman; it’s “typical” of a “fiery Latina.” On the other hand, the diminutive view of female teachers as “babysitters” or “typical nurturers” is heightened by generations of limiting the “typical” role of women of color to nannies and housekeepers. Women are already less likely to be seen as leaders, but as a Mexipina, I also navigate coming from racial backgrounds often stereotyped as “lazy” (my Mexican side) or “weak” (my Filipina side). I often bring up my credentials, leadership trainings, and graduate degree in conversations about my work, in some attempt to puff up my own perceived value.
Then there’s the pressure to succeed, to be a role model. So many of us heard that we needed to break down barriers or supercede stereotypes, yet we have ended up in careers many would peg as conventional for women of color. How many of us were reminded, Eli Pope-style, that we had to be twice as good to get half as far? How many of our parents understandably placed value on power and money when we considered our future careers, and were perhaps subsequently disappointed that our chosen paths afford us neither? The pressure to succeed, to need to prove oneself in a system consistently making us believe we are weak and less worthy, can feel insurmountable.
Suffice it to say: it’s not easy.
Women of color, to borrow a common metaphor, have been forged in the fire and come out glowing. So many of us have had to build a resilience by thriving and loving in situations where we should have failed. We have discovered wells of persistence, empathy and resourcefulness often overlooked, but inherently the reason we cannot be stopped. It is a source of our power.
We have been taught to look elsewhere, yet we are our own source of success.
It’s hard, as a woman in education, to feel like we can take up the space to figure ourselves out. We work so hard to create safe spaces for our students and peers. We rarely turn that focus inward.
So, here’s a challenge: if you are a woman of color, sit with yourself. You deserve it. Ask yourself and your friends what this work means for you, and how you can draw on your own strength and the love of your peers to thrive. If you have not already, begin to figure out your story in this movement. If you have, revisit that story and hopefully be energized in it.
If you are not a woman of color, ask one in your life what she needs this week. Give her a hug (if she likes hugs). Ask for her story. Listen with your whole heart.
Our stories have been overlooked for too long. We relieve a little of the pressure by sharing the struggle with each other. We grow our strength by sharing our power too. Sharing, listening, loving—this is how we begin to not only relieve this pressure, but own our power as well.
NOTE: We’re going to continue this conversation on Thursday, March 30th, at 7:30 PM ET. Join us.