Teaching While Black and Blue

I. I am waiting for a letter to arrive in the mail. It will be short, no more than one page, and will be covered in black ink, with the occasional flourish of institutional logo. The signature at the bottom will belong to a high-ranking officer at my Midwestern college of 12,000 students, and the words that preface it will briefly explain the method and, more importantly, the verdict, of an almost three-week long investigation, in which students, faculty, and staff were questioned by the school’s legal staff as to if, in fact, I had committed acts constituting an official case of racial harassment.

What happened to me in 2008 did not happen because I am a young, Black female faculty member at school that has over 50 percent students of color; what happened to me occurred because I turned the world backwards on an angry White male student. We were in a regular weekly meeting of the newspaper staff, and the students were discussing the fact of the new edition, how well it had turned out, and the editor-in-chief said that although he was proud of the paper’s developments, he was not pleased with the fact that so few students regularly picked up the publication. Theories were thrown around as to why this was—the aesthetics were all wrong, the design didn’t pop, the stories could be flashier. Out of the corner of my eye, I thought I saw a noose hanging from the ceiling. When I looked again, it was gone.

Another white male student, angry that writers had not made deadline, had thought it prudent to make a noose of his sweatshirt drawstring the fall before, to step up on the table and hang it, along with a menacing note to writers about the seriousness of deadlines. The two Black students in the room at the time protested, and asked him to take the noose down, but he didn’t listen.

When they told the faculty newspaper adviser of the incident, he told them that he was not such a big deal, that the student had not meant the noose in a racist way. And when the students finally filed a formal legal complaint against their colleague, seeking some kind of institutional acknowledgment of this trauma, they were effectively gagged by the same academic powers that have been conducting the investigation. You see, once language enters the legal realm, it no longer belongs to us—it becomes the sole property of whatever individual or institution is under its employ.

History has a bad habit of reappearing when we are least ready to see it but the fleeting image of that noose would not leave my brain in that newsroom meeting. Nor could the conflagration of so many white bodies in one space (the entire editorial staff, except for one sole Somali student, who I had brought to the meeting from my Newspaper Activity class), while so many brown ones clustered outside it, largely indifferent to its power, but also wounded from the violence that had taken place there. I told the students that the staff needs to deal with the fact that this newsroom, and the newspaper in general, has historically been a space where white male experience has been centralized and validated, mostly to the exclusion of all others. I told them that the readership will continue to flag in a school that is more than half students of color, if the editorial staff continues to not represent their interests. In short, they don’t see themselves in the paper because they are not in the paper.

Silence.

The clock ticked.

Eyes rolled.

Later that night, I received an email, full of roiling, angry emotion, from a White male editor. He said that my words had angered him, that it wasn’t my place to say them, being a faculty member in the student newsroom. He said that my comments were racist and hateful, that they were akin to a white man standing up and saying that all Black women were irrational, and that my understanding of race was facile if I thought that white people was actually a tenable category to use. He said that I would not be welcome in the newsroom in the future, if I offered up a similar diatribe, and that what I had engaged in was racial harassment.

In the dark upstairs of my study, at 10:32 pm, my breath shallowed. Ida B. Wells, Fannie Lou Hamer, Harriet Jacobs, were my predecessors—racially, culturally, but most importantly, politically. I knew who had brought me to this place. I checked the windows to make sure they were locked, closed my eyes and began to count to 20 slowly. The thing is, I was never supposed to be there; these institutions were not built for Black women, or anyone of color for that matter, to live or work in. In fact, they were built to keep us out. I know this, intellectually, being a student of history, but every time I come up against the blunt-end truth of it, I still shiver.

The student's message still demanded a response—ideally one that was as dispassionate as his was emotional. Writing back, I thanked the student for bringing the issue to my attention, and said certain faculty and students had been discussing the future of the student newspaper and the future of the journalism program itself for some time, and that the entire school community would have to weigh in on it, in order to come to a viable solution.

