Picture a university classroom of about 100 undergraduate students. 50 of the students are white, 24 are Asian, 11 are Latinx, eight are Black, five are multiracial, and two are late. The topic at hand is the intersection of gender, sexuality, the body, and race. This scenario — the classroom demographics, the subject, and the particular question — is what you may come across at the University of Pennsylvania's History Department, where Stephanie McKellop is a PhD student and graduate teaching assistant. Which student do you call on first to speak and offer their perspective? If you’re anything like teaching assistant Stephanie McKellop, you’re going to call on a Black woman first — and after you tweet about it, you’re going to be accused of being a racist. McKellop (whose pronouns are they/them) upset some of their fellow internet-users when they took to Twitter to explain how their teaching style centers marginalized voices.
On Oct. 16, McKellop tweeted from their now private account: “I will always call on my Black women students first. Other POC get second tier priority. [White Women] come next. And, if I have to, white men.” Archived copies of the tweet and subsequent ones in the same thread are available online.
This tactic — known as progressive stacking — is meant to offer marginalized students more opportunity to speak in the classroom. At PWIs (predominantly white institutions), Black women are often outnumbered by people of other races. It can be intimidating to speak in a space where there aren’t many other people who look like you. I graduated from a PWI twice. During undergrad, professors often commented on how quiet I was. I told them I was just shy, but really I felt self-conscious being around my white, legacy peers. Many professors and teaching assistants across the country have adopted the progressive stacking method to encourage diverse perspectives and conversation, which benefits all students in the classroom.
Despite McKellop’s progressive motivations, some folks on Twitter were not happy about their teaching method and accused them of reverse racism (which isn’t real) and called for the University of Pennsylvania to monitor their classroom for discrimination. Sigh.
Steven Fluharty, the dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania, was quoted in a statement regarding the backlash. He said:
“We are looking into the current matter involving a graduate student teaching assistant to ensure that our students were not subjected to discriminatory practices in the classroom and to ensure that all of our students feel heard and equally engaged.”
How McKellop decides to run their classroom is not racial discrimination, but rather counteracts the racial discrimination that does exist in American classrooms. Starting as early as elementary school, Black girls are twice as likely to be suspended as white girls in every single state, according to a report from the National Women’s Law Center. This disciplinary disparity is more stark in states like Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Illinois where Black girls are 8.5 times more likely to get suspended than white girls despite being a significantly smaller proportion of the overall population. In Washington, D.C., the difference in suspension rates is even more astounding. Black girls are 17.8 times more likely to get suspended than white girls in our nation’s capital. These suspensions aren’t because Black girls are more apt to misbehave, either (which is not the case) — they’re due to negative stereotypes that are widely held about Black girls. The three authors of the study that found that statistic said, “Stereotypes of black girls and women as ‘angry’ or aggressive, and ‘promiscuous’ or hyper-sexualized can shape school officials’ views of black girls in critically harmful ways.”
Preparation for college starts early. A long history of disciplinary problems can prevent Black girls from getting into schools like the University of Pennsylvania in the first place. With the structural obstacles facing Black women in academia, calling on them first in the classroom is hardly reparations, but it does give Black women the well-deserved chance to express their perspective on issues that are important to them.