“Assumptions 101” by Lydia Shestopalova 2

Assumptions 101: The True Confessions of a White, Newbie Professor

Teaching” PoC Youth that Black Lives Matter

Lydia Shestopalova

Haven’t we all heard that “when you ‘assume,’ you make an ‘ass’ of ‘u’ and me”? I’ve even taught that. But I truly learned the lesson when using the lens of Black Lives Matter to introduce first year community college students to social scientific methods in a 6-week course entitled Ethnographies of Work I Retake. Or did I? This is an exploration of that experience, an examination of its frustrated intentions, unexpected failures, and many surprises, some painful, some uplifting—and perhaps, a distillation of what (not) to do next time.


The class first met on January 5, 2015. The previous summer and fall had been deadly and explosive. The choking murder of Eric Garner in Staten Island, in blatant disregard for his repeated pleas for breath, hit close to home—my students and I are New Yorkers, after all. Less than a month later, the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, followed by the cruel neglect of his body for hours after death, set off a long-standing vigil and righteous outpouring of grief, anger, and pain. On November 20, NYPD rookie Peter Liang’s staggering criminal negligence caused Akai Gurley’s death in the stairwell of his housing complex in Brooklyn. Just a few days later, Ferguson P.O. Darren Wilson was not indicted by the grand jury for the murder of Michael Brown. People poured into the streets in protest, silences ruptured, and the Black Lives Matter movement—born after the July 2013 decision finding George Zimmerman not guilty in the 2012 shooting death of Trayvon Martin—became nationally, inescapably visible.



As I saw it, BLM was writing itself into the curriculum for this iteration of EoWI at Guttman Community College. This condensed version of the course is specifically termed “Retake” because students are retaking it to fulfill the requirements of the college’s First Year Experience. Institution-wide, students are majority first generation college students, coming from low-income households, mostly Latinx, African Americans, immigrants, or the children of immigrants of color.[1] The effects of poverty and marginalization, the overwhelming economic and racial segregation of New York City public schools, and the national emphasis on testing over the course of the students’ educational history have stacked the odds high against many of them.

Ideally, the retake classroom provides the socially supportive atmosphere for students to immerse themselves in unfamiliar content and practices, while juggling the challenging, still new demands of college, substantial academic course-loads, and heavy work and family commitments. This support helps build student confidence and persistence. However, the threat of failure looms large and tangible for retake students—it’s their last chance to pass this course without the smear of an F on their transcripts. A failing grade not only lowers GPA, but can also impact eligibility for financial aid and ability to continue with the planned program of study, or enrollment in college altogether. For some retake students, this could be a make-it-or-break-it moment.[2]

Hypothetically and theoretically, alternative approaches to content delivery counteract such intense pressure to pass and make course material more readily engaging; so does a curriculum relevant to the students’ daily lives.[3] That is precisely why I chose Black Lives Matter as a theme: to enact bell hooks’ notion of “education as the practice of freedom.”[4] I hoped to create a community through intense, active learning and inspiration from “the power of the learning process.”[5]



It was Puerto Rican human rights activist, educator, and social worker Esperanza Martell who originally inspired my attempts to replace “deficit approaches” through “culturally responsive pedagogy” and content.[6] About ten years ago, she told me and a group of white activists working with people of color and within PoC communities that to be truly effective in social justice movements, we had to get over our white guilt. In words that pertain to the BLM EoWI Retake course I discuss in this piece, “it would be unfair, if not unethical, to place full responsibility for successfully educating students of color on teachers of color.”[7]

Police violence against African Americans and the racially based, systemic dysfunction of so-called criminal justice were in the news, on our doorsteps, in our homes on a daily basis -something none of us could ignore. Nor could we turn away from the growing and developing Black Lives Matter movement. One student mentioned how a BLM demonstration had disrupted business as usual at the Forever 21 store where she worked, close to Times Square. That my students and I were immersed in an inescapable historical and political moment of social change fed my assumptions that BLM would “naturally make sense” to my students. Ass = u + me. Definitely me.

