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The invalidation of black voices in social work

There are tears, breaths, and emotional releases that come out of your body and leave you feeling violent, because you never allowed those tensions to come in. There is a feeling of fear, because you do not know how to stop yourself from carrying such heaviness again.

This is what the last day of my graduate program taught me. The class ended, I closed my laptop, inhaled deeply, and before the breath could leave my body with an exhale, I began to sob uncontrollably.

I entered my first Masters in Social Work class excited and completely naive about how emotionally difficult the journey would be. I have always been aware of the anti-black racism that permeates all facets of society. The education system is no exception, however, I thought those pursuing this degree would be keen to discuss and stand up against all injustices.

In my mind and in my heart, social work programs would be a refuge in the midst of the anti-black education system. I quickly learned that there is currently no safe haven for black students, even in institutions with bold commitments such as “think ahead” and “take action”.

Discussions have long been my richest educational experiences. The process of questioning the perspectives of others and questioning my own perspectives has often spawned new ideas to contribute to a more equitable society for black communities that I am so passionate about supporting.

As a community worker who has helped black clients overcome the drawbacks of unfair systems, the discussions have helped me imagine a better experience for black service users. As I prepared to face my masters, I anticipated that the class discussions would help me move closer to actualizing these imaginaries.

There was no lack of discussions in class, as I had hoped. Dialogue on Gender Inequality, Reconciliation for Indigenous Peoples and the Impacts of Capitalism. However, whenever I brought up the subject of anti-black racism, I encountered silence.

When he did not meet the silence, he encountered a student suggesting that white individuals touching the hair of black individuals may have been their attempt at “learning.” When I explained that this was an inappropriate way of expressing curiosity and shared personal experiences of feeling violated, silence returned.

The next day the student cried and claimed that I attacked her, causing her to “never want to talk about topics like this again.” What was most hurtful was that after all this commotion, the teacher and the majority of my classmates checked with this student to make sure she was okay. They never checked with me – I never felt quieter.

Professors who pride themselves on challenging students’ thought processes, encouraging critical thinking and provoking self-reflection, often abandon these commitments when it comes to the topic of anti-black racism. If there are any conversations, they are rushed due to individuals’ discomfort at the sound of the word Black. And this desire to bounce thoughts, ideas, perspectives, and grievances off other individuals does not come true, because the issues of black communities are rarely on the minds of people in the classroom.

As a black woman, anti-black racism is not something I can ignore. Austin Channing Brown wrote that the eerie joy of black people manifests itself in a level of apprehension resulting from the knowledge that “racism is the silent stalker always ready to snatch the joy from our lives.”

In my experience as a black student in this program, racism took away the joy of engaging in thought-provoking and thought-provoking discussions in class.

This is where the tension started to build in my body. The tension of accepting that I will have to learn through the context of whiteness and find ways to distort this learning for the benefit of black communities in my practice. The tension of realizing that preserving my mental well-being meant staying silent, while also recognizing that silence robbed me of my most powerful tool for learning.

On the last day of class, as I took that deep breath and sobbed, that tension was released. It was the realization that I had come to the end and would not have the educational experience I expected to enter that first class. I was in mourning.

I have an interesting relationship with resilience versus the black experience of oppression. Resilience has kept us alive, but ironically, the constant urge to activate resilience is killing us.

Nonetheless, I am ready to return to the ring on a mission to advocate for spaces within education, where black students have the opportunity to discuss matters that concern us and our communities. My dedication to the fight against Black Loudness, in a world that constantly silences us, has never been stronger.

Breanna Phillip is a social worker, therapist and writer. Follow her on Instagram @breannachanelle_