Race and Identity: An Interview with Jill Turner

By GIRLWITHABOOK Intern, Rosie Vita

This week’s interview is with Jill Turner. Jill recently graduated from the College of William & Mary with a self-designed major in Social Justice and Advocacy, and a minor in Management and Organizational Leadership. At William & Mary, Jill was a group fitness instructor at the campus rec center, an Orientation Aid, and a member of a sorority. This fall she will be teaching at an elementary school in Baltimore, Maryland with Teach for America.

RV: What is your family’s background? What kind of environment (religious, cultural, geographic location, etc.) were you raised in?

JT: My family is African American. I was raised in Holliston, Massachusetts, born in Connecticut, so we’re from the New England area. I have two very religious grandparents—Baptist. Both of my parents went to college in the greater Boston area. Both of my parents went to private school and private universities. I was sent to private school and hated it; I’m very pro-public school.

RV: What is your view of gender roles and what has impacted or molded this view?

JT: I was raised in a family with a lot of very strong female characters. As a result, I think that’s really shaped the way that I view gender. I wasn’t raised in a family where the male did everything or anything like that. My parents are very egalitarian. I think that has kind of shaped me into a, as I like to joke, a strong independent women—the Olivia Pope of it all. I really value that. I think women are awesome and that they are very often sold short on a global sense. I look to characters like Malala, Emma Watson, who have taken a stand in favor of equality and for females. I don’t think we can make that change without male allies.

RV: You talked about going to private school. What challenges have you faced during your time in school?

JT: One of the biggest challenges I’ve faced is more so with identity. I was raised in an African American family and both of my parents very much look visibly black. In my life people haven’t really known what I am. That’s kind of put me in an advantage in certain settings but also a disadvantage because you never really fit with one or the other. People often times think that I have one white parent when really it’s just that I’m very fair skinned. I think that’s really shaped who I am. It’s a different challenge. I’ve been very blessed and very fortunate to have the experiences I have, like studying abroad and coming this far away to school with out of state tuition. I would definitely point to [my identity] more so as my challenge in just being able to find people that I felt comfortable with based on my identity and how I identify and how they accept me. Because you can identify as something all day and night but if you are not treated that way you’re not going to be happy.

RV: How do you identify? Do you identify as African American?

JT: Yes, absolutely, and that really surprises people. Even the other day I had to get fingerprinted to work at school and the older black man just looked at me and didn’t even ask me, he just put it on my fingerprinting sheet, like race and eye color. So I think it’s little things like that, where it shouldn’t bother me, but it does because it affirms the fact that I’m not visibly put into one category or another. I’m sure that some people who are visibly African American would say, “Well that’s nice, because you might not be treated a certain way because of that.” I understand that there’s nuance there. That’s definitely a challenge that I’ve come to terms—I wouldn’t say that—come to realize time and time again. Starting in middle school kids would say things like, “Oh well if you’re black, you should be really good at basketball.” My family is one of maybe four black families in Holliston; it’s very homogeneous. Always being in those kinds of circles, and then coming [to William & Mary] even sometimes not being perceived by people who are in the black community as [being black] and being called things like an Oreo, or a reverse Oreo I guess.

RV: What have been some of the easier times?

JT: I would definitely say working with people. I would say during my time in college I’ve been able to develop an identity that is very congruent with my beliefs and people know where I am; I find that that’s put me at ease in being a senior. I think that’s one of the really nice things about getting older on a college campus. You become very congruent with your character and your identity, and that can be a weight lifted.

But also writing, I love to write critically about the world around us. I think I’ve really been supported in that here; by certain professors, by certain mentors that I’ve worked with, internships and things like that; just people seeing something in me that I didn’t necessarily see in myself.

RV: What are you studying? This can go beyond major/minor and go into broader educational interests.

JT: I made a self-design major, it’s called Social Justice and Advocacy. I have a Management and Organizational Leadership Minor in the Business School. My major is made up of Sociology, Government, Africana Studies, History, Education, Public Policy classes. It’s really kind of allowed me to chart my own path at William & Mary. It’s probably the best thing I’ve done here, honestly. I finished my major spring of junior year, and I’ve been able to take what I want this year. That speaks to my areas of interest: social activism, but also learning about oppressed populations, and structural racism, structural inequality across the board. I wish I had taken more classes on gender. I took one class; I took women in leadership, and we talked about how gender impacts people in corporate America and in life in general.

