“You Will Never Understand Racism Like I Do”

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Published:
April 24, 2020

Ten a.m. Thursday morning, January 30, 2020: Chapel is about to start in Pioneer Memorial Church at Andrews University (AU). A young woman, a student, settles down in the pew and turns to her Twitter feed:

“Might as well say what happened to me yesterday while I’m not paying attention to chapel,” she writes. “I am mentally exhausted with the white male professors at AU. I had this argument with my professor today and I’ll go into detail about it later. Cause I’m going to file a formal complaint.”

She is a reader for the history professor she is so angry with; he had just returned to her a paper from Fall semester with a grade of 74. The comment from the rubric is reproduced in her Twitter feed:

Her own summary of the essay: “My paper was about the stereotypes of Black people in America, how they were created and how they are still perpetuated onto black people to be one of the characteristics to hold a Black people to a 2nd-class citizenship.”

What follows in the staccato bursts of Twitter is a detailed description of an hour-long conversation with her professor, who has taught at AU since 1990, an escalating argument about stereotyping, racism, and White privilege, as remembered by the student. Click here for the entire account.

Frankly, much of the reported conversation reads like a one-act play:

Me: “… I’m proud of being black”

Dr M: you’re proud of that? You have pride in that?

Me: yes I am proud of being black

Dr: Well you need to fix that

Me: why can’t I be proud in being black

Dr: why would you be proud of that?

At one point I say, “you will never understand racism like I do”

Dr: Oh really? White people invented racism!

By the end of the hour, the student is in tears. She has tried to tell her professor and employer what it is like to be Black in America; he is adamant that he himself is not racist and therefore her premise, that “White people have stereotyped Black people,” is false on the face of it. According to her Twitter report, he tells her that he knows that AU does not have a problem with systemic racism, because he himself has never seen it. When she leaves his office, he calls after her, “You can’t handle it!”

Summing up the encounter, she states, “Anyways. Not only did he disrespect the student-teacher aspect but he also made it a hostile work environment. I talk to the provost tomorrow.” In the following days, the student files an appeal, and her friends on Twitter express anger and frustration on her behalf. Some of the tweets are quite vulgar; other can be construed as threatening to the professor.

I invite you now, Reader, to put yourself in the shoes of the provost. This sort of situation — a clash between a minority student, who feels disrespected and misunderstood, and a professor, often White, over an issue involving race — is a staple on college and university campuses these days, and the fact that they quickly take fire on social media only makes them harder for administrators to deal with. Was the paper unfairly graded based on racial bias? Did the faculty member transgress on University policy to “treat with respect students who disagree with the instructor”? Is the student too sensitive, “playing the race card,” not willing to accept help with sloppy thinking and writing? Is the professor refusing to accept the student’s research and analysis simply because he denies the existence of racism in America? What are the limits of academic freedom?

And the situation is even more complex in this case, because systemic racism on the Andrews University campus is also at issue. The student’s Twitter thread quotes the professor saying that the hiring in 2017 of Michael Nixon as Vice President for Diversity was an example of Black privilege — that he was hired merely because he was Black. Claiming to be a friend of “Nix,” the student comes to his defense, noting that he has a JD and experience as a practicing lawyer.

Nixon was hired, and an Office of Diversity created, as a direct result of the troubles of February 2017, when a Black History Month* speaker was understood by some to suggest that anyone who voted for Donald Trump should be ashamed of themselves. A week later, the provost made a public apology for the interjection of politics into the University Chapel service. Then came a video, which received over 150,000 views, 2,000 shares, and 600 comments on Facebook, called “It Is Time AU,” in which Black students demanded that AU deal with systemic racism on campus, making quite a specific list of demands, and ending with “You have one week.”

Seven days later, administration responded with “It Is Time: Listen. Dialogue. Change.” President Luxton and several others, including Pastor Dwight Nelson, say “Thank you,” “I am sorry,” and “We must do better and be better.” A list of promises was made, including the hiring of a Vice President for Diversity, as well as cultural diversity training for faculty and staff, a strengthened grievance process, and more respect for Black worship style and practice. For an official summary of this incident and the list of promised changes, click here. For Spectrum’s coverage of the incident, see here and here.

Now, over two years later, Nixon finds himself at the center of this unhappy situation. He responds on Twitter that same evening, January 30. He begins by defending the student: “I just want to say publicly how much I love and respect [her]. She is an amazing young woman who did not deserve to be talked to like this by anyone — let alone her teacher and employer.”

