Commentary | Acting like a black girl

The classed Other and the university as an economic power structure

The existence and experience of Othering by oppressed bodies is often thought of and discussed in the realm of the standard interracial relational Othering occurrence. For this piece, however, I want to explore the nuances of the Other and Othering from a different lens. A form of Othering that, although seldom spoken about, is just as significant to understanding oppressed bodies and oppression in its totality. An Othering that exists in intra-racial relational spaces that is constructed on the basis of one’s socio-economic class. A classed Othering, if you will.

A classed Othering? Yes! A classed Othering. To understand this concept, I want to first look at how black women are essentialized according to their class location. Then, I want to place this classed Othering within racialized black spaces in the university and evaluate the university’s role in this, as an elitest economic structural power. And, further evaluate how the impact of this role has a specific effect on certain racialized bodies.

Although not extensively, I have, in previous articles, spoken about the various ways black women are stereotyped. However, these problematic characterizations, when looked at intra-racially, take on a whole problematic other form. A form that would be best expressed if I provided a little anecdote, to help contextualize it.

I remember during my first year at McGill, I had become a lot more comfortable on campus. And, by comfortable, I mean loud. I could always be found scouring the campus yelling about something. Whether it was my hatred for McGill or issues pertaining to racialized or gendered bodies, I was always found forcefully asserting my opinion, as I like to call it, about something. However, at that particular time, it seemed as though my comfort at McGill seemed to instead reflect my racialized and classed location.

It seems like it was just yesterday, in fact, that I was eating lunch with a couple of my black friends in Redpath and talking about the possibility of discussing homosexuality in the black community. A friend of mine, who vehemently opposed having the the discussion, argued against its happening. I, however, totally wanted it – and when I totally want something, I tend to get a little intense…and loud. So, I got loud; so much so that I imagine the entire cafeteria probably heard me.

A couple weeks later, another friend of mine, who wasn’t in the cafeteria at the time, had told me that he heard I was yelling in the cafeteria. He said, “Yeah, my friend said they saw you. They said you were acting like a black girl.”

What? Huh? Wait! A what?

This phenomenon of “acting” like a black girl is a precise example of, not only an essentialist characterization of black women, but of classed Othering. For, the evident racialization, not just of myself, but more importantly of my behavior implicit within this phrase, “…acting like a black girl” denotes its classed nature.

How so? This phrase, firstly, invokes a certain undesirability. That is, to be a black girl is not a good thing. Secondly, it particularizes black women. In other words, it makes the assumption that there is a certain type of black woman – a type of black woman one should not want to be, let alone be. And thirdly, it rests its particularization of black women on a classist premise. That is, to be a black girl is to be the quintessential black girl – the “hoodrat,” the “cyattie” or my favorite, one of the many “gyal dem.” For those of you who aren’t aware of those terms, it refers to an essentialized grouping of black women who are, almost always, of lower or lower-middle class backgrounds.

That occurrence, that statement, reflects exactly this notion of classed Othering; for, in that immediate moment, I was made to be the Other on the basis of my demeanor as understood in a classed context. A context which, I argue, is both perpetuated by and helps maintain the elitist economic power structure known as university.

University, an institution that prides itself on its exclusivity and knowledge-acquiring superiority, is also a space of hierarchy. It both hierarchizes and is hierarchized. It hierarchizes in many ways; one that most significant is economically. Students in these spaces are expected to maintain a certain level of economic status; a status that can be projected in many ways. If not monetarily, it must be reflected socially. This elitest socialization of students is fundamental to the maintenance of the university’s status – a status of superiority, of exclusivity, and of preeminence.

For, it is through this perpetuation of elitism by not simply the university, but also my fellow black peers (of all socio-economic backgrounds mind you) that I came to understand how classed Othering occurs in university spaces and how that further maintains the status of the university.

For, through this classed Othering occurs a racialized, classist social policing of sorts in which my behavior, demeanor, and lifestyle is monitored and then scrutinized if not fitting into the desired realm of university’s elitism. In other words, for the particular Other – the classed Other – the university space becomes a classist space of Othering, of policing, of enforced conformity and of social, and, further, self-regulation. And it is this self-regulation that, once adopted by the classed Other, effectively aids in the perpetuations of the university’s status as the elitist economic power structure. Ultimately, and most importantly, rendering the classed Other helpless in the very space that helped create it.

Damn university, you are truly something special!

Tyrone Speaks is a column written by Christiana Collison on the subject of black feminism. It appears every other Wednesday in commentary. You can email her at