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On Teachable Moments

I feel like I hear the term “teachable moment” more often than I’d like to lately. And it makes me cringe. But I suppose it shouldn’t since I am a teacher and “teachable moments” are my bread and butter.

But I’m also a black teacher. Who teaches about black things. And a woman. Who teaches about women’s things. So I find myself in these awkward moments where someone says something ridiculous or offensive or annoying or misguided and everyone simply waits in silence and looks at me in anticipation of a teachable moment.

In the classroom I love these moments. I love that one student who isn’t afraid to put it out there. The one who says the things that makes everyone uncomfortable yet curious. This is often a starting point to a great conversation. It hinges upon the classroom as a community and the engagement of everyone involved rather they are talking, listening, nodding, or asking questions. It’s a moment that I feel empowered to participate in and facilitate. And most importantly, I get to see it through until the end. I can make that one moment last a whole semester if I want to.

HOWEVER, there are, of course, those other moments. Those moments when you are expected to teach people who did not come to learn. These are the moments I hate. For instance:

  1. The white coworker who makes you her go to person for talking about all things black. You know the type. The one who empathized with the Civil Rights Movement™ while growing up in a town that was not in the South. The one who will more than likely vote for Bernie Sanders. This person will ask you how you feel about Cornell West, or Beyonce, or “on fleek” at the water cooler. You will complain to your other token black working friends. One of them will inevitably say that this is a teachable moment. And you will want to stomp your feet and scream: “I DO NOT WANT TO TALK TO HER ABOUT ANYTHING! I AM NOT HER BLACK FRIEND!” Just me? Oh. Okay. The point is there is no right way to tell this person that you are black and that it is uncomfortable and unnecessary for them to corner you with their curiosities about black politics or pop culture. This is because they never said I am asking you this because you are black, even though you know this to be true because you are the only black person in the office and not coincidentally the only person they talk to about anything not related to work.* And these momentary conversations always have to do with the latest trending topic on black twitter. And if I choose to make this a teachable moment I run the risk of being subject to white guilt, white tears, or accusations of being racially sensitive. Ain’t nobody got time! I have actual work to do that somebody pays me for.
  2. The black friend of a friend who says anti-black things. I often call my doctorate the people’s phd because my chosen family took this journey with me and they all know that a black history fact check is only a phone call away. But inevitably (and by that I mean more often than I would like) we end up kicking it at someone’s house or at the bar or over a meal and somebody blacks starts in on the new black talking points. What about black on black crime…race doesn’t exist…I’m not black I’m human…protesters are angry/too radical/annoying/pointless, etc. And then everyone looks at me. First for my eye roll, which I embrace, followed by awkward silence. Later, I get the interrogation. “I thought you were gonna school her.” or “How are we gonna get free if we don’t educate our people.” Something something conscious. Something something woke. It’s a teachable moment. NO FRIEND IT ISN’T. That person didn’t come to learn. They say those things because they read too many Facebook posts and not enough books.  Like me they came to eat/drink/kiki. Let me do those things in peace. And if they think these things about people in the black community for having a politic then the teachable moment will reveal how they really feel about me. Let’s not ruin anyone’s good time.
  3. The person who wants to learn, but doesn’t want to read. This person thinks of me as some sort of black history spiritual guru. They want me to tell them everything I know. Because I sound more like Drunk History on a good day than their dry and uninteresting professor. “I like talking to you, Shana, because you make history fun and interesting.” Sometimes I worry that people in my life think I was born with some sort of black power genetic mutation which implanted all this information in my head to share with them. I am also not sure how to explain how much work it takes to make me appear that way. Eleven years of higher ed. A lifetime worth of reading. Talking to my elders. Listening to my elders. An endless curiosity and a determination to find answers to every question. I realize that not everyone has the time or the privilege of putting their life on hold to go to school. And not everyone wants to be the next superstar scholar of black thought. But I cannot tell you how many times I have offered people books, from my own bookshelf, and they tell me that reading is boring. Or ask me to just tell them what it says. Which wouldn’t be a problem, except that these same folks express a desire to be activists and world changers. However, if I take this as a teachable moment, then I have to break it to them that all of their (s)heroes read. Malcolm X read like five newspapers every morning. When my mother couldn’t afford books as a young person she read discarded newspapers and magazines on public transportation. Then I run the risk of being accused of some sort of ism or ruining everyone’s good time. So I’d rather not.

I say all of this as a PSA: please stop telling folks like me that everything needs to turn into a teachable moment. It doesn’t. For my students and other young folks I never get tired of teaching. It’s both my job and my passion. For that I am lucky. But grown folks? Grown folks gotta put some work in. If you want me to teach tell your people to want to learn. And sometimes I want to be a human being and just be mad and throw shade like everyone else. And with that I will leave this lengthy rant on the cutting room floor.


*I wish I could make this up friends. As I was writing this said coworker turned a conversation about Philip Roth into one about Amiri Baraka, her participation in a white Black Panther Party support group, and then suggested that we should all wear hijabs (which she called gojabs) in solidarity with Muslim women. All in the time it took her k-cup to finish brewing. I cannot make this up people.


About Shana Russell

Woman. Scholar. Liberationist.

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