Open Letter to Black Students at Duquesne University
Editor’s Note: Last semester The Duke committed to addressing the issue of race on campus as part of the Poynter College Media Project. We believe this column helps drive that dialogue.
I apologize for not writing when I initially heard the disturbing news that Dr. Gary Shank used the N-word in his Educational Psychology course, on September 9, 2020. That year, the killing of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd galvanized global protests against the killing of unarmed and innocent Black bodies by white police officers. As it was for me, I’m sure their deaths impacted the core of your Black psyche, leading you to ask: will I be next? The question grows out of a collective understanding that Black lives do not matter in white America. What you felt in Shank’s course was a microcosm of a larger form of societal and historical anti-Blackness.
I say this, because as Black people, we have earned the right to articulate how we feel. We know what anti-Black racism feels like, what it looks like, and what it sounds like. It is not our fault that many white people do not understand the magnitude of our plight, that they do not know what it means to be Black in a country that has systemically failed to address, let alone fully acknowledge, our pain and our suffering under white supremacy. I want you to know that I see you, I hear you, I feel your pain. When it comes to anti-Black racism, let no one tell you that you are being too sensitive, that you do not possess the “objectivity” to grapple with controversial texts, that you want to be coddled, that you are a “prisoner” of political correctness, or that you are part of a larger problem called “cancel culture.” Had Shank been better educated about his whiteness, and about how the structure of whiteness functions as a site of willful ignorance, he would have understood that using the N-word, as he did, was not just about poor judgment or “misguided behavior,” but was selfish, pedagogically incompetent, and violent.
So, let us be clear, as Black people, we should always be uncompromisingly angry when white anti-Black racism rears its ugly head, but never surprised. I am convinced that anti-Black racism exists in every nook and cranny of “American democracy.” This country was founded upon our unheeded cries and our existential and social asphyxiation. “We can’t breathe!” is our shared reality. When Shank said “I’m giving you permission to use” the N-word, that was a grip around your throat, a knee on your neck. Both his permission and his use of the word were violent. Since Black people already know the pain caused by white people using the N-word, it must have been white students who were being given permission.
Simultaneously, Shank’s whiteness endorsed and invalidated that permission. Imagine me giving “permission” to male students to use the B-word or the C-word without serious pedagogical work on the real violence and ugliness of sexism. Imagine me giving “permission” to heterosexual students to use the Fa-word. Imagine me giving “permission” to nondisabled students to use the R-word. The pattern here would reflect a sense of unquestioned authority, the power of normativity, and a failure to understand both the violence embedded within those slurs and the marginalized who are assaulted by them. If you add to these examples the tenor of Shank’s pedagogical disrespect, then you create an environment where Black students will not feel safe, will not feel respected, will not feel “at home.” Add to this the predominantly white undergraduate student body at Duquesne University, and its predominantly white faculty, this only creates those private moments when Black students ask themselves: Am I wanted here? Do I belong here? Why does this university not reflect more students and faculty who look like me? At predominantly white academic institutions, white people do not pose those uncomfortable race questions. Why? It is white privilege. Shank not only failed you pedagogically by using the N- word, he insulted you with white arrogance and took your Black critical subjectivity and humanity for granted. That is one thing that white privilege does. And even if it does this unconsciously, our collective hurt is no less painful. To add insult to injury, not only does white privilege go unchallenged in any robust way at so many predominantly white institutions, but our wounds are neither acknowledged nor attended to.
White anti-Black racism is not always spectacular. The storming of the Capitol is one obvious example of spectacular white racism. However, for the most part, anti-Black racism thrives on banality. It does not announce itself; it dwells within spaces that are considered “normal.” In fact, it was right there in your classroom passing itself off as “free speech” and “pedagogical permission.” We know that this is an excellent academic institution, and one we greatly respect, but we must shout with a resounding voice that Duquesne University has a whiteness problem! The proverbial ball is now in its court.
Dr. George Yancy
Samuel Candler Dobbs Profes- sor of Philosophy at
Ph.D., Duq. 2005