When the teacher is racist, what's a student to do?
by Mikhail Lyubansky
About five years ago, the student newspaper of my undergraduate alma mater ran a story documenting the online activities of a teaching assistant that could be reasonably categorized as hate speech. At the time, the specific details and the specific individual involved were important in that the teaching assistant had, well, teaching responsibilities, and it was necessary to consider whether she could carry them out without racial bias. Today, the name of the person in question is no longer relevant and the specific details matter only insofar as they are generalizable to other classrooms in other institutions. The central question I want to address is: When the teacher exhibits racist behavior, what's a student to do? The incident at my alma mater provides a suitable case study.
According to that day's edition of the student newspaper, on a specified earlier date, a named Linguistics graduate student (the T.A. for a 100-level Linguistics course) posted a message on the university discussion board entitled "Time for Palestinians to Die." The post labeled Palestinians as "animals" who are "cognitively and genetically inferior to the rest of the human race." "If every Muslim has to die, so be it," the post read. "If all Muslims die, then we can take over their lands."
Pretty nasty words, about as nasty as they come, and the kind that many of us like to believe are no longer voiced, at least not publicly! But on the other hand: just words -- with no specific threat of violence. Doesn't this fall under constitutionally protected speech?
What does the university do with something like this?
What does a student (in the class) do?
The first question deserves its own essay, but here I want to take up the second. What students should do is 1) thank their lucky stars they have access to this information and 2) survive.
Don't get me wrong. This is the worst kind of racism, the kind that many Americans have unfortunately come to believe is no longer around but that is evident daily to anyone who spends time reading online discussions. But the teaching assistant in question (let's call her Lerner) didn't become a racist the morning she wrote that post; she just outed herself as one that day. And that's why the students in her class ought to be thankful -- because unlike their predecessors, now they too are in on the secret. Frankly, I wish that she had said a little more, because it sure is hard to imagine that Palestinians and Muslims are the sole targets of her hate. But, really, I think she told us all we need to know.
I don't mean to suggest that Lerner (or any other professor or T.A.) deliberately assigned even one student a worse grade because of his or her ethnic/racial status. My hunch is (full disclosure: I've never met this person) that not only did this thought never enter her mind but that it, in fact, violates her own sense of justice and fairness. Racists are funny that way. They can hate an entire group of people, while at the same time respect, admire, and even love a member of that group. How? By actively removing the particular person from the group they hate. The internal dialogue, sometimes explicitly articulated, may sound something like, "Of course, Muslims are animals and are genetically inferior, but you are different -- YOU are not like those other Muslims."
No, my guess is that Lerner did not deliberately discriminate in her grading or in other interactions with her students. It is even possible that, in her commitment to fairness, she actually cut some students some slack that they did not deserve (see "reaction formation" in your Psych 101 notes). But intent is not a necessary component of discrimination. To the contrary, while the road to hell may or may not be paved with them, good intentions are hardly enough. One has only to look at the preponderance of empirical studies showing that teachers have lower expectations for students and treat them as though they were less capable, if they are led by the reseachers to develop a bias against them (e.g., John is not a good learner). And that's with just a few minutes worth of "information," not years and years of deep-rooted hate. No, it's not grading bias that students need to be on the lookout for (though, of course, they should look out for that too) but more subtle bias -- like who gets a deadline extension without a penalty or who gets the befit of the doubt during class participation. It's the sort of thing that would usually escape notice, or if noticed, be easily dismissed, but it's also the kind of thing that might nudge one student but not another into a higher grade category.
But information is power. If students know the instructor is racist (or otherwise biased), they know they have to be more vigilant than they would otherwise, and if the information is widely known, as in this case, then the students can also glean some comfort in the knowledge that if they can provide documentation of biased treatment, they will probably get a sympathetic ear from the department chair. When racism is out in the open, students know where they stand, which means that they can take steps to protect themselves, to survive. It's no fun to be a student in such a situation, but most of us have learned a variety of survival strategies; we just don't always know when to use them. If only all professors and instructors were considerate enough to let their students know.