In culturally responsive teaching, in history instruction and in critical literacy studies, a common axiom applies: Consider the context. The history. The power dynamics. The biases held by the narrator. The stories left off the page. To paraphrase Nietzsche, a prevailing interpretation does not necessarily reflect truth: It reflects power.
Two examples of clashing interpretations went viral this week; both of them involved the use of cotton as a decorative statement.
In one example, Lipscomb University President Randy Lowry invited a group of black students to a dinner featuring collard greens, mac ‘n’ cheese and, to some in attendance, a startling table centerpiece: stalks of raw cotton. One of the invited students wrote about her reaction on Instagram. Media outlets picked up the post.
So I attend Lipscomb university and as most of you know that is a predominately white school. Tonight AFRICAN AMERICAN students were invited to have dinner with the president of the school. As we arrived to the president's home and proceeded to go in we seen cotton as the center pieces. We also stood and ate dinner, there were no seats to sit in and it felt very uncomfortable. We were very offended, and also the meals that were provided resembled many "black meals" they had mac n cheese, collard greens, corn bread etc. The night before Latinos also had dinner at his house and they had tacos. They also DIDN'T have the center piece that we HAD tonight. A couple of minutes went by, the president was coming around and asking for our names and what our major was. He finally got to our table and my friend @kay_cyann asked why there was cotton on the table as the center piece. His response was that he didn't know, he seen it before we did, he kind of thought it was " fallish", THEN he said " it ISNT INHERENTLY BAD IF WERE ALL WEARING IT " then walked off. Later on all of us that were there were invited into the home, and we had the impression that we were coming to speak about how us as Black people feel about Lipscomb. The whole entire time we were in their home they only talked about themselves( how they met, got married and ended up at lipscomb) & the ONLY question that we were asked was our transformation coming to lipscomb. A couple of women answered the question but they sugar coated it. They said any other questions that we may have can be emailed to the advocate for the Latinos and that a second meeting may be held. Also we don't have an advocate on campus, the only African American advocate we had, no longer works here. The only advocate available to us is the advocate for the Latinos. They claim to have funding for minorities, BUT you have to live up to the expectations of a typical Black family to even get the 1000$.There is NO FUNDING for just us black students. #share
In a second example, a debate ignited on social media when a woman posted a complaint on Hobby Lobby’s Facebook page, saying their cotton stalk décor was “wrong on so many levels”—a commodity, she said, “gained at the expense of African-American slaves.”
Time and time again, people who hold social power quell the voices of those who hold less, dismissing their message as political correctness and blaming them for taking offense rather than asking, “Why?”
Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened in these cases.
Many responses to the discomfort both women expressed was predictably dismissive and, just as predictably, missed the point. A teachable moment—not just for Lowry or for Hobby Lobby but also for all people who saw the cotton décor as neutral and innocuous—turned into a quest for a prevailing interpretation: There’s nothing offensive about displaying cotton. Dr. Lowry, himself, when first asked about the centerpieces was reported to have said, “It isn’t inherently bad if we’re all wearing it.”
Consider the context in which that statement was made. As one of the Lipscomb students present at the dinner told WKRN, the story goes beyond mass-produced centerpieces. “I think it points to a larger culture gap at this institution,” the student said.
Bridging that gap requires unpacking why, for many black people and people of color, raw cotton is a symbol of racial terror.
Cotton represents the product of a system that required slave labor to function. More recently, perpetrators of racial intimidation have used cotton as a symbol of their hatred. Before white robes became the uniform, some KKK members wore ceremonial horns stuffed with cotton. Two white men seeking to intimidate and unsettle members of the University of Missouri’s Black Culture Center littered the front lawn of the Center with cotton balls. The word even fills the mouths of students who bully their black peers by calling them “cotton pickers.”
Jasmine Gales, a black woman and social activist in Nashville, explains how this context translates into the contemporary mindset of many people of color:
“Black people’s association with the cotton plant is an obvious one of trauma and suffering,” she wrote for The Tennessean. “In being culturally sensitive to the history of African-Americans which includes slavery and the free labor of cotton harvesting, an institution wouldn’t choose to display it at a dinner meant to uplift the black experience.”
The individuals who reacted defensively or dismissively to the cotton complaints either ignored this context or were ignorant of it entirely. If there wasn’t an explicitly racist motive behind the design choice, they reasoned, then it wasn’t a problem.
Neither perception reflects an absolute truth. But the chorus of naysayers trying to drown out the voices of two black women reflects a power dynamic that must inform a culturally responsive interpretation.
Educators can and should treat conversations like this as opportunities, as Lowry eventually did. He apologized and promised to meet with students about their perception of the stereotypical menu and cotton décor.
“Rather than running away from something, I’ll lean into those kinds of conversations and relationships,” Lowry told The Tennessean.
Leaning into difficult conversations rather than dismissing students’ perceptions of things said, displayed and inferred can build trust among students and educators. It can also provide context—and understanding.
The easy rule of thumb: if a student, or anyone, tells you that what you are doing is hurting them or bringing up complicated emotions, don’t dismiss them.
Consider the context. Consider the power dynamic. Listen.
And you might just learn that for many, a cotton stalk—or a word, or a piece of clothing—is a symbol of the history it holds. And history can hurt.
Collins is a staff writer for Teaching Tolerance.