Today’s lesson in the virtual classroom of Rachel Elizabeth Cargle, a public academic, writer, and lecturer, is “to give a more critical lens” for people “to view how they exist in the world.”
For the mostly white “classroom” that is her Instagram account — “white women make up about 75 percent of my follower count,” according to Ms. Cargle — it means coming to terms with the structural implications of their power and privilege and reconsidering how they show up in the world. For black followers, it’s affirmation that daily racist treatment isn’t a figment of their imagination.
In just the last month, Ms. Cargle’s Instagram account has grown in followers from 355,000 to 1.7 million, as many in the country are grieving and grappling with the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Rayshard Brooks and George Floyd.
“It’s been really heavy for me to have so many followers come to me under the weight of more police brutality, more black people dying,” she said.
She uses her Instagram as a tool to influence but her work is also as a consultant who gets asked by corporations and groups to share her knowledge.
Ms. Cargle assumes that if you’ve shown up to her class, you’re ready to do the hard and gritty work of learning and unlearning — described as “curiosity for what is possible in the world,” as she puts it.
Her expectation is that creating lessons and content “that speaks to the white community will affect the way white people show up in the world and the way they interact with the black people they exist with.” Her lecturing and professional speaking work follows this route as well, often addressing itself directly to white people.
Example-based learning is a go-to in Ms. Cargle’s lesson plans. She often uses it to help her students develop new skills, like understanding the difference between intention and impact. Her “Saturday School Lesson” is a recurring digital series in which she dissects recent comments and direct messages she’s received, with annotations to illuminate their fallacies.
Recently Ms. Cargle explained why good intentions don’t negate a harmful impact. Instead she said, “you apologize, acknowledge the pain you caused and exist more carefully and intentionally.”
“I value the millions of people coming to hear my voice, I just hope that people recognize that I and other anti-racism activists whose numbers are also continuing to grow are not performing,” she said.
“I’m deeply invested in the ability to be my dynamic self and not just one who’s surviving white supremacy,” Ms. Cargle said, and she does so by sharing, albeit cautiously, relatable snippets of her personal life — her dog Ivy, charcuterie boards, books. She also makes a conscious effort to remind her followers, “you’re actually my readers and you’re actually my students and you’re actually a part of a conversation and this is a space where we’re learning.”
A path to the free classroom
When asked how she makes sense of her unconventional career path, teaching and lecturing outside the academy and via social media, Ms. Cargle said, “the two greatest gifts that my mother ever gave me was curiosity and my love of reading.” In between soccer practice and Girl Scout meetings in Green, Ohio, in a childhood she described as “very good and pretty lovely,” it’s fairly easy to connect the dots to her current race-related work. She spent hours poring through encyclopedias and reading whatever her mother had lying around the house, like Maya Angelou and Sister Souljah. “I always considered being either a teacher or a lawyer,” she said.
“We lived in Section 8 housing inside of a very rich suburb,” she said, which made her hyper-aware of the social and economic differences between her white classmates and herself. Despite getting the same grades and participating in the same after-school activities it became clear, she said, that “there’s something about us that’s different but there’s nothing about me that makes me less worthy.”
This chasm only became more stark in middle school.
One of Ms. Cargle’s earliest memories of race was in the sixth grade. She was told by her crush, who was white, that they’d never be a couple because she was black. Though she laughs now about the innocence of a first crush, the sting still lingers.
Left to fester, this treatment crystallizes into shame and a sense of inferiority, but for Ms. Cargle that wasn’t the case. “My mom taught me that I deserved to be heard and treated fairly and not to back down from people who were in power,” she said. She was encouraged to use her voice to fight for justice, no matter the power dynamics at play, and to work to be a part of conversations.
After high school Ms. Cargle spent two years at the University of Toledo. She recalled being blown away in her first anthropology and sociology classes on campus. “There were all these aspects of society I hadn’t considered and I was given a critical lens to start to consider how I exist in the world, how I relate to others,” she said.
She briefly attended Columbia University in 2018. “It gave me a dynamic classroom experience and I did learn a lot from my time there,” she said. She left the university following a racist incident that took place on campus in 2019. While she doesn’t credit her formal education to how she teaches, “the Columbia classroom gave me tools on how to best facilitate meaningful conversation.”
“I recognized there was no way I would be able to move through the world without social justice being a part of my work because it was a part of who I am existing in a black body, a female body,” Ms. Cargle said.
“Rest is a part of the revolution.”
While she’s unwaveringly committed to fighting for justice, fighting does get exhausting. In an effort to skirt the often dire physical and emotional implications that social justice work can have — like in the case of activist Erica Garner, daughter of Eric Garner, who died at just 27 — she holds steadfast to the mantra that rest is a part of the revolution.
“In a world that’s constantly putting black people in a space of exhaustion, lack, labor, both physical and emotional, so I’m really leaning into the reality that me resting my black body, my black heart, my black mind is just as a part of the revolution as any other part of my work,” she said.
She’s also leaning into joy.
That means: Laughing often, calling friends, going through pictures, reminiscing about funny stories with the black people in her community. Her foundation, the Loveland Foundation, is work that is also for her another source of joy.
“Black women are the bedrock of so many aspects of our community, our homes, our churches, our neighborhoods,” Ms. Cargle said, “and so I have the gratefulness that the foundation is giving women healing which will undoubtedly give healing to every other aspect of the black community.”