I focused a lot on Africana Studies. I think those speak to how I’ve been able to bring together who I am slash who I want to be academically, personally, professionally. I think that carries into what I want to do with my life and what I’m interested in. I’m interested in education and criminal justice reform, understanding that poor education often times leads people right into the criminal justice system. I really want to be a long time advocate for those kinds of issues. Like I said I’m pro-public school. Next year I’ll be teaching elementary school in Baltimore, and I’ll be getting my Masters. Hopefully I’ll be doing that for about 3 to 5 years and then I would love to go get my law degree and advocate on a different level.

RV: Why is higher education important to you?

JT: Honestly, and this is such a marker of privilege, but it was never a question if I was going to go to college. I’m in a family where my grandparents went to college, my parents, everyone. I also think that’s very much a product of where I’m from in Massachusetts. Massachusetts has a lot of stereotypes and that is definitely one of them; very well educated pockets. I hail from one. My family went to very good schools, so again, it was never a question of if I would go, it was a “where are you going to end up and what would be the best fit.” It’s important to me personally because I think that in this day and age, it’s virtually impossible to get a job that will provide you with gainful employment, so [therefore impossible to have] a living wage where you could send your own kids to college one day, without a college education. I think more and more those kind of jobs have been shipped overseas for various reasons, and so politically I very much align with these ideals of making college more affordable because it almost is required. I would say like sixty years ago or so you could get a job and live comfortably off a high school degree. But in the rise of globalism that’s no longer so much of a thing, and our jobs are being shipped overseas so you now need more higher education to be able to support a family and sustain that lifestyle. I’m definitely an advocate for raising minimum wages for people that are able to get an undergraduate degree, I think we also need to be increasing access and funding and decreasing cost and just making it more accessible to people across the board.

I very much believe that education is a means of transcending socioeconomic limitations. I think that without that you’re not going to be able to do much. It puts people where we can be a lot more mobile, whether that’s residentially, socioeconomically, [and] politically.

RV: Something that you hear a lot in the media is that the black woman is the most oppressed woman in the country. Do identify with that statement?

JT: I guess that would definitely tie back to what I said originally. I’m not always identified as [a black woman]. That kind of creates a little bit of nuance in my own life story because I can’t always necessarily say that [when] I walk into a room and I’m treated a certain way because people think that I’m black. I know, per life experience, that when I’m with my boyfriend or my dad, or anyone like that who are visibly black, I am definitely treated differently, or we are treated differently. I think that people are more aware [of us]. My dad has gotten pulled over many times. Even in [the library] a couple of years ago [my boyfriend and I] were studying for finals one day and this one officer kept coming up to us and telling us to quiet down, and no one else. I think that that’s where you sometimes have these conversations where if [a white friend] were sitting with me instead, they might not have instantly thought that was weird, but [I did].

I think that black women are put in quite difficult situations a lot of times on lots of different levels.  One of the most frustrating things these days is the whole concept of white feminism, and how it really lacks nuance. One of my favorite examples is in the show Girls, which I’m obsessed with—I love that show. I read the book Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay. I love it, and she talks about how shows [like Girls] have a lot of opportunity, because Lena Dunham claims to be one of the best champions of feminism, and goes out of her way to advance those missions and ideals, but it’s very much lacking people of color and that kind of intersectionality.

I think that Lemonade is so important, and I get frustrated when I hear about Piers Morgan, and people being very critical of Beyoncé and her production of Lemonade. I think that speaks to this ideal, that I’ve talked a lot about in some of my classes, that the affirmation of blackness is somehow the defamation of whiteness, it’s like a zero sum game, you can’t have one without the other or you can’t have them both. I definitely think that’s important.. One of the things we talked about in my Africana Studies class recently was how the Black Lives Matter movement has predominantly focused on black men and police brutality. All the while we’ve had lots of black women dying in police custody, and they have not had as much coverage. We’ve had Sandra Bland, yes, but she’s only one, and there are so many more. It speaks to this sense of invisibility, which is really unfortunate. Black men are so scrutinized that a lot of times it is about protecting the black man, protecting your son, your husband, father, from the world outside. But I think in that protection, black women are often forgotten. It’s very important to advocate for policy that will change that. I very much, in moving to Baltimore, am looking forward to getting involved in community organizing. From what I know so far it is very much led by strong black women. I’ve met some of them and it blows my mind how strong they are and how much they resemble characters from the Civil Rights movement that I’ve studied.