I said that I was CCing his message and my response to those individuals already engaged in this conversation, to further facilitate this interaction. I repeated my earlier statements about the history of the newsroom and newspaper itself being an unwelcome place for people of color, and said that last year’s noose incident was just the most recent demonstration of this inequity.

I reminded him that our school was over 50% students of color, and that any organization that did not make a concerted effort to include them would therefore not succeed. Finally, I urged him to educate himself about the history of race and white privilege in this country, and invited him to an all-campus event that a colleague and I were invited to host on this topic later that week, as a place to start.

The student must have forwarded my message to the general newspaper account, because another editor, a young white woman, wrote back. She said that I had completely missed the point of the first student’s email, and echoed his characterization of my comments at the meeting as being racist and hurtful. Our door is open to all, she wrote, and demanded an apology.

I felt my blood heat up, and I forced myself to breathe slowly, while I counted to 20 again.

I find it more than a little shocking that you all believe that I am the one who should apologize, I wrote. I have never received an email as threatening and blatantly disrespectful, and I find it quite troubling that the only Black faculty member that has ever been associated with the journalism program is now being accused of racial harassment. I ended my message by endorsing the newspaper adviser’s idea for mediation. The student wrote back that he found my second response even more perverse than the first, and had been advised to consult a higher power, and quoted the school’s racial harassment policy.

Do not have any further contact with him, colleagues advised. Your words can, and probably will be used against you.

I had been trying to restructure the conversation from an individual critique to systemic and structural critique. This students resisted from the start. It was an interesting irony that his tactic of accessing the legal establishment was, in fact, a way to abandon the narrative of the individual, and tap into the power of the institution – which, like all American institutions, was indelibly forged out of disciplining the racialized, gendered, lower-class masses. Once he did that, the story was as predictable as a Harlequin Romance novel.

The next week, a member of the college leadership interviewed me for an hour in their office, grilling me with questions about what I had said when, to whom, and what my email messages had contained, who they were sent to, and why. They also interviewed the newspaper adviser, several other student editors, and staff members who had been there.

It was all fairly terrifying.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have spoken. The words crowded in my mind on more than one occasion, when, during the three-week interview process, I awoke at 5 am, my thoughts running around the room in circles. But then I heard the voice of the young Somali student in my class, who I told would have to attend the remainder of the newspaper staff meetings without me, because I was to have no contact with the student who filed the complaint while it was under investigation (the class was shocked and appalled…and also expressed their profound feelings of impotence at not really being able to affect what was happening to me, and to them). The young woman, in her early to mid-20s, approached me at the start of class, and mentioned that she didn’t think that she should stay in it, because she said that her English was not that good. I replied that the purpose of a writing class was to work on your writing, and that she was therefore in the right place. But that afternoon, when I told the class that I would no longer be attending newspaper staff meetings with them, because of what they had all heard me say the week before, the young woman protested.

But what you said was true! she told me. When I walked into that first meeting and saw that it was all white people, no one who looked like me, I wanted to walk away. What was left unsaid was, But I didn’t. I wondered, I still wonder, what had made her stay. The next week, when I saw her in the hallway before she left for the staff meeting, she revealed that she did not want to go. I could see the fear in her eyes, visceral, and too familiar.

I told her that she could leave and come up to the classroom at any time if she found that she could not stay. She nodded, and turned away, towards the stairwell. I hoped she would stay in the meeting, and keep writing her stories, but I was also prepared for her to have to go. You can only be alone for so long before your own clothes start to feel strange on your body.

But now, I am still waiting. Waiting for the letter to arrive. Waiting for an answer to questions no one wants to ask.

II.

Dear Shannon,


After careful consideration of all the information presented to me, I have concluded that your conduct did not rise to the level of the college’s nondiscrimination policy. However, while I find that your conduct did not meet the policy standards of discriminatory harassment, I hope that you are able to understand that your comments were offensive to the complainant and to others and inappropriately made during the newspaper staff meeting.

Sincerely,

Sincerely

III.

