Sick and Tired of Being Sick and Tired: Students of Color Reveal the Racism They Face in the Classroom at NAACP’s Call to Action Event
BY: JENNA CALDWELL & ZSHEKINAH COLLIER
Given the exclusive opportunity to cover this event, The Blackprint has agreed to keep the names of all in attendance anonymous.
Earlier this month, American University’s Chapter of the National Association of the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) hosted a call to action to address students’ concerns regarding the racism students of color face in the classroom. Discussion based, attendants got the chance to share their personal stories, as well as explore what specific factors has allowed American University to uphold an environment in which racism thrives. Successfully creating a supportive space, the NAACP executive board urged students to propose specific changes that could be made to ensure that all students, particularly black and brown students, are able to feel safe within a community they have invested thousands of dollars into.
Planned to be held at 8:15 p.m. in the Kogod School of Business, room 233, the NAACP executive board were met by a professor that had not reserved the room through the university’s reservation system, 25live, but had took it upon themself to reserve the room, unofficially, to hold a midterm. Students planning to attend the event started to gather outside of the reserved room, confused as to why they were being told they could not enter a room that had been reserved through proper channels. Members of the NAACP executive board spoke to Kogod’s front desk assistant about the issue, but she refused to remove the professor and their class, promising that unusual situations like this rarely occur and that it would “never happen again.” Event-goers were sure to tell the assistant that issues like this were of a frequent occurrence, particularly to clubs of color. Shortly thereafter, the NAACP event was forced to relocate.
This setback set the tone for the event where students of varying marginalized identities spoke about how their experiences on campus are not only accompanied by feelings of tokenization, unfair treatment and insulting (racist and bigoted) comments from fellow peers in the classroom, or from those in assistant positions seated behind Kogod front desks, but also from faculty and staff alike, impeding their education, college and future careers.
Inspired by one student in particular, the event kicked off with their detailed recount of a harrowing experience they recently had in a classroom: “My professor introduced an article surrounding the debate on who could use the n-word, I don’t know why that’s still a debate in 2018 but she brought up the article to the class and basically there was this white male student in the class that was outspoken and angry and he spoke up and said, ‘I think white people should be able to use the n-word, it’s a double standard that black people can use it and we can’t. So it got really heated in the room and [he] was pretty much attacking all of the students of color in the room and the professor sat there and did nothing, she pretty much had her hands tied and didn’t mediate the situation in any way even though she saw that there were a lot of students that were uncomfortable. He even called a black student a racist.” The student went on to describe the event as triggering and reported it to the board of directors because their situation “is not an isolated situation.”
Encouraged to speak, many in the room began to share similar experiences they have had where professors failed to make the classroom a safe environment for students of color. One student shared how their University College professor assigned the class to read a chapter where the N-word served as the title and subsequently repeated the N-word throughout the duration of class. “Everyone was quiet and there was so much tension in the room,” they recalled. “ After the class we told the peer mentor that we weren't comfortable with her saying the word in class. It’s just wrong and she shouldn’t be able to say that.” Afterwards, the student went to the class’ peer mentor and asked them to speak to the professor on the class’ behalf as many expressed that they were uncomfortable with the verbiage being used. However, “in the next class, our professor said it again. We felt that our peer leader never said anything to her. We decided to talk to the professor after the class and she told us the peer leader had talked to her but it was an academic choice to use the word again. She said that ‘Not using the word is taking away the power’ and she started crying. Said she understands where we’re coming from but she just had to make that academic choice. After that, she would say the word but say sorry [afterwards].” The student expressed that her feeling of frustration and discomfort stemmed not only from professor using the N-word, but other white students being able to “make the academic choices to say that to us.” Although the professor was reported to the program manager of University College, Richard Duncan, she has since been allowed to return and teach the class again.
Not only have numerous professors expressed racist sentiments in class, but religious ones as well. One student spoke to how a current School of Public Affairs professor of theirs constantly refers to muslims as terrorists and told the class that “if you arrest a terrorist on this day, years later he’ll probably say he did it for Allah.” This same student went on to describe how this particular professor tokenizes (and assumes) the experiences of specific students in class based on their identities. They detailed how when issues related to criminal justice or slavery come up in class, he encourages visibly Black, dark-skinned students to speak although their hands are not raised.
