I once had to mediate a complaint against a teacher who failed a student’s paper because it was plagiarized. The student had lifted entire segments of each page from websites and the professor had a policy against this on his syllabus. The student insisted that the professor was actually implementing his policy only with her because he disagreed with her political beliefs. That’s a difficult thing to prove so she was out there on a limb with that one. Because she was contesting her final grade (she was insisting on an A and that a B+ was the lowest grade she could ever accept) and not the plagiarism, I had to read the plagiarized paper and her corpus of work (most often lifted from other sources). Her writing was stunningly weak, riddled with the most anti-black racism I have ever read from a college student, and strangely misinformed all at the same time. In one section of a paper, the student wrote a rather lengthy diatribe against affirmative action and used, as her evidence, that Columbia University’s undergraduate student population is 40% “black”…”Colored” is what she called them. She argued that Columbia had accepted all of these unqualified “Colored (i.e., black)” students over the white valedictorian of her class who was denied admission. I was confused, to say the least, and thought she meant a different Columbia than the ivy league institution housed in New York City. Columbia’s students are 40% black? When the hell did that happen and why ain’t I workin there? Thass that hotness right there. I did get excited for a minute when I read her words but then realized that I was being foolish for listening to such a foolish student. That just ain’t what Columbia has EVER looked like! She did have a (cut-and-pasted) section from Columbia’s website in her writing. The charts, graphs, and language did, in fact, show that Columbia was reporting 40% of its undergraduate student population to be OF COLOR (the majority population in that number is Asian). I was astounded that the student clearly did not understand and had never really seen the term “of color” before. She seemed to think it was referencing those old Colored Vs. White drinking fountains where “Colored” meant black. Her white male professor looks like the first person who actually confronted her ideas and writing ability and she saw him as a race traitor of the John Brown variety, insistent on lynching him! It would be funny if it weren’t so damn tragic. There are no surprises here though. This was a Christian, conservative white female at a Christian, conservative white-run college who had attended a Christian, conservative white high school. Imagine my surprise though to hear the exact same language from SOPHOMORE students of color at a “minority-serving” public college who attended predominantly Black and Latin@ public schools! They too had never heard the term “of color.” The same white political continuum operates in how they have been educated.
Contrary to what many of my colleagues believe, the challenges that I experience with students have nothing to do with grammar, skills, or any another lower-order concerns. Like last week: my students were assigned a lecture by Robin D.G. Kelley called “Becoming Engaged Intellectuals” (I treat the lecture like any reading assignment where students must transact with the text in the same way):
Here is Robin Kelley, a brilliant and acclaimed historian, talking to a group of students of color at an elite state university about being young people of color while my sophomore college students have mostly never heard of nor called themselves people of color before. I find myself growing more and more impatient with college faculty and systems who cannot seem to (or do not want to) grasp that young people of color need to have a sense of themselves in order to write themselves into being.
Like always, I had students say things like they don’t think they are or can ever be intellectuals because English is not their first language or because they have an accent. These are actual quotes from last week’s class. And, of course, I have students, young black women, who unpack a discussion after class rather than in class because they don’t think they have a voice that people will hear… they will just be cast as that loud black girl in the corner again. That’s a quote too. Despite my early onset of racial battle fatigue, I realize that I need to sharpen my critique on the privileging of decontextualized grammar instruction. I don’t centralize grammar instruction in my course so for many folk, this means that I do not teach it all. If I thought grammar would alleviate the social and educational injustices that my people face (or even impact the students of color who I have described here), I would do it all day long. But at what point in my people’s history did a grammar lesson ever resolve systemic oppression, institutional racism, and education inequality? I mean, really, who thinks this simplistically? If all black folk needed was a grammar lesson for equality and social mobility in education, don’t you think we woulda BIN done that? There is a real vile disrespect happening in this construct.
I am reminded these days that I must offer a discursive paradigm that communicates the historical weight of my students’ experiences, the dignity of their persons, and the political presence of the minds that no one has really allowed them to tap into. I need a critical discourse, no matter an audience’s limited capacities, of the linguistic needs of students who have internalized the kinds of racism that I am describing in this post, an internalization that has everything to do with how you understand and actualize yourself as a writer. I won’t relegate them to a separate water fountain by dumbing down my analysis of the spaces that marginalize them or only give them grammar instruction. Haven’t we already had enough Jim Crow classrooms and drank from enough Jim Crow water fountains??
I spent my weekend reading more than 60 essay drafts and another 60 website sketches/plans. By the time I got to J’s, I had really lost it and found myself emotional: a mixture of sadness and anger that I have not felt in quite a while…which always means I’m about to put clowns in CHECK! J is an AfroLatina who is perhaps one of the best storytellers I have ever encountered and yet she won’t speak in class because her anxiety about her “accent” paralyzes her. I. Mean. Physically. Paralyzes. Her. I should have used my course website to build more sound and multiple speaking voices there so she could HEAR herself and not just see herself. I know that now…I also know that the fierceness with which I will go AFTER and AT all the perpetuators of such debilitating spaces for students like J has been renewed.