What are we teaching the kids? Toxic Femininity and the Sankofa Principle

I was sitting with a group of my favorite teachers. We meet once a month with a focus on pedagogy. During this meeting I was asking them about their ‘problem of practice.’

So, let me give you a bit of background.

Y’all know I work with schools and teachers around issues of race, gender, power and privilege, identifying the ways these concepts play out in teaching and learning.

I love what I do.

I currently spend 80% of my time, let’s call it, informing and revealing the latest research and concepts to educators and I spend about 20% of my time working on developing decolonized curriculum and engaging in the reflective practice of decolonizing oppressive pedagogy in our schools.

So with this group of teachers, I’ve spent about a year and a half delving into theories and ideology but these teachers want to get to what we do best, moving from theory to practice.

So, I’m sitting with the teachers delving into a reflective protocol in order to unearth what they deem as their problem of practice so we could solve the problem.

I begin to engage the last teacher in the protocol to find out what area of her pedagogy she wants to work on. She teaches a reading class that has both strong readers and readers that struggle.

We’re talking about a pedagogical practice that I really struggle with. I’ll talk about that another time.

The teacher begins to show me some student work and excitedly shows me one of her students’ assignment where the student talks about toxic femininity.

My mind is racing with all kinds of thoughts.

In my head: Oh shit some little black girl woke asf in here and recognizes that White women feminism is the epitome of toxic femininity because they practice a feminism that hates men (even though white men are oppressive asf) and isn’t intersectional and lots of times uses White supremacy to oppress women of color and poor women. I want to meet this girl and sit in on this class and revel in the awakening of the youth.

So I’m like tell me more.

She explains to me that the girl explained toxic femininity as the way women demonize and degrade other women. Specifically calling them hoes and sluts.

So I’m like tell me more.

The teacher explains that she was really proud of the student for being able to identify the toxic ways the female students in the class were reacting to the action in the book.

So I’m like tell me more.

She then explains how they were talking about toxic masculinity as a theme throughout the book and that it was fantastic that this student could transfer that idea to the idea of toxic femininity.

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So I’m like, what the kids said is stupid (I didn’t mean it) because their definition of toxic femininity being women calling women hoes and sluts is really the manifestation of patriarchy. I mean where do we learn this shit from?

The teacher wasn’t feeling me.

She explained that the students used their critically thinking skills.

I explained that they indeed had not.

And that I thought toxic femininity was about white women feminism. But beyond that, how can we talk about any kind of toxic anything without talking about power? Who has the power in the situation or who has historic power, societal power, institutional power and that any conversation around toxic femininity that doesn’t discuss power is dangerous.

She wasn’t feeling me.

She believed the children had brilliantly pointed out a real issue with how women saw women and in this case how Black women saw other Black women. She discussed the merits of feminism, which I stayed away from because, well, I ain’t no feminist.

We went back and forth until I decided to refocus on digging into her problem of practice.

The next morning, as the internet gods and goddess would have it, this picture came up in my feed.

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I immediately sent it to the teacher, The subject line read: Continuing thoughts on toxic feminism.

I only had the picture in the body of the email.

A few days later the teacher responded to me.

I didn’t ask permission to share our conversation but my hope is that she is ok with me sharing our dialogue without revealing who she is.

Disclaimer: I have presented this as a conversation back and forth vs. emails back and forth. My intent is to make it a clear read.

Her: Hi Khalilah, I’ve had so much going on that I haven’t been able to talk since our last conversation. But it has been on my mind.

Me: Now for the good stuff. Lol.

