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A Letter from CCSRE Faculty Program Directors

May 12 2020

*Please also see the letter from the CCSRE Faculty Director.

On April 28th, 2020, a professor in the Art and Art History Department presented a guest lecture for Introduction to Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity, a required course for majors and minors in CSRE and a popular course among non-majors. In the course of her lecture, the professor read a song lyric by N.W.A. that contained the "n-word", and her vocalization of this epithet has inflicted pain on students and the wider Stanford community.

Students have responded swiftly and vociferously to this incident, and we as CCSRE Faculty Directors believe it is important to articulate our collective understanding of what happened, and what a productive path forward might look like.

First, we must acknowledge and apologize for the pain that the utterance of this epithet has caused our students. We also understand that this pain infuses student responses; and we want to point the way to what we hope are more constructive responses. For the aftermath of this unfortunate incident—exacerbated by the global pandemic and the recourse to virtual instruction—has only deepened our conviction that the hopes of students and CCSRE align and that, together, we can emerge stronger and more united in our pursuit of shared goals.

If we want to unite in these common aims, we must also acknowledge that students of color in general and African American students in particular have, in recent years, experienced feelings of alienation and disempowerment on campus. The reasons for this state of affairs are complex and beyond the scope of this statement, but it is crucial to note that as levels of racial prejudice and anti-Blackness have intensified nationally and globally, they have also, sadly, increased commensurately on campus.

For this reason, students come to courses in CCSRE precisely to find some respite from racism on campus and the wider world, and to find intellectual tools to understand their histories and experiences; they certainly do not expect to be subjected to racial epithets in CCSRE.

That is part of the paradox of the Center’s teaching mission: we foster an intellectually rigorous space, but we also teach material and engage in discussion that is highly charged, and sometimes volatile. As professors of race and ethnicity, we sometimes have to make references to offensive and racist terminology in order to examine where these epithets came from, how they are/were used, and the violence they encode. Without such an analysis we would be whitewashing history and occluding how language has been used against Black people and other communities of color.  The uncomfortable truth is that we cannot insulate ourselves completely from the harmful effects of speech about racial inequality. In this way and despite our best efforts, we remain vulnerable.

But we are not equally vulnerable in the classroom, or vulnerable in the same ways. Therefore, we must try to strike a balance between openness to free intellectual inquiry, on the one hand, and sensitivity to and vigilance against the potentially injurious effects of free speech, on the other.

We understand and reiterate that the use of the “n-word” indexes the systemic historical and present white supremacist violence against people of African descent around the globe. Given that the coursework of CCSRE as well as AAAS and other disciplines often considers fundamentally the study of racism, the “n-word” appears in some classes, as this hateful term has a long history of usage. Indeed, its prevalence and purported power is precisely the reason certain Black artists and people “reclaim” it as a term. Even when we reference such words, however, our instructors should prepare students in advance with proper warnings; discuss the context of its use; clarify why such words may be critical to the particular issues within a specific class, and that we strongly caution against faculty or students speaking such terms aloud or using the “n-word” in particular, in its non-redacted form. 

That said, it must also be acknowledged that students, across the racial and ethnic spectrum, have been disappointed by the lack of response, in the moment, by instructors of this course. With some justification, students have asked why the instructors did not speak up after the professor read the racial epithet. Because no instructor spoke up, students were effectively obliged to do so. Why, students have asked, did a Black student finally have to raise the issue? Must Black students—those who have been most harmed by this epithet—always bear the burden of speaking up?

Emphatically, the answer is no. Yet we recognize the bravery it took for students to stand up and voice their concerns.

To their credit, the instructors of Introduction to CSRE have admitted and apologized for their inaction in this regard—and pledged to adopt better practices going forward. They understand why their failure to intervene was hurtful to so many students—and not only African American students—and in retrospect wish they had acted differently.

Likewise, the guest speaker has apologized for uttering the “n-word”. She has also repeatedly expressed a willingness to engage with students and to modify her practices in the classroom.

We ask that students reciprocate and consider the consequences of their own actions.

Some students have suggested that context is irrelevant to the utterance of this epithet. Others have stated that the professor’s intention was to express anti-Black sentiment and to inflict harm. But this position is contradictory: one cannot logically assert that context and intention are irrelevant and in the same breath state that it’s okay for black people exclusively to use the "n-word". Why is it okay for black people to use it? Because, so the argument goes, they do so in a specific context: one that is grounded in a shared history, experience, and structure of feeling.

