29 February 2004

“Brown” student

So I had this interaction with a student the other day that was kind of weird.  Let me set it up for  you.

Last week (about 10 days ago) was the first time I had all of my
official new students in my sections.  So I had a list of names
and people with those names showed up for 90 minutes in my
presence.  There were 30 of them, and I got to know them pretty
much if they piped up and spoke a few times.

This is pretty normal — when I get 30 or 50 new people in my life, I
tend to remember the ones in my line of vision or who make themselves
noticed by talking.  I get to know all of the students after a
couple of weeks, after I’ve had a chance to figure out section dynamics
a bit.

So this student came up to me after class the other day, asking some
advising questions (I’m also an undergraduate adviser in the
department).  I worked at answering them, and then, as they had
some relevance for the course I am teaching in, I asked her, “Who is
your teaching assistant?”

“You are,” she replied.

“I’m sorry,” I said.  “I didn’t remember you for sure, and I
didn’t want to make a mistake in assuming you were one of my students.”

“I’m not surprised that you forgot me.  I’m brown, after all.”

I should interject here that the student in question has the complexion
of someone whose ethnic background is Latin American.  Her name is
also a fairly common Hispanic first name for women, and her surname is
definitely Latino.  Most of which doesn’t register for me,
especially in the deparate attempt of the first weeks of class to just
connect
names with faces; I’m just trying to figure out who a student is, not
the whole back story.

“What do you mean?” I asked, somewhat taken aback to be accused of racial discrimination so brazenly.

“I’ve just had other TFs who can’t remember who I am because I’m
brown.  There was one who remembered everyone in the class except
me.  There was one black girl, and he remembered her name. 
He remembered the names of all the Asian people….”

“Well,” I noted, “it’s probably more that you didn’t speak up much in
class the one time we’ve met so far.  I just got 30 of you, and I
haven’t memorized all of your faces and names yet, but I do tend to
remember the students who participate in our discussions.  As for
being brown, I’m from California and have taught for a number of years
there, where I had plenty of brown students, and yellow students, and
white students, and black students, so I doubt it had anything to do
with your being brown.  Probably that you didn’t speak up much.”

“I guess so.  It’s just that I’ve had TFs who didn’t remember me because I’m brown.”

And then we went on to discuss her advising question.

A few notes here.  I find the blindness to her own
discriminatory biases kind of surprising.  She seems to imply that
Asian students, for example, are all the same, as a way of highlighting
the overt discrimination that she encountered — if they are all the
same or look it or something, and the teacher remembers their names,
then it must really be discrimination that the one brown person didn’t
get noticed.  Also, she seems to assume that I am just some
brown-haired white guy, without knowing the larger facts of my life,
i.e., that I also belong to a minority group.  If we wanted to
play the victimology game here, I’ve got more claim in that regard than
she does, even if I am a white guy.  But I’m not interested in
that game, because it’s not productive to my life as an individual
trying to grow into a certain sort of fullness and I don’t think it’s
the basis of an effective, engaged politics.

I mentioned this to my advisor afterward, and her reaction was more
indignant than mine.  “I would have told her, ‘You don’t want to
go there,'” she said.  And part of me wanted to do that.  But
I’m not senior faculty with tenure, first off.  Second, I wanted
my student to understand that my non-recognition of who she was was
predicated on her less-than-stellar academic performance than anything
else.  There were better alternative explanations than that I
discriminated against her because of her ethnicity.

Now, this student has prejudiced me against her in a worse way. 
I’m aware that she tends to leap toward certain explanations, and that
her style tends to the combative, prejudicial, and negatively assumptive.  Which
leaves a bad taste in my mouth in dealing with her. But I will also
probably target my teaching to take out those foundations from under
her and get her thinking rather than emotionally reacting.

I’d be interested to hear how others would have reacted.

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One Response to ““Brown” student”

  1. Jason Says:

    Wow, Nate. That’s tough situation, and every white educator is going to face it. I’m sorry it was your turn this week, and I’m glad you handled it so well.

    Since you asked, here’s how I *think* I would have responded:

    Sentence 1: just like you did–just got 30 of you, and I do remember the ones who participated in our discussions.

    Sentence 2: I wouldn’t want to establish my diversity credentials by discussing experience abroad or teaching minority students. Rather, if I wasn’t flushed with anger (in which case I hope I would have the prudence not to say another word), I would check my tone of voice to make sure it sounded professional instead of haughty or sardonic, and then say, “But when you say that, it does sound like an accusation of racism, which is a very serious charge. So you don’t want to say that unless that’s what you mean, and you can back it up.”