To wit, I assumed:

  • that Black Lives Matter, the phrase, perhaps even the movement, would resonate with my students’ sense of socioeconomic inequality in general and their own social positions in particular;
  • that the immediacy of the theme would motivate genuine interest, leading to higher quality work, more vibrant class participation, and possibly, higher retention; and
  • that elements of the history, politics, and current events would intersect with the students’ personal experiences, curiosity, and potentially, professional interests.



After withdrawals, there were 20 students on the roster. Accounting for drop-off in attendance and completion of assignments, 17 remained. Eleven students were male, six female. All but two were people of color: one African American, two Caribbean American, and 12 Latinx.[8] Several students were first-generation immigrants. Two students were involved in a same-sex relationship with each other, out to the whole class and college community.

As it turned out, I had wrongly assumed that the complex racial, ethnic, class, and other identities of my students would automatically produce critical perspectives of the ‘post-racial’ era. I had wrongly assumed that to members of oppressed groups, the American dream of equality, justice, and individual rights was just as phony and contradictory as it was to me. That there was only one way for young black and brown youth to interpret the police murders of other black and brown youth. That the expansion and growing influence of BLM on the national conversation about race, policing, and structural inequalities would speak for itself and that my students would echo it in a particularly progressive way. That the learning process would occur at the pace and tenor of conversion—immediate and rapturous – simply because the content was culturally relevant.

I was wrong. Instead, I discovered that neither careful selection of content, nor use of varied media and materials to present it would suffice. Centering the major project on dynamic, professional individuals (men of color, like most of the students), having them enter our classroom and personally interact with the students, didn’t cut it alone. None of these preparations—reflecting best teaching practices and intentional checks on my privileges—prevented me from forming other assumptions. Nor did they save me from being caught off guard when they did not play out according to my expectations.[9] To dispel most of my reductionist assumptions in one fell swoop, my students taught me that I should have posed a direct, unifying question relating to the theme, so we could spend the entire course looking for answers, alone and together.



When planning and teaching this course, I was (and continue to be) a white-skinned cis-woman in her mid-30s. I also had the authority to grade students based on their use of academic language, protocols, and standards. Critical as I may be of them, teaching, modeling, and reproducing these was my charge. Yet privilege is both relative and intersectional.[10] Unless I purposefully out myself, my appearance, femme presentation, and lack of accent in English mask my Jewishness, queerness, foreign origins, and lack of US citizenship. At the time, I had been an adjunct at Guttman for a year and a half, a position so low on the academic totem pole that I enjoyed no economic stability and was still not eligible for benefits, including to treat my type I diabetes. I had been an activist and educator working among and with underserved NYC communities, mostly of color, for over ten years. But I had clearly never been one of the black or brown youth targeted by police.

Best intentions and practices notwithstanding, my status and platform as teacher and my visible and assumed identities inevitably dragged tinges of the “white-savior industrial complex” and the “white gaze” into the classroom.[11] Race and ethnicity are linked to grave socioeconomic disparities, hence, some of the complications to student-teacher dynamics are removed when the parties share cultural backgrounds.[12] Due to our (perceived) differences, both my presence and actions carried the potential to evoke double consciousness and racialized performance on the part of my students.[13]

Specifically to offset this, the crux of BLM EoWI Retake was a weeks-long project centered on student choice and the voices and experiences of black and brown people. Three guest speakers delivered in-class presentations on their life, work, and intersections with Black Lives Matter: an African American musician and educator who was unjustifiably stopped by the NYPD twice within the month prior to his appearance in our class; an African American actor, stage director, and arts educator; and a Dominican-born, NYC-raised film and stage actor. The theater performers were college buddies and founding members of The Seven Collective, “a multidisciplinary company” whose work is “rooted in our sense of community.”[14]

The entire class conducted observations of the three guest speakers. Students could then select one of the speakers for a follow-up interview, ultimately producing an ethnographic study on their chosen subject. An alternate choice was to observe the interaction of law enforcement and residents, visitors, and others in the students’ own communities, and to interview community members about their interactions with and views of law enforcement. Four of the twelve who completed the project picked the latter option, investigating communities as varied as Bayside, Queens, and a public housing complex in the South Bronx.