Context, then, actually matters a great deal. The question is about the specific context invoked and to what end.

Perhaps the argument by students is not that context is entirely irrelevant, but that the specific context invoked by the professor—her own background as a Latina from South Central Los Angeles, the scene of a rich, messy history of Black-Chicana/o(x) solidarity and tension—is irrelevant or unacceptable as a justification for her speech. That is a fair point. But to dismiss this context entirely is to ignore a crucial point: that even if her words had a hurtful impact, she did not intend to harm anyone, as many have asserted.

It is worth noting that the professor was by no means obliged to offer this guest lecture for Intro to CSRE. This point is not trivial in light of the current pandemic, which presents faculty members, as with all members of our university community, with unique and unexpected stresses and demands on their time. We should assume that her intention was not to inflict pain and anguish, but to share her research on entwined histories of African American and Chicana/o(x) visual culture. We should assume that her reading out loud of this epithet was not expressive of anti-blackness but a misunderstanding of appropriate pedagogical norms concerning the vocalization of racial and other epithets.

For these reasons, we understand her utterance of the epithet as hurtful and a mistake.  Moreover, the professor’s apology signals her openness to understand how the historical and personal context of Chicana/o(x)-Black Los Angeles—and her own subjectivity within it—in the moment—was an insufficient rationale for her utterance of the “n-word”.

But even as we comprehend the inadequacy of this context, we can in no way tolerate the tenor and language of certain responses and demands by students—particularly the racialization of Latinx individuals and populations. Such notions run counter to the mission and intellectual foundation of CCSRE.

We recognize and support recent discussions among students about the meanings of Latinidad on campus—particularly the emphasis on the dearth of Afro-Latina/o(x), Indigenous, and other faculty of color and courses in these areas.

To be sure, CCSRE unequivocally supports the goal of increasing our ranks of Afro-Latinx and indigenous students and faculty. But in no way can we support this goal while 1) undermining our current faculty; 2) excluding Chicana/o(x) faculty from our hiring priorities; or 3) endorsing or ignoring invidious distinctions among Latina/o(x) groups based on color, nationality, or ethnicity. Indeed, much of the important work undertaken by CCSRE is about debunking pernicious racial constructions while supporting, institutionally and intellectually, a plural conception of Latinidad.At the same time, we honor the immense intellectual and institutional contributions made over the years by our Chicana/o(x)faculty, staff and students, without whom CCSRE would scarcely exist.

We also worry that without these considerations, students’ actions can and will be counterproductive to the mission of CCSRE and the achievement of a truly diverse student body and faculty. If scholars perceive Stanford as unsupportive of its faculty, we will not succeed in recruiting Afro-Latina/o(x) scholars. And if we do not nurture and protect our current faculty, we run the risk of losing them. Both consequences are fatal to the research and teaching mission of CCSRE, and to the wider intellectual and cultural diversity of the University.

CCSRE intends to support students and faculty alike, even when the interests of each seem to collide. By no means do we push back on students’ concerns in order to quell dissent or to inhibit free expression. Again, we value and even rely on student dissent. We know such dissent requires courage. And we want to work together to channel dissent in productive ways that meet the needs of students and faculty alike. As CCSRE faculty, we commit to identifying those convergences, openly discussing areas of divergence, and working hard to lead on a national and global scale in the comparative study of race and ethnicity.

In a time when the enemies of racial justice are ascendant, we as CCSRE faculty pledge to do all that we can to support our students in becoming leaders in anti-racist and social justice work. It is important that we engage our whole community in this process. With that said, we are dedicated to developing and supporting concrete strategies for addressing the important concerns that have been articulated in the aftermath of these events with respect for all members of our community.

Signed,

Vaughn Rasberry, Associate Professor of English and Director of Academic Programs in Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity

Jeanne Tsai, Professor of Psychology and Director of Asian American Studies

Ana Raquel Minian, Associate Professor of History and Director of Chicana/o and Latina/o Studies

Teresa LaFromboise, Professor in the Graduate School of Education and Director of Native American Studies

Charlotte Fonrobert, Associate Professor of Religious Studies and Director of Taube Center for Jewish Studies

Jennifer DeVere Brody, Professor of Theater and Performance Studies and Director of the Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity