Race in a Ph.D. Program

Essay about a black doctoral student's experience leads to broader discussion of isolation and insensitivity felt by many -- even from seemingly progressive fellow students and faculty members.

July 14, 2015

An essay -- "Why I No Longer Eat Watermelon, or How a Racist Email Caused Me to Leave Graduate School" -- starts by describing that incident, from 2011. The piece is spreading rapidly among graduate students, especially those who are not white, and many are saying that it provides an important perspective on their isolation and the kinds of experiences that encourage so many to leave graduate school. The blame in the essay (for which the author changed names of individuals) isn't just about the doctoral student whose actions set off a series of events, but about how a department reacted (and didn't) to what had happened.

The story starts in a “Postbellum/Pre-Harlem” literature class at Rutgers University that Robert Palmer took just after he started the English Ph.D. program. In one class session, the professor showed selected scenes from Song of the South, the 1946 Disney film that was praised for its animation and criticized by many for portraying slavery and the postslavery period in romanticized ways. A student in the class wanted to gather others to watch the film in its entirety, and she invited some, but not all, of the white students in a course that was, for the program, diverse. (The author of the essay, who is not always perceived as black, was among those invited.) (CORRECTION: This paragraph has been updated to reflect that not all white students in the course were invited.)

The invitation said in part: "There seems to be an understandable demand for some hardcore Song of the Southing and preferably whiskey-based cocktails to accompany. My house is small, but my sound system is mighty …. I might yell racist things at the TV. RSVP ASAP YA’LL. If you do come, hooch is most welcome, as are straw hats and other Darkeyisms. I might even buy a watermillyum if I get enough interest."

The party didn't take place, but the student wasn't challenged about this and follow-up emails that seemed to revel in the idea of an all-white gathering to view a film that many find racist.

Where the department at large is damned in the essay is the way it responded. Several times in meetings, in discussions (largely organized by minority students) and in writing, Palmer says he was discouraged from ever making reference to the original email or implying that it reflected something real. White students, he writes, were reluctant to condemn the email. And administrators were concerned that anyone talking about it be sensitive to the student who had sent it.

And it seemed to him that everyone in the program was unable to deal with issues of race (even if they had plenty of discussions about it). He describes "the student who claimed she couldn’t be racist because she loved Langston Hughes. Or the professor who, when describing her own subconscious racism, talked about being surprised by seeing black people at Whole Foods because they only eat potato chips. P.S.: They sell potato chips at Whole Foods."

At a certain point, Palmer writes, he and other minority students were feeling more insulted than supported by the discussions. And so there was fallout in terms of the way minority students felt about the program.

"One best friend left the program due to the racism, but I remained for two more years, struggling against the anxiety and depression caused by that first year," he writes. "Aside from a core group of friends, I kept my distance. Stopped talking in class. I mostly fell out of engaging with coursework. I gave the department more or less everything it needed to make pushing me out possible. When I received an incomplete, I was told, in so many words, that if I had been any other student I would have been asked to leave. They wanted to give me a 'chance,' but pushed back my exams and revoked my fourth-year fellowship. I decided to leave at the end of my third year, which was its own ball of drama. The sense of discord between the department and myself was, and is, readily apparent."

In the comments on the essay itself and on Facebook and elsewhere, many minority graduate students say the story rings true to them.

One graduate student wrote to "thank you for sharing this. It is fucking enraging to read about this white supremacist horror show. The initial damage, the subsequent cheap PR moves, the gaslighting, the silencing, forcing those most harmed to educate and be 'civil' and held to a standard of behavior that the initial perpetrator is never held, and the way racism in America is treated as an interpersonal issue (as the author pointed out) rather than a power issue. I fucking hate this so-common script of institutional exclusion and harm, and the ways in which the courageous people who come forward become lightning rods for white anxieties and racist retaliation, held up for public scrutiny and crucifixion."

Another comment: "I am a white faculty member at a college in Boston. The email you quoted sickened me, it was clearly racist and appalling, and I was deeply saddened by your painful accounting of all that transpired. I hope this story can help educate people inside and out of universities to understand the daily aggressions and microaggressions that students of color must tolerate. I’m sorry that they derailed your graduate studies. I hope your current path is more meaningful and productive."

While some of those commenting expressed doubt about the events, Rutgers did not deny them (and they were discussed in public at the time they took place). Via email, Carolyn Williams, chair of English, wrote: "Yes, the department has discussed this series of events many times since 2011. I hope and trust that through those discussions we have agreed about how to respond sensitively, quickly and aggressively in the future -- and how to ensure that every student in our program knows that she or he is part of a supportive community."


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