Only at the end of the semester did I learn that this project was indeed effective. A student was particularly impressed with how the guest speaker he interviewed, David King of The Seven Collective, used his work to inspire young people to live with dignity and pride, no matter what. Clearly, David had modeled and transmitted these qualities himself. Another student said that interviewing three black co-workers at his majority-Latinx workplace for the ethnographic project “opened his eyes” to their experiences and made him reevaluate how he saw BLM. Both students spoke of fears they conquered through personal engagement with the course content and projects.



The relative success of this ethnographic project crystalized my most significant insight from teaching this course—focusing on culturally relevant, urgent social and political issues through content is necessary, but not nearly enough. To encourage and cultivate the ideas, answers, and leadership of black and brown youth, educators must also provide explicit, consistent opportunities to co-create knowledge and develop expertise.[15] I thought I had made every effort to do so, but this experience proved otherwise.

During our very first meeting, the class dove into the theme. After initial introductions and basic course overview, students walked around the classroom, writing their associations and feelings about phrases I wrote on whiteboards around the room: “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot!” “I Can’t Breathe.” “Black Lives Matter,” “Driving While Black.” After writing their reactions, the students circled the boards again, this time marking their support or disagreement with the thoughts of others using checkmarks and x’s.

These responses revealed a variety of opinions. From the “Black Lives Matter” board, comments ranged from an expression reminiscent of Peter Tosh’s pan-African anthem “I Am an African” – “Doesn’t matter what your nationality is [a]s long as you are brown, you are black!”—to—“its [sic] their fault things happen to them.” To me, the three checkmarks next to the latter were frightening. Under “Hands Up! Don’t Shoot!” students shared advice, perceptions of guilt and blame, and most alarmingly, fear. “I usually attend marches and protest but I’m just to[o] scared to touch this subject,” wrote a young African American woman, single mother of a lively two-year-old. The question “What if their [sic] INNOCENT!” communicated one student’s indignation, but two others x’d it out. On the board with the phrase “I Can’t Breathe,” one student commented that if someone can talk, they’re still breathing. This chilled me to the bone.

As a first foray into the course theme, this activity was introduced completely out of context—a cold call to critical engagement. Was it too icy? Should we have read something first? Heard a song? Analyzed a quote? I had assumed that most of the students were already at least partially woke. I had expected that they would teach me about BLM rather than resist learning about it themselves. But the whiteboards showed that we had ventured into murky territory, where historical and sociopolitical understanding intersect with daily experience and emotional life.

Throughout the next six weeks, the content I had chosen forced us to confront some of these challenges. We listened to the mother of rock-n-roll Rosetta Tharpe, performing ‘Didn’t It Rain’ in Manchester, England, in 1964, and Saul Williams’ reclamation of MLK Day “All Coltrane Solos At Once,” and spoken word: Climbing Poetree’s ‘Being Human.’[16] We examined political cartoons and quotes by Nelson Mandela, Audre Lorde, and George Orwell.[17] We read and listened to critical and popular reporting, including Jelani Cobb, Democracy Now, Lisa Evers, Newsweek, and the New York Daily News.[18] We analyzed the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1965 speech, delivered at UCLA.[19] Some students and I attended a Know Your Rights workshop held on campus by the Legal Aid Society. And we took full advantage of the upcoming 50th anniversary of the famed marches from Selma to Montgomery, visiting the New York Historical Society’s exhibit of Stephen Somerstein’s photographs and just weeks after its opening, seeing Ava DuVernay’s much-acclaimed Selma in the theater.[20]



Discussions were difficult from the very beginning, including the whiteboard activity on the first day of class. Most of the students actively wrote, checked, and x’d out reactions to and interpretations of the phrases, but were reluctant to talk about them afterward. On several subsequent occasions, students explained how “the police are just doing what they have to do,” and assured me that, “the Pink Houses [where Akai Gurley was killed] are really bad.” At least three wanted to become a part of what I call the criminal (in)justice system. A few more had close connections to cops, or members of the military. Personal loyalties, mixed feelings, and unexpected interpretations had combined with misinformation. Much to my dismay, upon exiting the NYHS, the students chose to take a class selfie with the statue of Abraham Lincoln over that of Frederick Douglass. After seeing Selma in the second half of the course, having covered so much ground, students still expressed outright shock that the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ‘60s was in fact marked by violence, rage, and sorrow.