I am not alone here. There's the Haitian woman raised up by immigrant parents who gave her everything they never had so she wouldn’t have to make 60 beds a morning, and pick up other peoples’ fingernails and toilet paper and mucous. The white woman who won’t look away and never stops fighting. The Sister from Chicago who wasn’t "supposed to get into college" either. The Asian American woman who they mistake as “Model Minority,” but who has never politically aligned herself with white, middle-class folks who are so privileged they don’t even recognize the word.

Somehow, we all ended up here. These four women and our incredibly generous, overburdened, hard-working students keep me in the orbit at our college. Otherwise, I would fall off.

Perhaps I would be better off, maybe healthier. But would my students?

IV.

As we go forward, I would caution Professor Gibney to understand that whatever message she may be motivated to share with her department and the college as a whole, the “delivery mode” is as important as the message itself: the ability to cooperate well with others will go a long way toward moving the institution forward on the issues of primary importance.

The issue is then, the definition of “cooperation.” If cooperation implies a kind of stated or unstated agreement with the status quo, then I cannot agree to “cooperate” with the members of my department and college, who are predominantly white, upper-middle class, come from families with a history of college success, and have absolutely no awareness of their own privilege, not how this might impact their interactions with and expectations of our students, who are overwhelmingly brown, working class, and first-generation college students.

This kind of “cooperation” has only yielded a 7 percent completion rate for our Black male students, and a 12 percent completion rate for Black female students, when students of African descent make up 33 percent of our population. In this context, then, cooperation should be recognized as furthering educational failure for the majority of those whose money we take, while claiming to serve.

Closing the achievement gap at the college is, to my mind, one facet of racial justice. Collegial relations are central to this endeavor.

When has upholding collegial relations as paramount in all interactions with the powerful ever worked to the benefit of those oppressed? Trying our very best to get along with the white folks and not make them uncomfortable has certainly not been a successful strategy in addressing the persistent so-called black/white “Achievement Gap.”

The college sent a letter saying, "We all need members of the faculty to find common cause around this issue, and to participate fully within the boundaries set by community etiquette and the shared desire for a genuine and free exchange of ideas working toward concrete and student-centered solutions."

Unfortunately, what I have experienced here is that the vast majority of faculty and administration at this institution have absolutely no investment in finding common cause around racial equity. In fact, I would have to say that the majority of them may even actively fear racial equity, because embracing it would mean that they would have to radically change their pedagogies, course curriculum, biased policies, as well as (and this is the real rub, I think) the racial and ethnic make-up of the faculty and leadership on this campus, which is still more than 90 percent white.

Professor Gibney’s passion to find racial justice for our students needs to be part of our work here at the college.

But how can I do that when finding racial justice for our students is not a part of our work at the college? I even think that one could persuasively argue that economically, the college is set up to benefit from the lack of racial justice students experience here.

It is my hope that she will get up to speed in the academic year and contribute to these efforts in a positive, cooperative, and productive manner.

I am not the one whose behavior needs to be examined, whose message is faulty, or whose positivity conceals a very thin layer of contempt.

V.

Dear Shannon,

I am writing regarding the complaint of race and gender discrimination that was filed against you in December 2XXX by a former temporary faculty member.

The complainant alleged that he had been subjected to harassment and discriminatory treatment based on his race and gender. In particular, the complainant alleged that the Department’s requirement of critical race theory as a preferred hiring qualification discriminated against him as a white male. The complainant also alleged that the Department generally promoted a hostile or discriminatory environment for white males based on the actions of a few faculty members who promoted critical race and white privilege theories.

After carefully considering all relevant information, I have determined that the evidence is insufficient to conclude that you engaged in conduct that violated the Nondiscrimination Policy. Despite this finding, I have asked X to review the hiring preferences and to explore preferences that would ensure a broad and inclusive pool of qualified candidates. I am concerned that identifying a preference to a specific theory may result in excluding qualified candidates who may be able to demonstrate their commitment to diversity in other ways.

Sincerely,

Sincerely

Shannon Gibney is a writer, teacher, and activist in Minneapolis. Her critical and creative work has appeared in a variety of publications.

[Image by Jim Cooke]