I received an email this morning with an article about the University of Kansas professor who now sits at home with her foot—or perhaps both feet—in her mouth while her administrators make decisions about her future. During a November communications seminar, professor Andrea Quenette “abruptly interjected” with her own “deeply disturbing remarks,” according to an open letter written by multiple students and published by Amy Schumacher, a first-year PhD student who was in the class.
And I just have to ask:
What, exactly, is the deal with white people these days?
I ask this question, and I ask it seriously, in the midst of what seems to be a weird sort of uprising. After numerous instances of racial discrimination, oppression and occasions where people of color are demanding equality and respect from their educational institutions, it seems that whites are coming out in droves to take a stand against…what, exactly? Your “right” to shut people up about the harmful effects of racism? Your “right” to shut people up about institutionalized discrimination? Your “right” to continue benefiting, unencumbered, by these same systems and institutions?
Or is it more so about your “right” to celebrate Halloween painted in black-face in response to your institution making an honest attempt at cultivating decency? I mean, surely there are better, nobler hills to die on, yes? Or is it about your “right” to dismiss issues and situations with which you cannot possibly have direct experience because—and let’s face it—you do not know institutionalized discrimination. You do not know oppression. You do not know racism. You do not know what it is to have your concerns for your safety and your right to live peacefully—unencumbered by racist epithets, pranks, jokes, systems and policies—ignored and dismissed by school administration until they are virtually forced to do something about it (or to, quite literally, step down and get out of the way so that someone else might step up to the plate and respond decently for a change).
You know how I know you don’t know these things? Because I don’t know these things either. Because I am white. And I have never, and will likely never experience institutionalized racism or oppression—no, not the way people of color have historically, and continue to in the present. It’s just not possible, given this nation’s deplorable history of racism, systemic oppression and aggression against—specifically—people of color.
There is absolutely no chance of that happening. And you know what that means? It means that it’s time for white folks to shut up and listen. Which brings me to the most recent issue of the University of Kansas professor, now on administrative leave for saying a few (really horrendous) things she should not have said.
I take these issues personally. I am an educator. I think about my students, the vast majority of whom are white. Given recent events that have occurred across the nation, I hope they are learning something. I hope they are engaging in the kind of learning and thinking about these critical issues that cannot possibly occur inside of a classroom, due to the short amount of time we spend together each week. There is only so much schools can do. The rest is up to the world outside of the classroom. I’d be remiss if I did not admit how downright scary this is.
I will not pretend to have an answer for the question that sparked the most recent event, this one occurring at the University of Kansas; the question of how to best approach students with discussions about racialized events and issues remains enigmatic, even for me—someone who works within this realm daily. And if we can learn anything from the Kansas professor, it’s that she lost a real opportunity here.
However, there is one thing that the University of Kansas professor got kinda sorta just a little bit “right.”
The professor began by saying, “As a white woman, I just never….” This is precisely where the learning begins. She begins by admitting that she does not know what she does not know. And this is precisely where the Kansas professor missed her chance. We can just about fill in the blank with anything other than the nonsense with which the professor finished her sentence. I’ll give it shot:
“As a white woman, I just never….experienced racialized discrimination, oppression, or institutionalized racism. So please, tell me, how can I, as your teacher, join in this fight in a way that is intelligent, useful and productive for the greater good?”
Denying students their stories and experiences in matters of institutionalized racism and oppression is not an “academic freedom.” While professors and instructors are certainly “free” to be dismissive of their students’ voices, experiences, and concerns, this is most certainly not an academic approach to teaching. It is anti-intellectual at best. At worst, it’s…well, read the news about the Kansas professor to see what her students have to say about it. In the meantime, it’s time for so-called educators to shut up and start listening.
Christina Berchini is an assistant professor in the department of english at the University of Wisconsin Eau Claire. Berchini earned her PhD in curriculum, instruction, and teacher education with an emphasis in English education from Michigan State University. Her areas of interest and specialization are secondary English education/English teacher education, critical race studies, critical pedagogy, social justice, and issues in urban education.