“What do you think I want, respect or compliance?”
This was the question I posed to my class this week, after I asked them to define the terms. For compliance they yelled out things like “following orders” and “obedience.” They defined respect as “valuing the thoughts of others,” “being loyal,” and so on.
I asked them to define respect versus compliance for a few reasons. Last Friday, my class of mostly white college sophomores, juniors, and seniors was feeling particularly antsy. For many, my 11 o’clock course is their last one before their weekend begins and by the time I see them they are anxious to leave. But Last Friday took the cake. Peering at bright cellphone screens, a majority of students casually scrolled through Facebook and Instagram. Here I was trying to engage them in a conversation about Toni Morrison as they liked pictures and commented on posts. It was extremely frustrating.
My general policy is to note who is using social media and file it away for future reference. This will simply affect their participation grade. If they are persistent, I pull them aside and ask what’s up. Ultimately, my students are grown and make choices. My pedagogical style does not emphasize shaming or policing.
But Friday felt different. I felt different. The magnitude of the disrespect welled up within me. When they started shuffling their books and bags at 11:45—five minutes before class ends—I was too through.
“Class is not over until 11:50!” I said. “Please stop putting your stuff away”
Most of them stopped packing, but many just sat there looking at me blankly or sullenly for five minutes while I wrapped up our meager discussion with a handful of engaged students.
So, I had already planned to talk to my students when I returned to class the next week. This is a classroom community and we need to respect one another. They need to respect me. They need to respect themselves. We’ve made agreements about what we’ve come together to accomplish this semester and I’m going to hold us to that.
And then the attack on the young sister at Spring Valley High happened. When I heard that she was accused of being “disruptive”—alternately chewing gum or using a cell phone—I thought about my own students and what I have asked of them in the past, and what I continue to ask of them. I thought about what was expected from the young woman and her peers who were violated.
When I spoke to my class this week I asked them what they thought I expected of them. Respect, they said unanimously. I told them I wanted us to cultivate a place where we’re excited about learning, a space where we can all be seen and heard. They affirmed this shared goal. A few apologized. We talked about how we could move forward; it was a pretty solid discussion. We even talked about Spring Valley and the work of viral videos in our society. No one got manhandled, beaten, or shamed. I called out inappropriate behavior, we had a civil discussion about it, and we kept it moving. We reestablished mutual respect.
Building community is an ongoing project and will happen over the course of the semester. And while I don’t teach high school, the reality is that I am working with young people who are constantly testing boundaries and learning to navigate their lives as adults. I’m sure I’ll see someone else scrolling through Facebook again, but I ain’t worried.
My job is to teach, not to break spirits.
But I am worried that what we want from black children, and from the black child in the now infamous video, is not respect, but compliance in the form of unyielding, unquestioning obedience. There is no room for questions, pushing back, mistakes, or bad days.
And, to that end, I have been alarmed, saddened, and driven to paroxysms of rage at all the fractured logic, particularly coming from black folk. “But if she had just followed the rules,” many reason.
The young girl should not be surprised at the violence she received since she incited it with her insolence. If only she had followed the rules.
By that inane logic, I should have body slammed a good chunk of my class the other day. By that ridiculous logic—which reeks of misogynoir—teachers from K-12 through college (and even in some graduate school seminars), should resort to violence if students are not obedient. (Do you know how often my college students come to class with no book or haven’t read? I’d be fighting all day). By that raggedy ass, bootleg logic, half of us would be bruised and unemployed after we were violently ejected from staff meetings for looking at our phones. (Because that meeting should’ve been an email and you might as well check your Black People Meet account, right?)
See how that doesn’t make sense?
Let me find out that we’re all just a bunch of law-abiding citizens who were never “sassy”—no, not once! We never act “inappropriately” and are, at all times, respectable. Let me find out that we’re all prepared to receive the wrath of authorities if we step out of line. Please send me your full government name and your mailing address so that when a police officer or a vigilante decides that you’re too much of an uppity Negro for your own good, I won’t go to any vigils or remember your name. Because clearly you deserved it. You asked for it.
See how that doesn’t make sense?
Except for one thing: this logic makes perfect sense if our goal is compliance rather than mutual respect.
The truth is that many of us experienced some masochistic thrills in watching this child get body slammed at school. Our mouths watered at the soul murder on display. We saw a “mouthy” child get cut down to size. We agree that “kids these days” are so damn rude and that more of them just need a good ass whooping. The self-loathing and internalized hatred has gleefully bubbled up and spilled over onto keyboards where thumb thugs intone violent rhetoric, acting as if this young woman was the bully or partner or parent that haunts our own nightmares. But, quiet as it’s kept, we are the quiet young girl in that desk. Former officer Ben Fields—aka Officer Slam—would as soon body slam you, me, my mama, and that black girl he’s been supposedly dating for a year. Scapegoat this young sister if you want to. That doesn’t change a thing.
It’s also not lost on me that there seems to be less sympathy for this sister than for black men who have been accused of acting out. She’s disobedient and disrespectful, but we would not say, for example, that Tamir Rice “should’ve known better than to be outside with something that looked like a gun.” No. Because why would we? That baby did not deserve to be mowed down in the street and this young person in South Carolina who is in the foster care system doesn’t deserve to be body slammed for not following instructions.
And, from one educator to another, that raggedy Spring Valley teacher needs to reevaluate his teaching philosophy if he has to call the SRO and the principal because a student whips out a cellphone. He needs a new profession.
So let me ask again: do we want respect or compliance?
Susana Morris is associate professor of English at Auburn University and author of Close Kin and Distant Relatives: The Paradox of Respectability in Black Women’s Literature. She is the co-founder of the The Crunk Feminist Collective, where a version of this post originally appeared.
[Illustration by Jim Cooke]