Through student-led class discussions and groupwork, we had pored over historical legacies of power, specifics of policing and the legal system, the rights of citizens and civilians, and the limitations on the exercise of rights, especially based on race and class. Purposefully, the curriculum reflected the views and voices of the communities knowledgeable about and affected by police violence, deliberate judicial negligence, and systemic impunity. We looked at as many sides as possible to both validate and challenge the different perspectives the students themselves brought into the classroom.[21] We spoke about longstanding inequalities in access to housing, healthcare, education, and professional advancement. Affirmative action, open admissions, the school-to-prison-pipeline, I thought we touched on it all, at least lightly.

Yet this did not (and could not) completely bridge the chasm in knowledge and critical comprehension. For instance, it did not make up for the way the Civil Rights Movement had been relegated to a closed chapter in the students’ minds, this turbulent history of struggle painted as tame and bloodless. One student posed a potential reason for this disconnect – the chosen subject matter was “not something [we] were taught… [O]ur school system failed us because African American history, Latino, Dominican, Puerto Rican history, that’s not something that’s [a] priority in our schools, you know, we are taught… a Eurocentric education.”

That one of the two white students in the class would be an NYPD hopeful did not surprise me in the least. But I was taken completely aback when a young, queer Latina not only expressed her sympathy for the police in the face of overt misconduct, but also repeatedly voiced her belief that “All Lives Matter.” During the final discussion on the last day of class, she reaffirmed this statement. Similarly, the previously mentioned white student had not budged from his stance. Only one young woman was an outspoken supporter of BLM itself and a vocal defender of the course theme as I had interpreted and designed it.

The outliers at either end remained firm in their convictions – perhaps informed, but not swayed by course content, methods, or delivery. The more subtle transformations occurred for other students, those uncommitted, undecided, or initially uninterested. At first, one Latinx male student did not feel ownership of the subject matter and was reluctant to “trigger” unwanted responses from his classmates. He “just didn’t want to have that conversation.” Analyzing Saul Williams’ powerful lyrics was his turning point; that is when he decided that he did have something to contribute, that he could talk, and that he would overcome the fear of doing so. Almost two years since BLM EoWI Retake began, a student from that course emailed me to say thanks, writing that she had learned much about an important subject. Several more noted that self-discovery had been a major part of their course experience, leading to lessons about patience, tolerance, intellectual rigor, and more. The age-old African wisdom “know thyself” had flowered in this contested classroom space.



Though many students continue to be “threatened by and even resist teaching practices which insist that [they] participate in education and not be passive consumers,” others will defiantly rise to the challenge, as some did in this context.[22] While taking on matters of literal life and death in the classroom – as the Black Lives Matter movement is doing in other spaces – educators of all backgrounds must be prepared for the unexpected. In my preparations for BLM EoWI Retake, I had prioritized what (I thought) my students experience. Now, I know that I must also prepare for how they learn and change throughout, and as a result of, the course. This means going beyond the consistent and deliberate use of culturally relevant content to support (self-)inquiry. To further culturally relevant pedagogy, I must provide ample opportunities for students to deepen their understanding of and to make profound connections with historical and contemporary social justice movements. Most critically, they should lead and drive these processes, not I.

My students themselves pointed to an ingenious strategy to these ends – to pose an existential question as the course’s organizing principle. “Make it plain,” Malcolm X might have said.[23] During one in-class activity, students listened in groups to excerpts of Dr. King’s 1965 speech at UCLA. In response to the details of systemic and historical denial of basic opportunities to African Americans in the United States, one group poignantly asked: “If being put down for quite some time, would you be a peaceful protester or violent?”

