The Role of Teaching in Responding to Racism

After a racist incident occurred on the campus of Quinnipiac University, John Conley, a professor there, explored it in depth with his students and learned a lot about teaching.

October 7, 2016
 

Last month, a Snapchat image circulated on the campus of Quinnipiac University of a white female freshman student in a dorm wearing a dark exfoliating beauty mask. Captioning the image in a collage made by another student were the words “Black Lives Matter.” In the days that followed, members of the university community received a number of emails from the administration, culminating with one that informed everyone that, as a result of an administrative investigation, “the student who took the photo, added the remark and posted it is no longer a member of the university community.”

In the midst of it all, my students and I decided to take time in our English 101 class to discuss both the images and the responses that we’d seen, read and heard up to that point. In our discussions, my students -- all first-semester freshmen -- offered a range of thoughtful and considered perspectives.

A theme of our discussions was the way in which the offending image mocked and trivialized the Black Lives Matter movement -- and, more broadly, concerns about racism, social justice and the calls for a more equitable America. My students pointed out that the words, phrases and images that were hardly offensive in themselves -- that is, the image of a white woman wearing an exfoliating mask as well as the words “Black Lives Matter” generated a problematic message when placed together in a collage. Some students pointed to the impact such images have on students of color struggling to learn, fit in and feel safe at the university.

One thing that didn’t come up for the students was the connection to the history of blackface minstrelsy, another key reason why the Snapchat image was such a problem. It not only mocked and trivialized other people’s misery and criticisms today, but it also did so by referencing and repeating -- unwittingly or otherwise -- a long history of it. As someone first trained in cultural studies, I offered some words about the subject and pointed the students to a few relevant resources.

But much of what piqued my students’ interest was the administration’s response. They quickly raised questions concerning money, liability, potential student recruitment and alumni giving -- all key elements of the conversation, to be sure. One thing we didn’t talk about, however, was genre: the fact that we were dealing with a kind of writing that, while being offered in response to a specific incident here at Quinnipiac, is governed by some rules, reader expectations and history.

Last spring I attended a faculty workshop concerning antiracism led by David Shih, an English professor at the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire. In that workshop, Shih drew our attention to the ways that such articulations of “community” are increasingly a part of the administrative playbook for dealing with racism on campuses. And, in fact, the response we saw at our university was pretty generic -- although, as we never tire of arguing in English departments, genres do some pretty serious work. Often it seems as if administrative responses to racism sound a lot like the conventional way it gets talked about in the wider world: as something episodic, immediately identifiable and always perpetuated by someone from outside the community. Or, more specifically at work at my institution because of the manner in which the offender was quickly “no longer part of the community,” the implication was that the person was not really part of the community to begin with. Thanks to the administration’s intervention, the “community” could now get back to its normal business of operating in the absence of racism. Case closed.

My students, of course, had not attended David Shih’s workshop, but they raised some strikingly similar points in our discussion. Several also said that racist remarks in the form of jokes, asides and the like happen “all the time” on the campus. The problem, in this case, was that someone got caught. “There’s a big deal about it right now,” one of my students suggested, but what about all the other times these things happen, and they go unchecked?

For the students, the major difference was that it was a public act on social media. And what’s different about social media, they pointed out, is that it opens incidents to the outside world. A number of students were nervous or upset at having to answer to family, friends and others about the image, and some discussed how it had hurt our campus community not only directly but also by damaging the university’s public image. In short, the students seemed to say that the key difference between a “private” utterance and a more “public” image or “speech act” like the one that I’ve been describing is best understood as a degree of risk. “It’s just stupid,” several students agreed. But when pressed, it was clear that, by “stupid,” they meant “really risky.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, our discussions turned into a kind of reading of the administration’s style of risk management. When I asked what they thought should have been done, student suggestions ran the gauntlet from hiding the story from outside news media to expelling the students involved to insisting that this is not a “big deal” in the first place.

But many expressed frustration that the administration’s response was never fully explained in any understandable or transparent way. Almost everyone seemed to agree that something had to be done to take the incident seriously not only because of its hurtful nature but also because it was public. I asked what the campus would be like if the administration intervened every time a racist act of any sort occurred. One of my students immediately answered, with a raised eyebrow, “Things would get pretty out hand around here.”

Whether or not things getting “out of hand” on a campus sounds like a good thing or a bad one probably depends on a number of factors, and certainly this brief essay can’t settle such a question. But I raise this because much of what was at stake for my students -- at least in our initial classroom conversation -- was a response in large part framed and limited by the same terms as the administration’s emails, language and directives.