Another student shared how they had to drop their Civilizations of Africa course after their white professor made several inappropriate comments regarding Africa, Africans, African-Americans and the lasting effect of colonialism throughout the continent. “I was really excited to take it, but when I got to the class, the professor didn’t look like me so I was immediately like ‘what’s going on?’” the student explained. (A lack of Black and brown professors is another reality a lot of minority students face on campus and is often the root of a lot of their issues regarding racism inside the classroom). Nonetheless, the student decided to stick the course out, putting their apprehensions aside. Shortly after this decision was made, the professor subsequently went on a “rant,” stating that the “colonization of Africa was the best thing that could happen to the continent because the African rulers were doing it to their own people and that Black people, specifically Africans and African-Americans, that we’re always making excuses and make it okay for our own people to hurt each other but when someone else does it, we want to cry and get mad about [it].” Afterwards, the student tried to explain to the professor in office hours that a lot of the statements that they made were not factual as there were peer-reviewed articles supporting opposing views. In return, the student was told that they “did not have the stature or the expertise within the topic to understand the problems that are really happening in the continent” and were “sympathetic to the issues” because they are of African heritage.
Representation in the classroom was a major topic at the event with students sharing the roadblocks they’ve faced trying to register for classes taught by Black professors. “During the summer I emailed SOC to see if there are any black professors in SOC,” one student recalled. “They forwarded my email to 3 different people that were all on the SOC diversity panel. SOC forwarded [my email] to them and didn’t provide [me with] any type of list. People emailed me back saying ‘We have a lot of diversity, come to our panels and talk about diversity.’ I was just asking for the specific black professors. That’s all I wanted and they didn’t give that to me.” Another student went on to share how they searched for a professor of color who did research on mass incarceration in School of Public Affairs to help them with their senior thesis to no avail. When discussing this with a fellow SPA professor they “joked” “‘yeah I don’t think we have any professors that teach about it because they’re probably all mass incarcerated.’”
Although this is the reality many students of color are subjected to on campus, one revelation that left many in the room startled was from a particular student. Sharing that their professor segregated the classroom based on race, the Asian & Latin-American, the African & Caribbean, Black-American, and white students were grouped separately, with the professor specifically citing that her reason for separating the Black-American and African students was that she recognized “there were differences between the two.” The student also shared that the professor would encourage students to relive and tell the class about the racism they have faced in their personal lives as well as assign different readings for white and non-white students for class discussions.
So why not report the professors who use racist terminology, segregate their classrooms by race or teach alternate versions of history to their students? Academic repercussions. Assigned to write a paper on stereotypes, one student shared how their paper, centered on the stereotype that Black people can not swim, was rooted in Black people being thrown off of slave ships during the transatlantic period. They were given an ‘F’ and spent the rest of the semester having to work with the dean to earn a passing grade in the class. Students, especially those who work and/or are involved with extracurricular activities, do not always have the luxury of working with college deans to ensure that their professors are maintaining a safe space in the classroom － nor should they.
With the release President Sylvia Burwell’s Inclusive Excellence Plan, many in attendance questioned why the president had not reached out to Black student leaders and groups to discuss what their wants on campus are. Others also questioned the purpose of the Antiracist Research & Policy Center as many felt they were led to believe that it would focus on internal issues on campus, not the study of “racial inequality and discrimination of a national and international scope.” “We just spent thousands of dollars investing in the Anti-racism program with [Dr.]Kendi, which is great but where is that?” a student asked. “They are pouring thousands of dollars into a program that’s suppose to save our school but there’s no direct impact on or for students of color.”
Students suggested that there should be more classroom training for professors, particularly on difficult conversations regarding race, not held by CDI. “AU does a lot of talk about civil discourse and discourse in the classroom and that's all great and fine, however, the training professors are getting needs to come from an outside source,” one student expressed. “There are plenty of places in DC that do diverse and equity training and it doesn't always have to be CDI. CDI does great work but they’re underfunded, understaffed and they can’t give comprehensive training to every single professor needed and I feel like a lot of the time the university dumps everything into CDI’s bucket.”
Overall, most in attendance agreed that there needs be more advisors and professors of color, specifically professors of color with tenure. In 2016, 31% of undergraduates at American University identified as students of color, while only 18% of the full time faculty identified as people of color. This gap increases when considering professors of color with tenure. Students expresses that should be access to a comprehensive list of professors of color and the courses they teach if not available to students, at least available to groups like the SOC diversity panel to pass along this information to students when asked. Students also suggested that the end of the semester professor reviews should give students the option to self-identify their race and ask specific questions in regard to how the professor handled difficult discussions or if the professor explicitly said problematic statements in class. These results will help students of color decide whether or not to register for specific courses, shielding themselves from potentially traumatizing moments in the classroom.