What’s Up with “What’s the Tea?”: Starts, Stops & Lessons Learned in Social Justice Work

By Lisa Gray, Assistant Director of Student Life, Cultural and Spiritual Diversity. 

Earlier this year, Joakina Stone, then a Res Life colleague and collateral work staff with Student Life’s Mosaic Center, along with an amazing group of students, staff and faculty, helped us to co-create our new Mosaic Social Justice discussion series. We exchanged a bunch of ideas for a title – some basic and others long and academic. After ruminating far too long, I finally settled on “What’s the Tea?” Thankfully, Zach Kosinski and Jasmine Malhotra, our Graduate Coordinators, agreed and our series launched this year on October 1st.

What's the Tea SJ Discussion Series - Fall 2014Everything seemed to be going well with what we are calling our “pilot semester/year” for the series. It even had what we hope was an effective, context-setting description: “We all talk about how diverse UMBC is. But what does that mean in reality? How does it show up in how we communicate and interact with each other? When does celebrating diversity shift into inclusivity that creates positive social change in and outside our campus community? This new series hopes to help us grapple with these questions. Join us for a facilitated discussion of these topics. Voice your opinions and hear those of your fellow community members.”

This description, along with a co-facilitation model, guided questions, and a brief evaluation has helped us to move forward. Things were going really well, until our November 5th Cultural Appropriation discussion. During that discussion, our well-intentioned start had an unintentional stop. In my desire to get the discussion underway, I unintentionally culturally appropriated the name of the series—“What’s the Tea?”—while talking about cultural appropriation as it relates to native, indigenous peoples.

My blindness as the lead discussion facilitator set into motion what those in the social justice education and activism world would call a concrete example of “intent versus impact.” Thanks to some generous feedback and calling out by a couple of the discussion attendees, next came my PAN, “Pay Attention Now,” moment. PAN and PAN-ing is both an acronym and a practice I learned a couple of years ago during my time at the December 2012 Social Justice Training Institute.

This post is my apology to all the attendees of our November 5th Cultural Appropriation discussion and a thank you to those brave participants for their helpful feedback and “call out.” Through that experience, and all the hours I’ve spent since replaying and processing that discussion with supportive colleagues and students, I’ve learned that there are hills, valleys, starts, and stops in the often times messy yet rewarding work towards social justice. 

Now, for those of you who’ve been patiently waiting and wondering, here’s what’s up with “What’s the Tea?”: This phrase is an extended version of “What’s the T?” a phrase originating from Black Gay Ball culture. Urban Dictionary, Answers.com, and Wikipedia all offer solid definitions and/or historical information on the term and it’s origins.

“What’s the T? – It means like “Whats up?”, “Whats going on?” It’s commonly used in the LGBT Community and is commonly used for gossiping.”

“A term originated in Black Gay culture circa 1970-1989 that indicated some one was the “T”alk of the “T”own, hence the “T”. The term was often used by female impersonators to describe a fellow impersonator that did an exceptionally good job on stage in a live lip syncipated performance which was talked about in the gay circles for long periods of time. The term grew to define any memorable person whose actions were or would soon be largely talked about in the gay circles. Also a person who was popular in the gay community would be talked about may have been referred to as The “T”

It has lasted throughout the decades and can really refer to any person, place or thing.

Mary, did you see Miss thing’s Patty Labelle performance last night? She P’d on stage! She was the “T” last night!

Girlfriend, that party you threw was fabulous, the way you have your new apartment decorated is the deal and that new husband of yours is to die for! You are the T!

It mean what’s the deal! it basically mean what’s up!

It can also refer to one’s own personal business and daily dealings.

Ex: Q: Hey girl what’s T (what’s the T)?

A: No T, girl. I’m just at home answering a question on Wikianswers.”

By replacing “T” with “Tea,” we hope to reframe the definition to one that can apply to the social justice-based topics in the series. So, “Tea” represents the social justice awareness, knowledge, and cross-cultural communication skills that we’re “spilling” like tea into the community – one small group at a time. To help illuminate this more intentionally through imagery, we’re considering re-branding the series next semester.

Hopefully, this post has been helpful and informative. For more information on “What’s the Tea?” and other Mosaic Center programs, please visit our myUMBC page.

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