RV: You say you don’t appear as a black woman on the outside. Have you ever felt any challenges whether because you were black, a woman, or both? Or, on the flipside, have you felt particularly encouraged as a minority?

JT: I would say I really have [felt encouraged]. I feel that at William & Mary I have made a conscious effort to find professors of color with similar interests, and I think that in that regard I have made this bubble of my own. I know some of my friends who,  [like my friend] in the physics department, cannot do that same thing at all. I think they only have one professor of color in the physics department. I’ve been able to make this fake bubble around myself and pursue what I’m interested in based on faculty that I know will support me, and I know they see a little bit of their daughters in myself. I definitely think it’s been something to my advantage.

I, regardless of the way I’m perceived, have different perspectives. Going into my Baltimore classroom next year, I’m definitely going to be received differently than a cute white blonde girl, even if I’m not necessarily received as one of their own. People often are trying to figure out what it is that I am for a second. I’ve received certain advantages, and I understand that that is steeped in colorism. I wouldn’t necessarily feel certain advantages if I were darker skinned. I might feel in certain arenas, in certain classes, more of that discrimination, but I think that because I am sort of ambiguous and people don’t know where to put me I’m able to use that as social capital. I guess it’s opportunistic of me but let’s call it a survival mechanism.

RV: What are your overall views of education in the United States?

JT: I think the education system in the US is very outdated. The way we approach it is very reminiscent of the Baby Boomer era, when it was very utilitarian. Even this weekend, on Friday I was in a first grade math and science classroom, predominantly, like, 98% black school with a white teacher, a very good teacher. They respected and loved her. But I’m just sitting there thinking to myself, this is so weird, like these kids are what, seven? And they’re sitting in their desks and they’re supposed to be immobile. Then, when they’re done with their work, they tell them to put their heads down so the teacher knows they’re done with their work. It’s just so peculiar to me if you look at our education system as a sociologist, like what the hell is happening. Why aren’t we telling them to get up and move around? I understand the practical reasons why, but I just think that little things like that are very outdated.

If you look at cutting edge companies like Google and Facebook, who are kind of turning corporate America on their ear with not only their policies but also their corporate culture. They’re the cutting edge of what we could be, and they have the flexibility to do that because they’re the private sector.  Public sector is always millions of years behind. But, I think unfortunately, as an advocate for public education, that’s one of the biggest issues. In a charter school, hell I could start a charter school five years from now and do whatever I want. They could have bouncy balls instead of chairs. They could do whatever. But I’m not going to make broad-based change; I’m going to have this one charter school. And when you talk about schools like KIPP, we’re still talking lottery systems, very small fractions; charter schools are so controversial in themselves.

I also think that our education system is very racialized. What a wonder it would be if all of a sudden we started funding schools on a socialist model. Ooo, that’s like a bad word.  I mean, just the simple fact that where you live determines how much money is given to your school. We’re talking property tax; literally how much your parents make determines what kind of education you have, and often times that’s connected to race. I think that that should not be okay anymore. When we talk about education in the United States and we talk about poverty, about politics, they’re very much intertwined. And I think often times because of the way our country has been run and because of the way that just now we’re starting to have more people of color in public office, that represents a key shift In perspectives, and also responsibilities to certain communities.

We talk about this a lot in my Africana Studies classes, how minorities are unfortunately more responsible for each other, because you’re pushing this one person through. We have Obama, and he’s got to carry all blacks on his back. That’s problematic. But he shares that perspective with us that no other president has had. He, when Trayvon Martin was killed, he said, “That could have been me or my son.” No other president could have said that. I think that that’s really important.

