This is the most uncomfortable post I’ve ever written. (Why not come out of hibernation with a bang, right?) I’m going to make some mistakes with this thing. I’m not even proofreading it before I publish it for fear that I will put it in a drawer. But in the wake of something that occurred in my office this week, amid so many other events that are occurring across the country, here goes.
Over the past month, led by students at the University of Missouri, black students at colleges and universities around the country have begun demanding their institutions recognize and rectify the racial inequality inscribed in and on their ivory towers. This past week, a KU professor was put on leave after saying n***** in her class. Or at least this is the soundbite that is being used. Read the open letter. The accusations against this instructor are actually far more substantial and wide-ranging than an isolated use of a single word. Of course, the people outraged at the Instructor’s dismissal, those calling these students fascist and spoiled and everything else that has been thrown at them, won’t read the open letter. And I’m not entirely certain doing so would help, as those people probably don’t think colleges and universities participate in institutionalized racism. But let’s step out of the hypothetical. Let’s talk about what happened in my office.
It was morning. I sat down at my desk and a colleague, obviously upset, asked if I had heard that a professor was being asked to resign after using “the n-word.” When I shook my head, the colleague immediately threw hands in the air and cried “free speech!”
I asked for the context, which this colleague did not have. A 2nd colleague stopped by. Colleague 1 repeated the story, then said, in dooms-day tone, “if this is successful, this is the end of academic freedom.” I responded with something along the lines of, “no, this is the beginning of universities being forced to admit and grapple with the systemic racism on their campuses.” Colleague 2 also wanted the context. Colleague 1 pulled up what the KU instructor had said, though from what source this was pulled was not clear and the actual letter asking for the dismissal of the instructor was not pulled. Colleague 2 stated that if the professor had said this word in response to students expressing the experiences they had with racism on campus, then she should obviously be fired. No matter what, it wasn’t wise, but if there was a discussion about the word, or if there was some other context, well, in short, Colleague 2 needed to know more.
I tried to make an analogy. I tried to say that if the KU professor was reporting something that had happened, that if it were, say, the word kike written on a wall, and she had said, “the word kike was painted on a wall”….and then I stopped talking because I recognized even as I was talking that this was not an effective analogy. I also began to recognize that I was doing a helluva lot of rhetorical and intellectual gymnastics not to call the KU professor a racist who deserved to be fired and not to call Colleague 1 the same.
We were interrupted by something or someone. Colleague 2 left. Colleague 1 and I avoided eye contact for a little while and then began talking about, I kid you not, puppies.
Then another colleague, Colleague 3, popped a head into the office and said, “well, I guess we can’t say n***** anymore.” In my silence, Colleagues 1 and 3 both began saying “academic freedom” and “free speech.” Colleague 3 also called for end times, citing an instance when a faculty member had been asked to clean-up his language when he said something was a “fuck-up.” I was in the corner of the office. Colleague 3 was blocking the doorway. I felt trapped. I was working pretty hard not to scream. I directed everyone’s attention to the puppies. After everyone left, I texted my friends on campus who I knew would be as outraged as I. I took comfort in their responses. I started student conferences.
Okay, so let’s talk about what happened. Or at least as much of it as I, with my limited ability, can talk about what happened. And don’t worry, after the obvious shock and censor of Colleagues 1 and 3, I’m going to get to my own terrible self.
I mean, there’s the shock that an instructor at a college actually said, “I guess we can’t use n***** anymore.” That shock and outrage doesn’t need explanation.
And there’s the bizarrely false analogy of someone being told not to say “fuck” as the same as not using n*****. That doesn’t warrant a response.
And there is the bizarre reaction of “free speech” and “academic freedom.” Jelani Cobb has already written eloquently of this idiocy. On this blog, I’m going to get into my own response in this situation because, well, my experience is the one to which I can speak.
Like how all of the people involved in this conversation, including myself, were white, and yet all of the people in this conversation, including myself, felt absolutely empowered and justified in our opinions about the use of a racial slur. We all felt perfectly comfortable having this conversation in a room filled only with white people. At no point did anyone in that room say at least this much, “maybe as a group of all white people, we can’t have the right conversation about this.”
Let me begin by saying, having had other bizarre and, quite frankly, abusive and irrational experiences with Colleague 3, I have no idea if Colleague 3 would have said n***** had there been black people in the room. I do know Colleague 3 assumed saying that word was just fine because it was a room of white people. And that Colleague 3 assumed that our institution is one where this speech is not questioned. What this also tells me is that I have not clearly signaled to my colleagues that I do not welcome this. I have not signaled that I am a black ally. For all that I cannot change about the campus, this is on me.