Most people agreed that such an incident needed serious and swift attention, and I agree with that sentiment. But the implication quickly became, “So if you do this type of thing, we don’t want to see it -- in other words, don’t get caught.” Because the risk is so high for everyone involved, that’s what makes it a problem: visibility and exposure to risk. My students really understand that posting such an image on social media is a risky move and could lead to issues at the institution in one way or another. But just why and in what ways such a racist speech act was a problem was tougher for them to articulate. Rather, the explanation for what the image meant and why it mattered was what we had to learn about in class -- not something the students could glean from the administration’s electronic missives.

Let me be clear: the fact that the administration did not discuss issues of racism or the history of minstrelsy is not why I invited my students to think about such topics in class. But it is striking to me that here, in a moment of crisis, some pretty clear lines between administrators and educators get redrawn. One way that happens is how the administration so directly articulates itself in such emails as something different and other than an agent of education and learning.

In the last administrative email on the subject, directly following the sentences informing us that the student was “no longer a part of the university community,” we were directed to “learn from this experience” and “encouraged” to participate in campus programs that “support our values of diversity and inclusion.” But just what we were supposed to learn here and what kinds of opportunities are available for us to do so was left intentionally unsaid. We were informed about the “existence” of a “racially offensive” image but not invited to ponder why it was offensive or racist, or what, for that matter, we should do about it. Likewise, we were told to seek out related programming and activities, but the fact that a previously scheduled and long-planned teach-in concerning Black Lives Matter was to be held on campus the following week was left out.

The following week, when the administration finally did publicize the teach-in (and with less than 24 hours before it was to start), we were “encouraged” to attend and “welcome to stop by,” but no connection to the Snapchat image was drawn. In other words, the administration seemed to be making a decision to leave the matter of education up to others at the university. Its role, if we judge by such emails, was to conduct investigations and render discipline.

And as a teacher, I would certainly prefer that what counts as education be left up to faculty members and students. Don’t get me wrong: I’m upset about the incident at our institution and wish it had not happened. But let me be clear about something else: as a teacher, I welcome the chance to turn such moments of difficulty into moments of consideration and reflection in my classroom -- all in the service, of course, of equipping my students with skills to make more informed and more thoughtful decisions in the future.

In fact, I’ve found that doing so is a pretty good way to teach writing and might even be thought of as a kind of “educational outcome” of higher education, regardless of discipline. In my English class, all of a sudden, some seemingly abstract questions got really real. It felt as if we were all doing what we ought to do in college: asking tough questions and taking the answers, and their implications, seriously.

My students did not come to consensus. But judging from some follow-up conversations with a number of them, I don’t get the sense that anyone felt that their views were not voiced and explored for what they were: attempts to come to terms with something important happening in their world and to use our class as a chance to hone skills they could apply both now and in their future.

I learned a phrase in walking picket lines alongside the union of clerical workers at the University of Minnesota that I’ve always liked: “The University Works Because We Do.” Since then, I’ve heard this phrase foreground the importance of a wide range of labor unrest that happens on college campuses from many people -- janitors, IT techs, food service workers and others. The phrase, when spoken by those who do a kind of work that the administration does not recognize and value as essential to the university’s mission, attempts to reframe the issue at hand and offer a sight line from a less common, but no less significant, perspective. And probably because, over the last few decades, the focus has been on the struggles of noninstructional university staff for recognition, better wages and respect, I have heard that phrase less often evoked when describing teachers and students.

So here, I’ll take a risk of my own: last month at Quinnipiac, all around the campus, the university was working because we did: that is, because teachers and students stopped their normal, planned activities and discussed racism -- and the administration’s response to it -- in a serious way.

Part of the problem is that what appears to be the administration’s desired outcome -- that what happened would be a short-lived but impactful moment that would quickly go away -- turns out to be not so unlike the way that Snapchat works. Images appear for a short time and then disappear, (hopefully) without a trace. What throws a wrench in the machinery is someone calling attention to it, someone who says, “Wait, this is important. This means something.” And thanks to a Quinnipiac student who reposted the image on Facebook with an impassioned critique concerning the connection between feeling safe on campus and being empowered to learn, we’ve had the chance to do so.

I don’t know who that student is, but I think I could learn something from her or him. And of course, this person wasn’t mentioned in the administration’s emails, either. In fact, I only learned about through my students in our class discussion. Last month, I went to teach class but I got schooled. To me, that’s also an important way that a university works -- and something we should all fight for.

Bio

John Conley teaches courses in academic writing, cultural studies and literature at Quinnipiac University and Trinity College.

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