A couple of weeks ago in my Intro to New Media Technologies (COMM 372T) online course, there was an incident in our class Facebook group. The group is run by our instructor as an extension of the classroom. A student posted a photograph that included a person in blackface. I immediately pointed out to the person that the image was incredibly racist and offensive. She replied “I am sorry if I offended you.” I then told her that it was not just offensive to me, but to an entire people group, and that it was an inappropriate picture to share. As an attempt to help her better understand, I also included links explaining why it is considered offensive. She then deleted the post and blocked me.
I emailed our professor, Dr. Kyle Nicholas, about the situation. My email read, “Hello Dr Nicholas,Today on our class discussion (ironically since our topic is cultural appropriation) there was a post that featured a person in blackface. I was floored. That is incredibly offensive. Once I informed Erin that the picture was, in fact, offensive, she removed it and did message me another “apology” and blocked me. I don’t mind that, I just hope that it doesn’t take away from class discussion. I am informing you of the conflict because I know it is touchy and don’t want it to happen in the group again. I will include screen shots in this message of the incident as well. I am definitely still appalled and her non-apology does not sit well with me, but again, I don’t want anything else like this to happen and offend anyone else.”
He replied, “I didn’t see this before it came down, Brittany, but I appreciate you bringing it to my attention. I understand your reaction and I’m sorry this happened. I think taking it down quickly is probably the best response. This is the first time in the 5 years we have been using Facebook that something like this has happened…please let me know if you want to discuss this further.”
His response to me felt dismissive and seemingly brushed the situation under the rug. I responded to his email letting him know that a simple statement to the class including some variation of, “avoid being racist” would be a great way to resolve the situation. I informed him how important it was that racism be specifically addressed to the entire class, especially because the module touched on cultural appropriation. He then posted the following statement in our class Facebook group; I felt it only vaguely addressed the incident. “One of the great things about teaching at ODU for the past 14 years is how much I have learned from students. Our diverse student body brings such a rich variety of perspectives that I often find myself needing to listen, and think, and adjust my own perspective. All learning is growth and growth can sometimes be difficult, but I wouldn’t be an educator if I didn’t believe it was absolutely vital to a life worth living.
I make a couple of assumptions about my students. 1. That everyone is here to put in their best effort, to do their best to make a positive impression as intelligent, intellectually curious and sensitive human beings. And 2. That everyone will work to respect differences in perspective and to resolve issues peacefully and respectfully. When I see conversations veering away from those principles, I feel the need to step in and issue a reminder.
We have had a couple of incidents – both in this forum and in the broader ODU community – that should make each of us pause, and listen, and consider how to best move toward understanding.
Your passions and your principles are absolutely vital to this course, to this university and to our society. Passion married to principle is the very engine of personal and social progress, and I don’t want to do anything to disrupt impassioned conversation. But I do want to remind you all that our FB page is very like an ODU classroom: we conduct ourselves according to the ODU Code of Student Conduct. Among other things, that means that we all take responsibility for our own conduct and uphold the values of “integrity, fairness, respect, community, and responsibility.”
But codes are just words if we don’t let them shine through our actions.
We build the world through our words and deeds. I do believe we are building ‘collective intelligence’ via our conversations on this site. I also believe that we are learning valuable communication skills that go beyond the scope of this course. These are skills that we will need to continuously hone as we travel through life. We are all imperfect. Let us not curb our passions, but let us channel them into respectful conversation in this forum and into compassionate action in our lives.”
The announcement completely brushed aside the feelings of those who were offended and catered to the feelings of those who were not affected at all by the incident. This only causes more divisiveness within the class. I admit, I was naive to think that I would be protected from racist things in a school setting, but I feel that the instructor could have made it clear that racism would not be tolerated.
A separate thread was made by a student regarding the blackface incident (as it related somewhat to his curation topic for our course), and the student explained why the post was offensive to people of color. It turned into a lot of victim blaming, and people being offended by us being offended. We continued to stand our ground and defend ourselves as there was no moderation from the instructor. As this thread was going on, a different thread was made by a different student about cultural appropriation. It started off as a good discussion but quickly spiraled into a conversation where someone made snide remarks that trivialized cultural appropriation. It was offensive to another classmate (as well as myself), so I linked an article that explained the difference between cultural exchange and cultural appropriation.
Later that evening, a student made a post that explained why she was taking sides with the student that posted the photograph of a person dressed in blackface. Others in the class then joined in explaining why they, too, were taking sides and defending the post. That in itself made me seriously consider dropping the class since I now feel that it is a place where I cannot speak. It is uncomfortable to be in a class where many defend racism.
At this point Dr. Nicholas and I spoke on the telephone about the entire situation. I explained my point of view and made sure he understood why I felt offended and why I will not sit idly while people make remarks that trivialize the struggle that people of color face every single day. I also explained to him why I felt like he should have stepped into the conversations that were being had. He then asked me what should be done to “just make it all go away.” I told him that, again, making a post about the specific situation and racism would suffice since the module and topic for the class was about to change anyway.
He posted “OK. It really pains me to say this, but I’m going to have to insist that we move on from comments about race in this forum. Starting now, I’ll remove those kinds of comments.
It’s sad, because this is an extremely important topic and we have some intelligent and eloquent people in this course who can teach us all. Racism is wrong. I think we all know that. And I think we can all learn from listening to others’ perspectives and experiences. But I am ultimately responsible for the class environment and it’s clear to me from following group threads and from discussions with numerous students that the conversation around this topic is degrading that environment.
ODU has a simple contact form for those who experience harassment (linked below). As always, you can email me to begin a discussion about this or any other course topic.”
I feel that this could have been a great learning experience had Dr. Nicholas been actively involved in the class forum from the beginning. Unfortunately, I now do not feel comfortable participating in the course, specifically in the course facebook group. I know that it will affect my grade since participation is a large part of our grade, but it is hard to be surrounded by people who trivialize a very real struggle that I deal with daily. I’m not sure what action needs to be taken, but I do feel that Dr. Nicholas failed to appropriately express from the beginning that racism, as a whole, will not be tolerated in the classroom.
I contacted my university about this incident last week and am currently still waiting on a response from them.