I may have created a racist. I am an adjunct instructor at a large, public university in a rural area of the country. Given the media attention surrounding the death of Margaret Mary Vojtko, now those outside academia know the general powerlessness and insecurity of that position. I am also a youngish, short, woman of color from a lower socio-economic background. One colleague once remarked about my appearance that I was “a young, small girl with a sweet face.” At the intersection of gender, ethnicity/race, class and even physical appearance, I generally am at the “less power” end of the spectrum. So, imagine my surprise when I received an email from a white, male, probably middle-class student who is at least half a foot taller than me expressing anger and hostility. The email from a student I’ll call John read that he must speak up against a decision I had made that left him feeling powerless. Why was John so angry? What was it about my actions that left him feeling so powerless?
To provide a little context, I teach an upper division course, taken generally by juniors and seniors. John is in his senior year, and from what I understand, in his final semester at the large, public university. According to John, he has been working long hours at a job and also doing a lot of interviews to secure a job once he graduates. He is enrolled in other courses, but only has my class on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. John, however, hardly attends my class. In fact, I remember him approaching me after class once to introduce himself and apologize for missing class. “I will try not to miss any more class,” he stated. I don’t think I ever saw him again until a few days ago. He came to my office to plead his case on why he deserved an extension on an assignment.
John missed the assignment not because he was ill or had some traumatic life experience, but because he had overlooked a due date. He contacted me a few days after the assignment was due to explain his mistake. He began his first email to me being very apologetic and admitting he was aware of the course’s late paper policy (late papers are not accepted), “however…”. I told him to come see me so we could discuss the matter. He then contacted me a day after to ask what the assignment was; he had been absent so often, he had missed the day it was distributed. At that point, I told John by email that I was not going to give him an extension, but would like to offer him an extra credit opportunity. I explained that it would be unfair to give him preferential treatment when other students have made the exact same mistake and have taken the consequences. In other words, in a firm manner I said, “no.”
The next day, John stopped by my office to discuss further. He was visibly angry and muttering to himself, “I guess that’s $2000 down the drain.” As I sat there listening to the student and watching him begin to shake, I wanted to diffuse the situation without giving the impression it was my fault. I wanted to convey condolences without using the words “I’m sorry.” Just then, I wished we had an English word equivalent to the Swahili word pole, meaning sorry, without implying fault or placing blame. I couldn’t think of one. I explained to him that I could not in fairness to his classmates extend the deadline, and that extra credit was all I could offer him. He declined, arguing, “it probably wouldn’t be enough anyway…” Then I turned and said, “sometimes” [long pause as I thought of what to say] “life’s a bitch.” Poor choice of words, maybe? As a female, person of color placed in a position of authority (not power) I have to be aware of the nuances of communication. I recognize that I am in a position of authority simply based on my position as an instructor, but also realize my authority is not rooted in actual power relations but in cultural norms of the student-teacher dynamic. This view of the instructor is only further enhanced by the classroom setting, the fact that an instructor stands while students sit, unconsciously instilling in students a sense of subordination. Noting the limitation of my authority, I tried to choose my words carefully. I wanted to communicate that I could relate to John’s predicament without assigning blame. It didn’t work. I think he just became angrier.
John sent a final email arguing that my decision was unfair and that this assignment was now an obstacle in the way of his future success. He further argued that if he didn’t pass this class he wouldn’t graduate and his job offer would be rescinded. Once again I offered him a couple extra credit opportunities, and explained that he could still pass the class without the assignment. If John did the extra credit and got a perfect or near-perfect score on the final, he could earn a passing grade. This might be difficult but was doable. I sent him another email explaining all this. I have yet to hear back.
As I read John’s final email, I was mostly caught off guard by his language. John wrote that he had worked so hard to “put in such effort to excel” and now felt because of my decision it was for nothing. He was extremely disappointed and angry. As I processed his email, I came to understand that as a female of color perhaps I am the low hanging fruit to which anger can easily be directed. After all, according to some, my success can be interpreted as everything that is wrong with this country. My success can be taken as proof of affirmative action at work, of minorities being given positions as opposed to earning them. For example, one night in a drunken rant, a white, male middle-class colleague remarked he “never got a break in life, never got help like those minorities do.” It was a dimly lit bar, maybe he forgot I was brown?
As author Tim Wise notes, persons of color in positions of authority are still relatively rare. By just occupying space in which people are accustomed to seeing white people, do I constantly have to prove my worth to my students and my colleagues that my success was earned and not awarded? How does my ethnicity and gender identity affect people’s perceptions of my actions or decisions?
Why am I afraid I created a racist? John sees a decision made by me, a female person of color in a position of authority, as being in the way of his future success. This is troubling given that I see my role as a teacher to empower students, not make them feel powerless. If anything, good teaching is anti-authoritarian and inspirational. As I tell students in my introductory courses, “I am here to prepare you to do the most important job you will ever have… to be a citizen engaging in the act of democratic governance.” However, as a university instructor, I am perceived as an authority, able to make decisions that could affect the trajectory of a student’s life. My role as a university instructor also overlaps with my identity as a female person of color. Given the area I live in, I am probably the only female of color in a position of authority many students may come across. I know I am the only female of color teaching in my department. When I make decisions that others do not agree with, which is the identity that wins? Do I have the authority to make decisions that stand on their own or are they interpreted through the prism of ethnicity and gender?
John’s final email came only a few hours after our last meeting. I am still left wondering about the effect of my decision. Did John stop seeing me as an instructor holding him accountable for his choices or did I become the brown female standing in the way of his success? Have I now created a racist? Is this proof that females and minorities are getting all the breaks while the white male silently suffers? After all, he said that he “cannot sit and silently suffer” — from what exactly I’m still unsure.
[Photo by Ding Yuin Shan]