We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.”
– Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail“
Dear Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity (CCSRE) Faculty Directors:
Thank you for your efforts to respond to student concerns regarding the Introduction to Comparative Studies of Race and Ethnicity (CSRE) incident with the guest speaker and her choice to use the N-word in the classroom. Unfortunately, the length and multi-directional argumentation of the CSRE faculty letter demonstrates the program’s difficulty in comprehending the intensity and motivation behind student responses. The recent incidents, as well as the responses in their wake, speak to a pattern of anti-Black violence permeating within this university. That such behavior would occur within the CSRE program, a space in which Black students would expect to be seen, heard and supported, is profoundly disappointing.
In the immediate aftermath of the first incident, the course instructors apologized to the class, offering a later class meeting as a space to discuss the events. They then forwarded a three-sentence apology from the guest speaker that ultimately functioned more as a non-apology. Surprisingly, you accepted that apology on behalf of the students injured in the class session. You did this despite never having talked to them or having asked them if they found the apology sufficient. You did this despite never having asked how faculty involved in the incident could make things right. You rushed to move forward when Black students were and are still hurting.
Since then, our attempts to register criticism has been stymied at every turn. CSRE leaders cancelled the town hall discussion they had promised to students, without notice. Instead, the program held a strategy session focusing on vague subject matter and lacking in concrete compromise. Dissemination of the event, moreover, was limited, with CSRE students only receiving 24-hour notice of the new plans. The format of the event itself robbed students of the ability to have an open dialogue. In the weeks since, students have still not had an opportunity to address the guest speaker directly, nor were all the writers or signatories of this letter present at the strategy session to engage in a more substantial and profound discussion of CSRE’s letter. How are we to believe that Black voices are centered when CSRE places us on the margins?
Contrary to your characterization of the responses, students are not dismissing the speaker’s context. Multiple Black scholars, in fact, have discussed the relationship between context and the slur’s usage, elucidating the settings in which the word’s use is permitted. The work of Geneva Smitherman (2006), John McWhorter (2019) and Maya Pete (2018), for example, establish that Black people have already delineated the multiple situations in which the word is acceptable. One thread remains consistent — non-Black people do not have license to use the word:
“A mixed-race conversational context is not the time for linguistic experimentation. Maybe up in the exclusive, rarefied ‘Git Rich Or Die Tryin’’ world of Hip Hop insiders like 50 cent, P. Diddy, Russell Simmons and other such folk, racial outsiders can get they linguistic n**** on. But not out there in the real world of 39.2 million struggling and dying — not gittin rich — everyday Black people.”
“Some Whites view this as the operation of a linguistic double standard, representing a kind of Black privilege. Well, yeah, that’s what it is, make no bones about it. It’s a symbolic challenge to White hegemony, one of the precious few to which Brothas and Sistas can lay claim in this society,” (Smitherman, 2006, p.60).
CSRE leadership chose not to consult the large body of scholarship by Black people on the subject and therefore excluded Black people from a conversation about a term that belongs exclusively to them.
The CSRE Directors’ letter asserted that sometimes we are required to use slurs in the classroom “in order to examine where these epithets came from, how they are/were used and the violence they encode.” However, the guest speaker’s use of the word failed to qualify for these considerations. Her use of the slur added nothing to the academic environment of the class. Furthermore, we contest your argument that such words must be spoken aloud in order to honor their historical significance. The harm enacted when a non-Black speaker utters the word far outweighs any perceived critical “benefit.” In arguing that students and instructors cannot “insulate ourselves completely from the harmful effects of speech about racial inequality,” you presuppose Black pain as a necessity in any academic environment studying race and ethnicity. You assume that Black students must experience trauma in your courses in order for non-Black students to learn. This presumption is flawed and reiterates entrenched assumptions about the subjugated role of Blackness in an academic context. To draw on the words of Toni Morrison ’75, “[t]he function, the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being.” Ultimately, Black students do not feel safe in the classroom because they are forced to sacrifice their well-being for those who do not share their histories or experiences. Black personhood is sacrificed so that others are enlightened. This makes it clear whom these courses are really meant to serve.
The use of the slur marks the beginning of this situation, not the responses from Black students. It is unfair to assume that our Black anger has no source or rightful beginning. Without first considering the pain Black students are experiencing and addressing how the guest speaker and professors failed to show up for Black students in the first place, any steps towards amelioration hold no water. Students holding a program to its own stated values should not be disparaged. The CSRE faculty letter depicts this crisis as a confrontation between angry Black students and a vulnerable faculty member. However, as evidenced by the outcry from several organizations and coalitions, including the non-Black Latinx and Asian and Pacific Islander communities, this issue reaches far beyond that. Our concern is not with a particular community or a single individual; rather it is directed at the violence that runs rampant in our classrooms and the faculty’s continuous refusal to call it what it is: anti-Black racism.
The quick dismissal of Black student voices speaks to a University-wide habit of sweeping such incidents under the rug. The safety and well-being of Black students is being treated, as it often is, as secondary to upholding the reputations of the CSRE program and Stanford University as a whole. Anti-Blackness remains systemic at Stanford. The response to the actions of the guest professor are emblematic of deeper problems in our educational experience as Black students at Stanford. We cannot effectively address an issue if we cannot acknowledge that it exists. How can an institution expect to have any lasting and just benefit to larger society when it cannot even reckon with its positionality when called upon? Does it not replicate the very same violence that it aims to salve?
We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”
– Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail“
The letter from CSRE directors implies that Black students must wait to have a seat at the table to discuss this matter. 57 years later, Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s words still remain true: We are still being asked to wait, which translates to never. Black students have had to continually advocate for their right to a learning environment in which they are valued, for an academic space that is not rooted in their suffering, for their own humanity in an institution that strips it away. We are profoundly disappointed that affiliates and leaders of the CSRE program have been an impediment, rather than an ally, in this struggle. Who is dedicated to our futures? Who will make the university a welcome place for us as teachers of future generations?
We, the Black collective, welcome a conversation with CSRE, the professors of Introduction to CSRE and the guest lecturer all present. Please visit our website, which outlines our proposed talking points.
Concerned Black Stanford Students
Contact the authors at SUConcernedBlackStudents ‘at’ gmail.com.
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