A few weeks ago, I was on campus meeting with some students. A conference was taking place at my college (which is located in the heart of Manhattan, New York). As is typical of area NYC colleges, you need to scan your identification card, where security is sitting nearby, to get into campus buildings. The security officers at my college happen to be our very own college students, mostly black and Latino men paying their way through college with this job, and are quite delightful. Because I was working with a small group of students, two of whom were not from my current college, I needed to inform campus security of the names of my visitors. As I was waiting to talk with the security officer, a young African American man and rising senior at the college, I watched intently as he navigated the crowd coming into the building. He was, simply put, quite genius. The officer, as I am sure you can imagine, had many tasks: new first year students and their parents were finalizing financial aid and identification cards, all of whom need to be signed in; the conference attendees, obviously enthralled by the local neighborhood, had to be closely watched since they represented a continual thoroughfare through the gates; and then there were the current IDed students swiping through the gates. I was particularly curious because most of the parents coming into the building spoke very little English and needed to be directed to their location. The young man quickly scanned their paperwork, animatedly offered a series of complex gestures showing them where to go, and then quickly ran to the side of the desk to make sure they were going in the right direction (accompanied by head nods and more hand gestures when the parents looked back at him). Needless to say, I was fascinated by this young man’s total immersion into and dexterity with this discourse community at the main entrance to the college. In a brief (and very brief) lull, I managed to give the young man the names of the students who were coming to visit me. He was very short and businesslike and then went back to his extra-linguistic traffic direction. Perhaps, it was my fascination and my ethnographic mesmerization that made me slow on the uptake because I just wasn’t quick enough to respond to the next series of events.
As I was talking to the African American male student working at the security desk at the main door, one of the conference attendees walked though gates opened from a previous entry. The security officer reminded the attendee that he needed to show his conference badge before he entered. While the officer was busy with more people coming through the gates, the attendee walked by me and loudly stated: “I showed you my badge, dude, but you were too busy flirting with the girl.” I didn’t catch it right away. First of all, there were no surfer dudes anywhere to be found at this entrance and none in Midtown Manhattan by my count on that day— so there was no way to fit this absurd linguistic construct into the discourse community that I had been so closely watching. It took me a few seconds to even realize that this foolish white man was talking to the security officer. There were also no young women nearby and I hadn’t seen the officer even talking to any “girl,” much less flirting with her, so it took me even longer to realize that this foolish little white man was TALKING ABOUT ME. And since I am just not paid enough at this college to sit silently and passively and take this kind of white abuse, I decided to go look for this foolish white man and share my own words with him. I blame it on my ethnographic fog because I couldn’t find this fool anywhere. In hindsight, I should have gone into the conference sessions but I didn’t think of that at the time. What I did do, however, was write a letter to the conference organizer/conference chair explaining exactly what I am saying here. To that, I also added the following:
I need to make two things very clear for you here:
1) I am a 43 year-old tenured professor. I have not been a GIRL for a very, very long time. Furthermore, it is not socially acceptable for a man of my own age group to reference me as a girl. Those issues were resolved many social movements ago. And since your attendee, a white male, chose to call a black woman a girl and, by corollary, based on who she was talking to, a young African American man a “boy,” you should also know that it is no longer socially acceptable to speak of African American adults in this way. Those issues were resolved many social movements ago also.
2) Because the security officer was helping me as a college professor at the university, I resent that I was sexualized by your attendee’s suggestion that I was someone who was being flirted with. More importantly, I am incensed that your attendee feels authorized to hyper-sexualize a young African American man, regarding him as a predator, while he is doing his job and simply talking with a black female college professor. I find this experience simply reprehensible.
I closed my letter with the following:
I would hope that as a group committed to equity in higher education that you might begin to see that today was not one of your shining moments and certainly not a step towards democracy, as your conference title suggests.
In my exasperation, I gave up looking for the foolish white man and went back to talk with the student. Very tellingly, the security officer did not even hear or notice the attendee’s comments because he was busy helping many other visitors. I didn’t relay the story to him because I didn’t think the white man’s comments were worthy of a young black man’s ears and spirit. I did, however, talk to the man about what I was witnessing: a disgustingly rude and disrespectful behavior from many people entering the building. This was the first time that he actually dropped the distant professionalism and began talking to me. I found out that he is a senior, hopes to be a lawyer, and that the disrespect he experiences at that front door is a routine occurrence for him at the entrance of this college.
I have thought about that young man’s comments every day since Michael Brown was murdered and the Gestapo-styled response that the police department thinks is appropriate for black protest in Ferguson, Missouri. When I asked him what kinds of conversations he has in his classes about these issues, he simply responded: “What conversation? It’s all lecture. We don’t get engaged.” I wonder how and if students will exit our college doors with the kind of self-efficacy that it will take to counter what that young man LITERALLY routinely experiences at the entrance doors and these regular messages he receives that he is a predator not worthy of living. I am wondering why the “Black Prophetic Tradition” of a Fannie Lou Hamer isn’t seen as a necessary part of a sociology curriculum. I am wondering why the “Transformation of Silence into Language and Action” of an Audre Lorde isn’t seen as a necessary part of a communications curriculum. I am wondering why immersion in Counter-Storytelling, Counter-Pain, and Counter-Epistemologies isn’t seen as a necessary part of a literacy curriculum. It seems to me that the hidden message/hidden curriculum (though it is no so hidden) is that this young black man is simply supposed to grin and bear the kind of treatment by the likes of that foolish little white man who had no discursive sophistication and even less ability to co-recognize the fullness of the humanity right in front of him.
School starts back for us in two weeks. I hope that young man finds at least one class that is actually relevant to the times in which we live. I plan to keep searching down the school hallways for racist perpetrators and recognize the brilliance of the young black people around me who so many others choose to not see.