Unable to stay silent or on the fence, a student will respond with feeling and conviction when asked such a provocative question directly: when you are consistently denied all other options, what would you do to communicate your outrage and to demand your rights? Now that’s the start of a conversation to last for at least an entire semester – the first leap into co-creating knowledge, understanding, analysis, and insight. “Education as the practice of freedom” indeed.[24]


End Notes

[1] “Fast Facts: Demographics for All Enrolled Students,” Center for College Effectiveness, Stella and Charles Guttman Community College, CUNY, https://guttman-cuny.digication.com/idea/demographics.

[2] The report “First Year Experience Retakes,” prepared by Guttman’s Center for College Effectiveness in June 2016 provides the average, cumulative, and incremental pass rates for Retake courses, including Ethnographies of Work I. To the best of my knowledge, there is no published information about student experiences or analysis of their performance in such courses. Nonetheless, an internal proposal to change course delivery for Composition I Retake (ENGL 103) supports my claims, as do the observations and experiences of instructors, myself included. Because ENGL 103 is a course taken by students of the same demographics and skill levels as EoWI Retake courses, the findings on which these recommendations are based can be legitimately generalized. “ENGL 103 Composition I Retake Revisions,” internal proposal, Guttman Community College, February 15, 2016; “First Year Experience Retakes,” internal report, Center for College Effectiveness, Guttman Community College, June 20, 2016.

[3] With outstanding success, one Guttman colleague taught an EoW Retake course using Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s “decolonizing methodologies,” an expansion and application of ideas previously posed by Edward Said. Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples (New York: Zed Books, Inc, 1999); Gloria Ladson-Billings, “Toward a Theory of Culturally Relevant Pedagogy,” Educational Research Journal 32, no. 3 (1995): 469.

[4] bell hooks in conversation with her colleague Ron Scapp. bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom (New York: Routledge, 1994), 152.

[5] Ron Scapp quoted here. bell hooks, 153.

[6] Django Paris, “Culturally Sustaining Pedagogy: A Needed Change in Stance, Terminology, and Practice,” Educational Researcher 41, no. 3 (2012): 93; Gloria Ladson-Billings, “Toward a Theory of Culturally Relevant Pedagogy,” Educational Research Journal 32, no. 3 (1995): 469.

[7] Ana Maria Villegas, Karthyn Strom, and Tamara Lucas, “Closing the Racial/Ethnic Gap Between Students of Color and Their Teachers: An Elusive Goal, Equity and Excellence in Education 45, no 2 (2012): 298.

[8] Students wrote in their race and ethnic background on a brief survey conducted during the first day of class. These responses revealed multiple identifications: a mixture of race, ethnicity, and nationality. I use the terms herein fully aware that all labels are problematic. No single term can reflect how the students think of themselves in any given context. Still, it’s important to know who’s in the room.

[9] Peggy Macintosh’s 1989 article, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” first appeared in Peace and Freedom Magazine, a publication of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, Philadelphia, PA. Named privileges and methods for “checking” them have proliferated since, putting racial and other social inequalities on the proverbial table and working against them. As this article details, I made conscious choices to confront and mitigate my many privileges while planning for this course. Ultimately, I argue, “checking white privilege” is not all it takes.

[10] Coined by law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw in the 1980s to specifically address the role of gender and race when deconstructing the effects of oppression, elements of the concept have been discernible in the thinking and writing of female African American activists from Sojourner Truth and Ida B. Wells-Barnett to Audre Lorde and Angela Davis, among many others. Bim Adewunmi, “Kimberlé Crenshaw on intersectionality: ‘I wanted to come up with an everyday metaphor that anyone could use’,” NewStatesman.com, April 2, 2014, http://www.newstatesman.com/writers/318799.