When we talk about education reform, I think we need to talk about poverty and politics because you’re not going to see changes, unfortunately, until they start impacting middle class white people. And I think that issues like education reform we’re starting to see changes, but we still have issues with funding because everything is connected to property taxes. We still have issues with representation because our school systems are so steeped in bureaucracy—it’s disgusting—which is another reason why people are such advocates for charter schools.

Unfortunately, I think that’s where I get a little jaded. I very much am excited and honored to work with and in school systems, and hopefully enact change at least in disciplinary procedures, because I think that really ruins peoples’ lives. When you’re in school and you’re a high schooler, and you’re interacting with the criminal justice system. But, at the same time, we’re not going to see changes in education until we see changes in gerrymandering, changes in the way that we finance our school systems. How crazy would it be if all of the tax dollars, from all of Virginia, were put into one pot, and split based on population rather than what each district makes. It’s not going to happen of course, because the people in politics are very much in bed with the people who have the most money.

Education, like I’ve said, education is intertwined with all other issues, like poverty, and politics. Until we can either accept that and operate within that space, or completely deny it and shift to an era where we’re operating like charter schools and there’s no bureaucracy, which will essentially never happen, we’re going to continue to see these types of issues. Yeah you might see exceptions happen, like Obama, or some kids coming out of urban schools and becoming principals and CEOs. It’s an issue because you’re going to have people who don’t understand the nuance, who see that and go “Oh, this system isn’t rigged, it’s not racist! We have a black president, we have all of these people of color in these positions of power, so it’s their fault in these poor schools and these poor neighborhoods, it’s their fault for not being able to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.” That’s problematic. Until we can get through that, I don’t really see much changing, unfortunately.

On a large scale we still have a long way to go. I think funding structure would be one of the biggest [things to change], and just poverty alleviation. You could fund the hell out of an urban school. You could give them iPads, the best teachers in the world; but if they’re still going home and not being able to eat a good meal, their parents are addicted to drugs, and their community is poverty-ridden, there’s only so much a school can do. At the end of the day they have to go home. If you could kind of match those kinds of things and match a school with really strong programs and really strong wrap-around services, but also have economic services for the parents; that would be really cool. That would be where you’d start to see changes. Parents aren’t going to be able to push them through if they aren’t able to support the family.

RV: What do you think of girls’ education in the United States?

JT: I think that there is an interesting paradox in girls’ education. More and more teachers are becoming men, but I think for a long time women have been treated like, “Oh, you can become a teacher until you get pregnant and then you can be a mom.” Schools really need to support girls against outside pressures, [such as] really good sex education and really good contraceptive education. That’s a huge issue that girls are impacted with more than boys. You get pregnant in a lot of schools and you can’t go to school anymore, let alone how uncomfortable that would be, but they literally won’t let you go to school.

[Also] having more jobs for women specifically, instilling in women that you can still be a CEO, you can be whatever you want to be in a real way. A lot of the work I’ve been doing in college I’ve been working with little kids at the Head Start program. They’re four, five, and six [years old], and they’ll tell you, “I’m going to be an astronaut, I’m going to be a veterinarian, I’m going to be a doctor.” And somewhere along the way, [they] lose that. The Moynihan Report of the 1960s put a lot of pressure on black women in particular talking about how the lack of black men in the family is the reason why African Americans are poor, and essentially saying that men are the only way to make it. I think that having women’s groups, [is a way to] empower women in an equitable way. It was never strange for girls, where I grew up, for girls to play sports or be smart, be educated. It was normalized. One of the teachers I shadowed on Friday introduced me to the class and said, “Don’t go over to her and say, ‘you’re really pretty, can I play with your hair?’ talk to her about school, and talk to her about what we’re learning.” I think if you can instill those values in girls, they’re really important. Some schools that I’ve studied have groups for girls at risk; girls with issues at home, issues with conflict resolution, etcetera. One school in Brooklyn had a group of girls who worked with a social worker once or twice a week to talk through things. Having that is really important to help girls develop self-efficacy, especially in the late middle school years. In education, it’s important to be there and be empathetic to issues girls specifically face.

Thank you to Jill for being interviewed for this post. Check back in next Tuesday for another topic on girls’ education in the United States!

Jill Turner

Jill Turner