It’s also on me that I changed the conversation. I let it go. I diverted. I talked about puppies, for fuck’s sake. It’s a shame I will forever carry. And let’s be clear that this is not the first time I have been a passive racist. There are too many times to count. And, in fact, in my rural, white youth, I was sometimes actively racist.
When I was about 16 or 17 I gave a speech in front of a class about how rap music was responsible for spreading gang violence to areas where it had previously not existed. I am not kidding. This was something I had heard from (white) people in authority, and with my limited reasoning skills and lack of any real contact with people of color, I parroted. There was not even a twinge of a realization that what I was saying was idiotic, much less racist. And I promise I was a kid who would have adamantly claimed to not be racist based on such incredible evidence as knowing the KKK was bad. I don’t want to have ever been the worst of white folk. But I was (and still am) an ignorant white girl. And back then, no matter what I did or said, everyone around me told me I was smart.
Because I was smart. Here’s the thing we sometimes forget when we talk about intelligence: it is not equivalent to wisdom. Smart people can be ignorant. The smartest people in our country can be ignorant. The most lauded professors at the most elite college campuses can be ignorant. Oftentimes these people are ignorant of the experiences of Black Americans. Sometimes, because they have been told their entire lives that they are smart, they do not know they are ignorant. And because so much of their self-identity and worth, because their very livelihood, is built on being smart, having someone highlight their ignorance feels to them like a personal attack. Rather than responding to an observation of their ignorance with vulnerability and humility and apology and willingness to learn, most academics get defensive. On the topic of their own ignorance, academics are quite reactionary. They need no peer-reviewed sources to support the idea that they are infallible. The ratio of “actually” to “I don’t know” in any academic’s life has got to be about a billion to one.
So let’s return to a room of ignorant white academics throwing our ideas around without any real knowledge of that of which we spoke. Let’s talk about how my initial reaction was to ask for more context. This was a ridiculous response. Why was I waiting around for the context in this situation? It’s an important response in certain times, sure, and as a sometimes embattled educator, I usually want to know more about a student/instructor tension. But in this case? In this case my desire to gain the context in which this instructor operated was me enacting the very systemic racism I was at the same time decrying. There is no acceptable context here. Rather than have me talk about how this word in particular means this instructor was in the wrong, no matter the context, go read this and this and this and this and this.
Now, anytime I find myself in a contentious situation, my instinct is to rely on analogy. Like when I wanted to discuss the casual way people discuss rape. It’s a rhetorical tool that allows people to agree with you for a little while. It keeps the conversation open. So I tried to make an analogy, but realized as I spoke that this rhetorical strategy fails when it comes to this word. This wasn’t my first time realizing n***** has no analogous word, just the first time I had ever found myself embodying through rhetoric the idea that it did. It was really weird. It was like an argument switch had been flipped in my brain to the exclusion of the actual content of the argument being made. I was listening to the system of racism come out of my own mouth even as I was trying to fight it. Then I tried to find some other way of approaching this subject that did not involve me attacking or running away from the colleagues in my office.
I pointed towards puppies. I derailed. I still am the worst of white folks.
Why did I derail? Cowardice. It’s that simple. I am afraid that by doing so I will lose my job. I work at a place that implicitly, and at times explicitly, supports racism. I have no hope that a confrontation between myself and tenured colleagues over racism would go my way.
In a class this summer, someone brought-up the flying of the confederate flag. There was one black student in the room. There were no black teachers. The teachers and everyone else in the room cited the flying of the flag as an act of free speech. The removal of the flag was an attack on free speech. The black kid never spoke. The black kid was brought to tears. No one, especially the teachers in the room, gave a shit about that black kid or the hostile learning environment they were creating for him.
Or how about the “training” that was part of my faculty development this summer, one where they brought the (white) school lawyer in to discuss race. The conversation did not center on creating safe learning environments for marginalized students or ways to recognize our own enactment of the racist policies or procedures embedded in academia. The entire conversation was about protecting racist white students from legal action and making certain racist white students can get jobs in the future by understanding that their racist language isn’t “professional.” At the break I said I wasn’t actually all that dedicated to making certain racists get jobs, that I am, in fact, perfectly okay with racists being excluded from the workforce entirely. This comment was not met with approval.
I’m afraid if I say anything about the racism of my colleagues, I will lose my job. Writing this, in fact, probably guarantees that I will. But writing this is also my way of trying to make certain my greatest fear isn’t realized.
What I fear more than losing my job is that I am going to put my head down and get through the last few weeks of class by not saying or doing anything. And then I’ll keep my head down and get through the next semester by not saying or doing anything. And then I’ll get through the next thirty years by staring at the floor in silence.
So I wrote this. I published this. This is me holding myself publicly accountable. This is me maybe losing my job.
This is me doing my best to lift my head.
Image by Suzanne Viktor