We definitely agree about many things, but I am not sure I stand in the same place about feminism. I don’t support the tearing down of men as part of my social agenda (I guess I can call my worldview that, though it sounds awfully grand).
My experience with feminism has never made room for me, a Black woman, who loves Black men and want them to evolve through love and not law.
And I feel that I perhaps used the term ‘toxic masculinity’ without investigating it thoroughly enough.
I was guilty of the same thing.
I was discussing it with students in terms of the way men are viewed in society- as needing to be strong and a provider…
Don’t they, though? I think we can have a nuanced conversation about what it means to be “strong” and “provide” because when looked at from a racial and historical perspective those two things have been taken away from Black men, our society has a long history of ensuring that Black men could never be “strong and provide” 
…and never to cry or seem emotional (we could go on)
This definitely is true. .
We were also discussing race, and how black people are thought not to have the same feelings as white people by white people as a vestigial remnant of slavery. (Jeez, I phrased that crazy- what I said and discussed with students was that white people had to believe and spread that idea to attempt to excuse their treatment of slaves.) We are reading Tears of a Tiger Together by Sharon Draper, and characters implicitly discuss this. So we made it explicit.
I am the kind of person who wants to talk about EVERYTHING I find interesting with students.
Me too.
I guess I raced into the discussion after our PD workshop that discussed toxic masculinity. Sometimes, I fear that my excitement leads me into the same trap that my daughter’s teacher is facing- thinking that kids know and understand this stuff and so I don’t really have to correct the minor points. All that said, I was pleased and proud of them for discussing toxic femininity as a counter-problem associated with toxic masculinity.
I understand and I am intrigued also by that idea of toxic femininity. I was just concerned about the definition of it. But I know how the excitement takes a hold.
I think students really connect to the way they are seen as members of their gender- and they see poles, even if not exactly a binary as much as they once did. So yes, I agree with you that the slut/madonna dichotomy ignores elements of power dynamics. But for students to see these representations as flawed and limiting, in my opinion, seems to be helping them to think twice about shaming and insulting people (and glorifying people) who fall in the wrong places in those systems.
I agree.
I am not sure there is a polarity between toxic masculinity and toxic feminism in the same way that I see one between toxic masculinity and toxic femininity.
How is toxic femininity different from feminism? And from which perspective are we looking at those terms? For me, using my African cosmology lens, femininity can’t be toxic. Long story. I think this is about how are we defining these terms.
And I say that without trying to defend white feminism for its racism and short-sightedness. I guess I wonder if trying to discuss feminism in this conversation isn’t kind of forcing the conversation into a direction away from gender when it was explicitly about gender.
What do we mean by gender?
And I would never want to turn a conversation that was about one thing into another thing (though I am sure I do that sometimes).
And isn’t this life?
I got confused myself about the layers of depth that our conversation was getting to- but I respectfully submit that one contrast of the (toxic) idea that men of color are strong workhorses who must crush homosexuality because it is a symbol of weakness is the (also toxic) idea that women of color exist only for the sexual pleasure of others and to breed.
And this is when we talk about having an ahistorical understanding of homosexuality in the Black psyche, are we discussing why Black men see homosexuality as a sign of weakness? For example, all the ways that plantation owners would rape Black men (buck breaking) on the plantation in order to show them as weak and not to be followed. That these men would be sodomized as other enslaved persons watched on. We also don’t talk about how in indigenous African and indigenous cultures, cosmology and history, being bi-sexual was seen as a gift from God and being “gay” essentially wasn’t a thing and finally the affects that Christianity has had on the Black psyche and has formed high levels of intolerance towards the LGBTQ communities, much like how Christianity supported racism (I’m being so brief here). But when we’re attempting to break down these long held beliefs, how are we doing it? Do we recognize what we don’t know, and how do we teach students to take an inquiry stance with long held beliefs?
I do understand that ignoring the racial aspect there gives a fairly similar dichotomy, and perhaps that is why the discussion we had about power dynamics came into play. I see a difference between the way white people and people of color are treated in these systems. So I’m wondering- when my students think about why someone in a book (different book- The Circle by Ronyea Thompson- an independent reading choice) was raped, and students say it’s because she was a stripper- I don’t think I can combat that notion with the idea of toxic feminism, but I do think I can with the notion of toxic femininity as they developed it, since it deals with the way women are viewed by all in a society. Am I super unwoke (asleep?) for believing in intersectionality?
I guess I just have a lot of tension around the idea that toxic femininity is the cause of why students think she was raped. Also, when the students throw out a term like toxic femininity, did you do a Google search? After our conversation, I did. My biggest fear, if I’m being honest, is that we’re calling something brilliant that isn’t. When students innovate around a concept we need to be able to assess and push their thinking.
Insert the definition of toxic femininity I used above.
I really enjoyed our back and forth and I still think that we are talking two different languages. Though it is good that we are talking.
Here at CREAD we believe that whenever a teacher is crafting a learning experience for a student, that they must use the Sankofa principle as they develop the learning experience.
Now we know that the principle states that we must go back and get “it” (knowledge) in order to move forward, but what does that mean in our practice?:
This teacher and I will indeed continue to dig into this conversation specifically about ‘toxic femininity’ and I’m going to move the conversation forward by asking her to embody the Sankofa principle in every learning experience she creates for the students.
To really decolonize our curriculum and our practice, we can take nothing for granted. We must live in an inquiry stance, never thinking we already know, but rather knowing that we don’t know much.
In solidarity.

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