[11] Though distinct, these concepts are obviously related to “white privilege,” discussed above. Teju Cole, “The White-Savior Industrial Complex,” TheAtlantic.com, March 21, 2012, http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/03/the-white-savior-industrial-complex/254843/; Brittney Cooper, “Maureen Dowd’s Clueless White Gaze: What’s Really Behind the ‘Selma’ Backlash,” salon.com, January 21, 2015, http://www.salon.com/2015/01/21/maureen_dowds_clueless_white_gaze_whats_really_behind_the_selma_backlash/.

[12] Villegas, Strom, and Lucas, 286-288.

[13] W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (New York: Dover Publications, 1903).

[14] I am indebted to David King and Nail Viñas for their contributions to this course, particularly for their thoughtful and generous responses to the students’ interview questions. “About,” SevenCollective.orghttp://sevencollective.org/about/.

[15] I concentrate specifically on the success of students of color because they are the vast majority of my students; they face particular histories and circumstances that complicate and often prevent their educational progress; and doing so actually benefits all students.

[16] Rosetta Tharpe, The American Folk Blues Festival: The British Tours, Didn’t It Rain, YouTube video, running time 3 minutes, 55 seconds, originally recorded in 1964, http://youtu.be/SR2gR6SZC2M; Karaslamb, “Saul Williams Reclaims MLK Day w/ Essay + ‘All Coltrane Solos At Once’ feat. Haleek Maul,” OkayPlayer.com, 2014, http://www.okayplayer.com/news/saul-williams-mlk-essay-all-coltrane-solos-at-once-haleek-maul-mp3.html.

[17] Tom Tomorrow, ‘Protect and Serve,’ in Daily Kos, January 5, 2015, http://www.dailykos.com/story/2015/01/05/1355204/-Cartoon-Protect-and-serve#. Selections included quotations from Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom and Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider. To examine a quotation from George Orwell’s Animal Farm, we referred to the 1954 animation: Animal Farm, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dZLbqLXe-I0.

[18] Jelani Cobb, ”Chronicle of a Riot Foretold, The New Yorker, November 25, 2014, http://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/chronicle-ferguson-riot-michael-brown; Vince Warren, “Vince Warren on How Police Officers Get Away with Killing from Ferguson to NYC,” interview on Democracy Now!, Center for Constitutional Rights, December, 2014, http://ccrjustice.org/learn-more/videos/vince-warren-democracy-now%21%2C-eric-garner-grand-jury-decision; Lisa Evers, ”Mike Brown Decision,” HOT97, November 30, 2014, https://soundcloud.com/lisa-evers-hot97/113014-mike-brown-decision; “Quora Question: What Do Police Officers Think About How Ferguson, MO Police Handled the Aftermath of the Brown Shooting?,” Newsweek.com, September 14, 2014, http://www.newsweek.com/quora-question-what-do-police-officers-think-about-how-police-department-ferguson-269439; Amy Errol Louis, “Why ‘Black Lives Matter’ Matters,” NewYorkDailyNews.com, December 9, 2014, http://www.nydailynews.com/opinion/errol-louis-black-lives-matter-matters-article-1.2038331.

[19] Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Martin Luther King, Jr. at UCLA, April 27, 1965,” UCLA Communications Studies Archive, YouTube video, running time 55 minutes, 21 seconds, originally recorded on April 27, 1965, digitized 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ny6qP0rb_Ag.

[20] Stephen Somerstein, “Freedom Journey 1965: Photographs of the Selma to Montgomery March,” exhibit at the New York Historical Society, New York, NY, January 16 – October 25, 2015, visited on February 12, 2015.

[21] Geneva Gay, “Afterthought: The Imperative of Learning about Legacies,” Black History Bulletin 68, no. 1 (2005), 35.

[22] hooks, 143-144.

[23] Make It Plain, Television, directed by Orlando Bagwell, American Experience (PBS, 1994).

[24] hooks, 152.

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2 thoughts on ““Assumptions 101” by Lydia Shestopalova

  • Betty Maloney

    Great job.
    All of your students have been immersed in the forced corporate testing curriculum during their public school education that has hindered their critical thinking skills. Your course attempted to break that cycle. They are still discovering the benefits of the course and the learning environment that was created
    Thanks for the great article