My Rant: Why we need to talk about Ferguson at Eastern Kentucky University (and other colleges that lack diversity)
Let me give you a sense of who the students are at EKU. Our students mostly hail from White rural communities in Eastern Kentucky (our service region) where many have only seen Black people on TV. Very scary because of the well-documented history of media bias against Blacks (recent examples highlight this continued trend).
Our service region students are placed in classrooms with mostly people like them. Many of our students can go for semesters without ever being in the same room with a person of color, an international student, a student from an urban area, etc. (just because we aren’t diverse, doesn’t mean we can’t talk about race. White folks are a race too you know!).
Let me tell you who our Black students are on campus (a very small percent by the way). They hail from the urban centers in Kentucky (Louisville and Lexington). Our student-athletes who make up a disproportionate majority of our Black students also hail from areas with high minority populations and most come from outside Kentucky (Ohio, Tennessee, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, etc.).
The conversations in the classroom become interesting (especially if you happen to get Black students which I often do because they enjoy taking classes with people who look like them – hence the ever increasing need to really focus on diversifying faculty which we don’t take seriously). They become interesting because there is usually a racial distinction in perspectives (most White students side with the officer and militarized police response – most Black students support the protestors, detest the actions of the police, tired of seeing Black people killed by police, etc).
You can imagine how interesting the classroom could become when discussing something controversial like Ferguson. But the classroom is where these conversations need to be. They should not be left in the hands of the media to unpack.
Now let’s discuss the issues transpiring that inspired my colorful response to EKU profs on Facebook.
So a professor begins by making this statement: Now I’m neutral on Ferguson, so what do you think about what’s happening? (this happened outside my dept btw) This could have been a way for students to be comfortable discussing their perspectives. There is a power dynamic in the classroom. But these particular examples were problematic because the students weren’t given any readings; they weren’t given a lecture on social movements, social change, or protest; they weren’t told about contemporary police practices or the racialized history in America. Nothing.
From the examples told to me, they wanted students to formulate an opinion based on what they’ve watched on the news, seen Tweeted or posted, etc. Reckless! Dangerous! Scary! Now if the class was a Media in Society course, ok – but these courses were introductory Sociology courses. But the conversation is uncomfortable because the only Blackface in the room is not talking and people don’t want to say much. Then you get that brave soul that say’s: cops aren’t racist; the officer feared for his life, etc.
As an aside, this is my response when people say cops are/aren’t racist: No cops aren’t racist. But they behave in a racialized manner. If you think about the Bible, it’s not sexist. But it behaves in a very sexist manner. The verses are very gendered leading to gendered and sexualized practices. Need examples? Certainly!
Genesis: Eve cursed – hence women cursed.
Exodus: wives are property and they belong to their male master; polygamy ok.
Leviticus: women must atone for how nasty they get during the menstrual cycle and childbirth. Death for homosexuality; burn daughters for their transgressions.
Numbers: Census lists only men – women not counted in population; fidelity test for women only; kill all women who aren’t virgins.
Deuteronomy: stone rapist and rape victim (yeah this one bothered me as a victim of rape. It wasn’t my damn fault!).
Judges: kill more women keep the virgins.
Corinthians: women must be silent in church (very hard for me :).
Ephesians/Colossians: wives submit to husbands (thank God I married a feminist).
Timothy: women must be silent, no authority, can be saved with having babies.
You get the point I’m trying to make. I digress.
These are comments that stem from the mediated outlets these students are consuming. In the Black students head, they have a whole different set of responses that differ from their White counterparts. Many of the Black students have witnessed and have been victims of police violence in their communities.
Fortunately, in a few of these cases I’ve heard about, there are White students who disagree with the actions of the police or disagree with the police response in the aftermath. But then the professor chimes in with their opinion (well it’s not really about that or there’s more than race) and then they are quiet because no one wants to challenge their professor (well they don’t challenge White professors – I get challenged all the time – literature shows us that professors of color get challenged a lot). But the professors begin saying they are neutral, but their comments don’t indicate that.
And why be neutral on a position anyway? You can discuss both sides regardless of your perspective. As a professor of criminal justice, I know the literature on police practices and can discuss exactly why the officer responded as he did (actions totally justified). I don’t end the conversation there, to do so would be reckless, irresponsible and would totally ignore the literature I know about policing the Black community (historically and contemporarily).
Now if you’ve read a book you’ll know that in poor White areas where the majority of our students come from, they come from areas where the police are harassing them. This is where comments like this come from: police aren’t racist, they harass us too; the issue is about class, not race; well if yall stop acting like thugs and pull your pants up, police wouldn’t mess with you.
Now as I’m trying to talk about the issue in Ferguson, it’s really distracting to hear these comments because I have to address them and it detracts from what’s happening in Ferguson. I feel like as soon as I bring race into a conversation, my students immediately challenge it because they can’t see the world using this lens. But they were all happy and in agreement when I talked about poverty in Appalachia – government neglect in Appalachia – but as soon as I talk about urban poverty, they get mad (we’re poor too; the government ignores us too; we don’t abuse welfare like they do, etc).
Black students who come from these urban centers have a distinct reality too that gets ignored because it’s not the majority opinion at EKU. And we wonder why we can’t diversify our faculty, staff, and students.
But we have to be careful about dismissing the racialized aspect of Ferguson just because you don’t see it that way. Go read the decades of research by Sociologists. This is documented. The disproportionate treatment of Black folks by the police is a reality even in Kentucky.
That one Black student in your class who doesn’t interact is not stupid. They are uncomfortable everyday having to assimilate to your way of thinking for fear of doing bad. Then that student gets bad grades on papers because you finally see their perspective and you are mad because this is not what you taught them (happened to me so much as an undergraduate at EKU). The response on the paper as a student showed me said these words verbatim: “I told you the issue in Ferguson is about class not race – why would you situate your entire analysis on race” (actual comments on a student’s reflection on Ferguson).
How is a student supposed to respond to that? I’ll tell you. They come to my office to vent and cry.
Manifest...My Reality: Seeing the World through the eyes of the 'other'