Presumably, being a professor is hard. But avoiding the use of racial slurs when teaching should not be hard.
Yet GWTeach Professor Alicia Bitler used the N-word when teaching a course about anti-racism in STEM – and then had the audacity to dismiss it as an “oops moment.” It takes an absurd and depressing parade of failures at the institutional and individual level for this to happen. But racist incidents keep happening at GW – and the University as an institution needs to make it plain that they understand the systemic problem and be clear and communicative about what they’re going to do about it.
The editorial board is not going to attempt to speak on behalf of the Black community at GW – but we can and will amplify and emphasize the fact that racist incidents keep happening at GW, and there’s been a lack of decisive action about it.
This fits in with a broader trend of Black students repeatedly having to endure racism and indignity at GW. In 2019, the head of a popular sorority posted a Snapchat from a plantation musing about whether the historic site “sells slaves.” In early 2020, then-University President Thomas LeBlanc made a comment comparing theoretical support for fossil fuel divestment to “shooting all the Black people” at GW. Later that same year, former history professor Jessica Krug, who is white, confessed to pretending to be Black for her entire career as a professor. Until just months ago, the central nervous system of campus community and activism was housed in a building named after segregationist Cloyd Heck Marvin. About two weeks ago, a professor refused to allow a Black student to have an approved service animal in class.
This is not an exhaustive list of the prominent racist incidents that have plagued GW’s campus – which only further evidences the fact that there’s a systemic and constant problem. And that doesn’t even include the comments and microaggressions that are downstream of the same institutional culture that lets these racist incidents keep happening.
The University’s response to Bitler’s use of the N-word was boilerplate and slow. Students of the class who wrote a letter to administrators demanding accountability were met with responses that could have been copy-and-pasted from any previous statement on racism. Interim University President Mark Wrighton invoked GW’s “stated commitment to diversity and inclusion” while Graduate School of Education and Human Development Dean Michael Feuer offered a trite promise to “do better.”
The University, like most predominantly white institutions, has repeatedly leaned on the term “diversity and inclusion,” using it as a buzzword instead of implementing long-lasting, actionable solutions. Incidents that concern professors and the subject material they teach, like the irony of a professor teaching a course on anti-racism saying the N-word, or professors faking a certain identity to claim subject material they have no real relation to, need to be examined from a pedagogical point of view. The University needs to hire a point person, or multiple point people, to evaluate the courses that are being offered each semester, the person who is teaching them and whether that professor is fit to teach certain courses.
We propose that the University initiate a dialogue to acknowledge that certain courses require lived experience to provide students with the nuance of that particular topic. Hiring someone to have that dialogue with professors will do just that.
The issue that causes these incidents over and over again lies in a lack of understanding of the relationship between professors, students and the subject material. The University’s efforts to add more faculty of color to individual departments through cluster hiring solves the University’s public relation issues and also does important work to add new perspectives that people of color and women of color bring to academia. But what is lacking in the University’s response to these incidents is their acknowledgement of the delicacy of course material of any kind, and how a quality liberal arts education is often made by the people who teach it.
The administration also needs to acknowledge its own limitations instead of providing staple responses that reinforce their “commitment” to diversity at GW. They should instead be open and acknowledge the complexities of the situation and describe the actions that they are planning to take and the actions they are either struggling with or are soliciting advice for. When it comes to issues like this one, students of color are the first to be harmed, and the University should solicit their perspective and input on potential solutions.
Racist incidents keep happening and happening at GW. Administrators obviously cannot solve systemic racism with a policy or statement, but that does not mean that they should not do every single thing they possibly can to make campus safe for Black students’ education and well-being.
Officials need to act. They need to communicate. And if they can’t get results, they need to, at the bare minimum, level with students and candidly acknowledge that there’s a problem in a way that goes beyond buzzwords.
The editorial board consists of Hatchet staff members and operates separately from the newsroom. This week’s staff editorial was written by opinions editor Andrew Sugrue and contributing opinions editor Shreeya Aranake based on discussions with culture editor Anna Boone, contributing sports editor Nuria Diaz, design editor Grace Miller and copy editor Jaden DiMauro.