*Disclaimer* This article contains language that may not be suitable for minors
For this month’s article, I thought I’d include an email I recently sent to a professor in regards to her problematic class culture. This is an example of a message I wish I had the energy to send to each person who has fucked with me: professors, students, community members and all.
Here’s the email in quotes, and added GIFs for your viewing pleasure.
“Dear Professor XXXXX
As you know, I dropped your class. I think it’s important you know the reasons why I left the class, because these experiences fall into a similar pattern of instances I’ve experienced in the English department, and the university as a whole (not to mention my daily life).
Your last email to me posed a question: “How can we make discussions more engaging?”
Although I am not in your class anymore, the reasons why I dropped answer this question. I don’t think it’s necessarily my responsibility to figure out ways to make class more engaging as a student, and moreover as a student of color at a predominantly white institution, but here are some suggestions nonetheless.
1) Take the time to learn the correct pronunciations of your students’ names
You asked me at least three times within the first two weeks of class how to pronounce my name my name, and each time I told you how, and you proceeded to pronounce my name in a completely different Americanized way.
The unmistakable difference between the pronunciations confused me. I didn’t understand how you seemingly did not notice the difference, even though I frequently said “that’s not what I said,” after you incorrectly said my name. I never introduced myself to you as “tan-vee” and didn’t understand why you couldn’t hear a difference in the way I said my name and you said my name.
Perhaps I would have felt more engaged in discussion if you had given me a base level of respect by saying my name correctly, or at least asking me to repeat my name so you could learn to say it properly.
2) Acknowledge difference
When I included in my discussion post that I felt tired of unrecognizable bible references, and you began class the next day with a passive aggressive “look it up,” I interpreted that response as a signal that you think my unfamiliarity with the bible is a coincidence, like not knowing French, or not knowing ballet: as if my brownness has nothing to do with my frustration and unfamiliarity with a Judeo-Christian dominated canon that your class perpetuated.
Telling a nonwhite non-Christian student to just “look up” bible references completely ignores that obviously this country prioritizes narratives by and about Judeo-Christian followers in such a diverse place.
Also, calling your class “American Literature” and only including 2 authors of color is a serious misrepresentation of America, and the art its citizens create. Multiple times, you communicated the difficulty of travel arrangements, and while I understand that, the reality is that we ended up with a syllabus dominated by the same kinds of people and that values stories written and focused on white Americans.
You continually used the phrase “left out” to describe my feelings about Christianity references and the content of my post, which trivializes and minimalizes the systemic erasure of stories by and about people of color and non-Christian folks. I didn’t just feel “left out.” I felt alienated by your syllabus and by your comments. I felt the toll of the institutional racism in your class.
3) Stop silencing race critical commentary
I sent you a discussion post that centered on race representation (or lack thereof) and you asked me why I didn’t discuss something I “really want to examine,” and something that would enable a “shrewd” essay in the future. You implied that I am not passionate about the topics I discussed and that questioning a class syllabus’s whiteness is not worth probing.
Your tone in the email indicated to me that you didn’t value the content of my post, you don’t seem to value critiques of your syllabus choices based on race. This clear devaluing of this topic did not motivate me to participate in class; after all, you pretty much indicated that what I wanted to discuss was a waste of everyone’s time.
4) Don’t tokenize your students: in this case, your students of color.
During a discussion about the second book when you defended your syllabus choices and explained the difficulty of travel arrangements, you articulated a situation in which you communicated with a black writer, but she wasn’t able to find a ride from the airport. You called me out and said, “Tanvi!” once again, mispronouncing my name, “I should have volunteered you to pick up [black writer’s name] at the airport!”
I don’t know if this was a defensive comment on your part, or you simply didn’t understand what you were saying, but this was hurtful. This instance represents one of the clearest instances of targeted racism I’ve ever experienced in a classroom. It is inappropriate to single out one of your only students of color who has raised questions about your syllabus and volunteer her for a task for which she’s not responsible.
I’m not sure how else to explain the extremely problematic nature of this instance. You may have been trying to “include” me in a class discussion, but I interpreted and experienced you tokenizing me for my brownness and my radical perspective.
I could not bear thinking about spending another day in that class. You humiliated me in front of my peers. Your comments contributed to the trauma of racism that I experience every day. While you seemed unaware, the emotional toll what you said in class overwhelmed me and forced me to leave class in order to recuperate, and eventually, leave your class permanently.
I’m sharing this with you so that you understand the problem that plagues the department, the school, and this whole country. This class is NOT the first class in which I’ve somehow felt tokenized and erased at the same time, not even the only one this semester.
While I don’t want to speak for others, I can say that instances like these affect students and their ability to excel, or even feel motivated in their academic environments. I’m tired of paying thousands of dollars every year to feel victimized and alienated in classrooms.”
The idea of “decolonizing our minds” is included in the writings of the author, feminist and social activist bell hooks. She encourages us to critically examine every thought and action, free ourselves from the coercive ideologies, and overcome the impacts of structural oppression. This column will analyze spaces and times where and when we can pause and make strides in this arduous process, and also highlight figures who are helping us to decolonize ourselves.