How to Respond To Racist Comments and A Silent Professor

Thursday, December 10, 2020

Photo: Harrison Hamm
How to Respond To Racist Comments and A Silent Professor

By Jolie Brownell

Zoom university. No student asked for this. Most definitely no student sought to pay for something like this. But here we are… in the middle of an ongoing pandemic with over 200,000 lives lost, global turmoil, threats of a second civil war, police brutality, ongoing protests, a new president, etc. Chaotic times, to say the least. For many people, these times have become a matter of life and death. It feels so weird to be students who are still expected to show up to class, complete assignments, and almost act like everything is “normal” (wtf does that even mean anymore?). 

Then, on top of all of this, to show up and hear racist, ignorant, and harmful comments made in Zoom-class with no response (or a dismissive response) from a professor is just that more disappointing, frustrating, and invisibilizing.

We already witnessed thousands take to Instagram posting their black boxes — performative allyship at its peak — and have watched individuals “wake up.” Yet, if these times have shown us anything, it’s just how far our country has to go to face the pervasiveness of our systemically racist, capitalist, white supremacist, and settler-colonialist society. 

I write this piece to hopefully provide some avenues to confront all this shit in the Zoom-classroom. Yet, I want to note that I am speaking to different audiences. We should understand why it is a very different experience to speak up towards racism and bigotry as a person of color versus as a white person. Just like it is a very different experience for a queer person versus a straight person to speak up against homophobia and transphobia. This distinction does not negate the challenge, anxiety, and negative experiences that non-POC or cis-gendered and/or heterosexual individuals face speaking up… but it’s not the same y’all. If you want to learn more about why, read anything by Ibram X. Kendi, Kimberle Crenshaw, Audre Lorde, Ijeoma Oluo, James Balwin, Angela Davis, etc. 

I point this out because these steps below aren’t just for queer/POC, but these steps are also perfect opportunities for “privileged” folks—white/white-passing cisgender and/or heterosexual students—to show up as allies and speak up, instead of waiting or relying on the (usually) sole person of color or “othered” person to do it. These steps are how you can stand up for yourself, show up for others, and find resources if you need help to take necessary action.

What To Do: 

Tip 1: Directly Call it out - If you hear someone say a racist, homophobic, sexist, and/or fatphobic, (any bigoted comment) and your professor does not say anything, you can respond by calling it out. This is the most direct way to respond, but for many, this is also the “scariest” option. You don’t know how they will respond, but it can be assumed that they may get defensive or even dismissive. 

Tip 2: Pose it as a question - “Is this what you meant to say?” Reframe their ignorant or bigoted comment to give them a moment to clarify what they just said and hopefully correct them. Many times individuals do not realize what they said was ignorant. Doing this may help them catch their implicit bias or blatant racism. 

Tip 3 - Call out through Chat  - Instead of unmuting yourself and speaking up in Zoom-class, use the Chat function and type out your response there. This can help you both determine what you want to say and how you say it. There are many creative ways to respond, here is a list of a few below: 

  1. Pose it as a question - Same as above, you can type out the question, “Is this what you meant to say?” Reframing their ignorant/bigoted comment to give them a moment to clarify what they just said and hopefully fix it. 

  2. Post a Resource - Posting a link to an article that directly speaks against the bigoted or ignorant comment can be a slyer way to call out the person. It also shares resources for all students to learn more. You can lead with this phrase or something similar: “[@whoever], your comment reminded me of this super awesome/intriguing article I read about [whatever their bigoted comment was about].” Also, posting a powerful quote by an activist or historical figure that speaks to the comment could also be productive. 

  3. Share a Personal Lesson - Depending on if you have the time or emotional bandwidth to do this (looking at my white/white-passing cis-gendered and/or heterosexual peers here), sharing a short personal learning moment concerning the comment can be helpful. Something to the effect of, “You know what, [@whoever], I used to think that too until I read/learned about this…”

  4. Private Chat is a thing - If you didn’t know this yet (and if your professor hasn’t disabled this feature) with Zoom-chat you can secretly chat with someone. This can be really helpful. If you know the person or are more familiar with the person who said such a bigoted comment, secretly being like “Hey, look, what you said was harmful in this way” can be productive while also not calling them out in front of the whole class. It’s similar to taking a person to the side if we were in person. You can secretly message your professor, as well, to directly address them. 

Now, what if you don’t have access to Zoom-chat or if it’s your professor who's making the bigoted/ignorant/factually incorrect/racist comments? This gets a bit trickier, but hopefully, the tips below are helpful. 

Tip 4: Email after class - You can type up a response after class to let your professor know how such a comment they said or a student said made you or your peers feel. It’s best to not let too much time pass by before sending the email, so the conversations of the class are still in the back of both yours and your professor’s minds. Writing an honest, but respectful email to your professor can start a larger conversation about what took place. Again, I am also looking to my white cis-gendered peers here, because just because a comment was made that didn’t necessarily demean you, doesn’t mean you can’t speak out about it. If a professor receives multiple emails from students regarding what was said, it will be taken more seriously. 

Tip 5: Go to another trusted professor or staff member - If your professor does not respond, or you even want additional help figuring out how to approach your professor, receiving counsel from another trusted professor can be helpful. They can provide additional tips and steps you can take to address these problems. They can also point you to who else to reach out to higher up in the hierarchical chain. You may instead want to go to a trusted staff member. For instance, those who work in the Ethnic and Intercultural Services (EIS) can be great resources as many of them are trained to handle these very situations. 

Tip 6: Report up - If your professor does not acknowledge your email or provide action steps on how they plan to readdress or resolve the issue, then it is important to know that you can report up. You can either email or speak to the Chair of their department, or even the Dean of the college your class is under. 

While these may feel like “extreme” measures for a small bigoted or ignorant comment, research around “minor” events /microaggressions proves otherwise. We all know these comments never come independently, they are reflective of a larger racist, homophobic, sexist, white supremacist culture, and society. Your class environment—yes, even on Zoom—is meant to be one that fosters a safe space for everyone to learn. Silence only condones these problematic behaviors. Doing nothing about it only perpetuates the problem. Don’t let others tell you that these comments aren’t a big deal, this is called gaslighting, which is a super problematic no, no. 

What NOT To Do: 

While I’m sure there are many other tips that you can do to respond to these comments or a silent’s something you should stop doing: Hearing a problematic/bigoted comment be made in class, doing nothing about it, and then texting your one Black friend in the class or queer peer in the class something to affect of “I’m so sorry that happened to you/or that you had to hear that…” This is honestly and truly not helpful and low-key calls yourself out. You heard the comment, you were a witness, and instead of sticking up for your peers or speaking out against the comment, you chose to do nothing. 

I know while some may appreciate this, others may instead see this response as more about your feelings of guilt for not doing anything, rather than about truly caring about your peers who could be affected by such a comment. If you truly care, reach out AND speak up. Reach out AND email your professor. Reach out AND report it to the Dean. 

What Else Can You Do? 

Have more tips on how your peers can stand up against bigoted comments in the class? Speak up to silent professors? Please share them in the comments. I know many students will find your thoughts helpful. 

Also, please note that this isn’t only about comments made in class. These tips can be used to address other problematic features of the class. From problematic comments to problematic assignments or class materials. Anything that demeans another person, intentionally or unintentionally, needs to be addressed. 

Remember, you and your voice have power. You have power. Use it to stand up for yourself and use it to stand up for your peers. Even if you have no people of color in your class, still, speak up. Speak up in your own way. Speak up because this is the first step to addressing the larger issues. Change cannot happen without pointing out where we need to grow. So please, speak up. 

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