Today, I assigned my students to learn about the story of The Central Park 5…
One element of discussion I found compelling and worth reflecting on during our brief talks in class about how students experienced watching When They See Us was the conclusions made about the ways that some white upper-class women like Linda Fairstein afford the ‘joys of privilege’. Both during and post the Central Park 5 conviction, the show made clear how she lives in a world where after folks like her do harm—harm that literally changes lives forever, there a few mechanism in place in her daily life where she has to be reminded of her actions or questioned on whether or not an error was made. She went on with her life after the false conviction of these young men and wrote bestselling books.
In connection to this, my students took up the concept of worlding—as I have subtly been tossing in a sci-fi perspective to the ways we view and interrupt the world, considering how due to race, social class, and gender identity many of us literally operate the same space but live in different worlds. From what I saw, of Linda’s story in the series, it reveals how certain folks have privileges in their lives that even when they do wrong—they do not have to reflect or think much about it because their daily lives do not pose reminders of what occurred to those five Black boys that do not operate in the same “world”.
It was a complicated experience for me including When They See Us on our course syllabus. I feel it is a necessary text for all of us to see for different purposes but there are many aspects of the show that are troubling for me to watch. For me and other Black male/students of color in the classroom more than white students. And, I don’t center an anti-racist and queer of color theory media materials in my class so students can “feel what it’s like to be in other someone else’s shoes”, it is more so that student can face their blind spots, assumptions, and micro-aggressions head on and also understand that there are “different shoes” that walk this world, sometimes who walk past them and that we can learn about some of the greatest joys and injustice by centering the voices of those who are typically silenced and erased by the state and current status quo.
Exercising ‘spatial agency’ as a Black and queer faculty member is important in this situation and something I reflect on a lot. I think about what I need my students (especially my non-Black/queer students) to read, see, and reflect on in ways that does not traumatize or pull too much cultural taxation from my body. I think about the power of them taking in the Central Park 5 narrative from a perspective that centers a Black aesthetic to tell the truth and subvert media framing. It was international that I had the students review the documentary in their own space, where they could wrestle with it and I would not have to compromise my emotional well-being to make sure that my class (of predominately white students) could see a text that I am not certain they would ever require them to reflect, learn from.
Teaching while Black is a constant push and pull of vulnerability and an exercise of freedom. And, I just started! You can rarely make the assumption that your students see you and while you have their best intentions in mind, there is a lot of blind leading the blind. You are their “teacher” for a short period of time but have the embodied power to change/open their hearts and minds for a long time. Due to your life experiences and your knowledges—from living and operating in a Black queer ‘world’, you have the potential to shift so much of what they have been taught to “see” about me and about the community(s) which I come from/feel tethered to. There is a lot of ‘worlding’ going on.
You have to get to know them and bring them to a place where they trust you to question and challenge their assumptions and where they can feel authorized to engage in rigorous dialogue and inquiry that won’t always keep them at the “center”. I showed When They See Us early in the semester. It was a good idea (I think!) because it allowed for us to understand that as we study the assumptions made from stereotypes and underrepresentation of people’s identity and culture in several element of widely-circulating media, we are included in this phenonium, and are going to use the knowledge production as tools to address comfort zones that are unproductive and hinder seeing the world through a much more complicated lens than the way we (have been taught) to see it.