Nixon then proceeds to respond to the attacks on himself as reported on Twitter: “I’m not the first person to be told I got something just because I’m black…. I have also been called a racist by a co-worker and have been asked ‘what programs do you have that are for white people,’ etc. Hiring me alone was never going to solve some of the deeply rooted issues our school, church, and country has with racism. It all has to be uprooted.”

On February 12, the situation was reported by the conservative website Fulcrum7.[1] The headline was “Outrage Mob Targets Andrews University Professor.” Predictably perhaps, the author is mostly interested in the student’s Twitter thread and the responses of her followers, not the original incident.

“This is how social justice cyber mobs operate. An individual looks for — and finds — ways to be offended, then they broadcast on social media how hurt they are, inviting others to confirm the injustice that was done to them. The issue often takes on a life of its own, with cyber warriors feasting on the reputation of the ‘target’ until the short attention span of the mob moves on to the next ‘outrage.’”

And so now, here we are: Twitter is alight; websites are blazing. Liberals are in high dudgeon; conservatives are enraged. The university, having already spent so much time, energy, and money to try to deal with these issues, finds it must do more. It must find a way to do justly while also embracing mercy for this student and this professor.

Returning to our thought experiment, stepping into the shoes of the provost, how will we respond?

We will call together the designated committee, follow the proper protocols. No doubt we will pray for guidance. Such conflicts over White privilege, systemic racism, and “colorblindness” are fraught with emotion; and in a time of intense polarization, the walls are high and the feelings sharp.

Reading between the lines of this string of angry posts, we can attempt to understand what this professor was trying to say to this student. One doubts that he was telling her, for example, that she should be ashamed of being Black; one assumes that he meant that race or skin color is not a thing to be proud of for anyone of any color. This message comes through several times, even in a report by a student who is furious at him, the idea that

“not everything happens because I’m black and if it does it’s cause I keep telling people that’s what I am when I need to focus on there only being one race, the human race…. that I will never be able to fight racism while being so racialized and that I will always be contributing to the problem unless I try to fight this with Christ as the center.”

We can assume that the professor approaches this conversation as a conservative Christian for whom Christian unity is the answer — not politicized identity politics. As Fulcrum7 puts it, “[He] reminded her that all nations of men were made of one blood and we should seek to be citizens of God’s kingdom, not glory in a particular race (Acts 17).”

One can assume that from his own point of view, the professor is not belittling the student and her experience — he is trying to teach her to rise above a narrowly racial view of her life and recognize that she is part of the Body of Christ.

But the student has obviously not experienced it that way. She does feel diminished, humiliated, and misunderstood. Her professor is telling her to listen, but she herself needs someone to listen to her. She needs him to try to understand her own lived experience here and now: “Don’t ever tell me to relax or calm down. Not when you keep invalidating an experience you’ll never understand.” She hears his comments as patronizing and mean-spirited. She has received a stone instead of bread, unkindness rather than compassion.

The actual provost, Dr. Christon Arthur, is the one who will need to resolve the situation. AU has begun a “confidential internal investigation…. [during which] both sides have a clear opportunity for input and response,” according to Stephen Payne, the Special Assistant to the President for University & Public Affairs.

And so, for now, you and I can relax. We are not responsible for solving this particular problem. We can rejoice that we are not the provost, not on the committee that must hear the appeal. And yet — we, too, live in this world, where we must try to listen to each other, validate our neighbor’s experiences, empathize with the disadvantaged, and understand what it means to live together in a community where “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for [we] are all one in Christ Jesus.”

 

The professor declined to comment for this story; the student did not respond by the time of publication.

 

Notes & References:

[1] Fulcrum7 is a self-described voice for “committed, grass-roots members” of the Adventist church, as opposed to the liberals and progressives who have taken over the educational institutions and conference leadership in much of North America. High on the list of enemies to be fought is “political correctness…. It is the antithesis of truth and thus an enemy of the Everlasting Gospel.” http://www.fulcrum7.com/about

 

*Update (April 28, 2020 at 4:15 p.m. EDT): The original version of this article erroneously stated that the Vice President of Diversity & Inclusion role was created as a result of events that occurred in the aftermath of backlash toward a January MLK Day speaker. This has been corrected to say a February Black History Month speaker. The author and editors apologize for the error.

 

Nancy Hoyt Lecourt is Professor of English and Academic Vice-President Emerita at Pacific Union College.

Image courtesy of Andrews.edu.

 

Responses:

"Shame on You, Spectrum" by Timothy Nixon, April 29, 2020

"Addressing Justified Concerns" by Jason Hines, May 5, 2020

 

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