Why I No Longer Eat Watermelon, or How a Racist Email Caused Me to Leave Graduate School

You_can_plainly_see_how_miserable_I_am

Names have been changed to protect myself from these very silly and possibly litigious white people.

I received a racist email in 2011, when I had just started the English PhD program at Rutgers University. This email has come to define so much of who I am, in ways both good and bad. I think about it every day. I get lost in it. Sometimes a stray thought or an offhand comment can catch me off guard, bringing this email and everything it represents rushing to the surface. It’s an awful cycle, and a destructive one that I want to break. The purpose of this post is to attempt to do exactly that. I want to exorcize these memories to the best of my ability, to drag them out. So here we are.

Some context. As I said, I was a first-year student in the English PhD program. I got this email in the third week of the semester, in my “Post-Bellum/Pre-Harlem” literature class. The professor, Bill, had shown parts of Song of the South to the general amusement of the white students in the class, and it’s this amusement that prompted a desire to see the film in its entirety. And that’s what brought upon the email itself, which I’ll quote here. It’s dated September 28, 2011, and it’s titled “My fellow non-racist racists.” We’ll call this white student “Junie.”

SO.

There seems to be an understandable demand for some hardcore Song of the Southing and preferably whiskey-based cocktails to accompany.  My house is small, but my sound system is mighty, and I suggest that for those of you who’d rather not go on an awkward date with Bill to see The Help tomorrow come join me for some rollicking Disneyfied Ole Darkeyism. Lyle, your friend can come, too.  Laura, so can your Alan.   But I might yell racist things at the TV.

RSVP ASAP YA’LL.

If you do come, hooch is most welcome, as are straw hats and other Darkeyisms.  I might even buy a watermillyum if I get enough interest.

One thing worth noting. The email was sent to only the white (or white-appearing) students in the class, and some white people outside of the class. This is despite the class itself boasting, what might be conservatively called, “all the god damn black people in the program.” I got the email, presumably, because I’m light-skinned and racially ambiguous, depending on the person doing the interpreting.

Some other things of note. The language of the email traffics in the same kind of racial ignorance as the blackface parties that are so ubiquitous on college campuses. We might call this a blackface party without the shoe polish. One of the defining elements of those parties is the focus on things that might denote blackness, and we have some of them here! Look: hooch, watermillyums, straw hats, and other Darkeyisms. Another feature of these parties: unabashed racism! The student tells us that she might yell racist things at the TV (later, when questioned, she will say she didn’t know what she meant by this. Reminder, she’s an English PhD student in a prestigious program. If you don’t know what you’re writing, what are you doing here?)

But we’re not done. Before I’d figured out how to respond, a student from the class responded for me:

I am all in favor of this shindig.  However… I
unfortunately already RSVPd to Bill’s thing because I am a sucker for movies.  (I guess am also a sucker for Bill, awkward as the evening might indeed turn out…)  If y’all don’t want to move your Song of the South screening, I can try to come after The Help gets out.

The original email writer is disappointed in the lack of interest:

Wow, so only Laura is interested?

I guess I am the only ragtime/minstrel-loving fool in the bunch 😦

Another student appears:

What? Did my inattention contribute to this NOT happening? I’m actually more offended with myself for that than I could be by anything a 1940s Disney celebration of all things grotesquely racist is likely to muster.

Well, fine. Keep me in the loop if it happens anyway. If I’m still in New Brunswick (and haven’t caved and RSVP’d at a rudely late point for The Help), I’m in.

Junie replies two more times. She just can’t help herself.

I’ll give everyone until noonish tomorrow to make their choice between Bill and me. But the obvious choice is me.
I’m still going to watch it tomorrow at 8ish with my straw hat on head and my Jack Daniels in hand, but I won’t call it a party anymore so much as what?  An experience? A communion with my shamefully preferred era of Disney? An excuse for alcoholism?

Okay: apparently Bill wins…. This time. He might make a fun and harmless imaginary nemesis come to think of it.

Anyway, no party. Just me and the movie and the watermelon.

Enjoy your respective days!

The original email itself is bad, but these replies pile it on. Look at the enthusiasm. Look at the pride: “I’m actually more offended with myself for that than I could be by anything a 1940s Disney celebration of all things grotesquely racist is likely to muster.” Not only do these students see nothing wrong with the email, they’re excited to go. They’re scared it might not happen!

What’s possibly more alarming is the silence from the three other people who were invited. I can only speculate on the reasons for their silence; some of those reasons I understand, and some of them, to this day, break my heart.

The party doesn’t happen. That’s worth making clear. There’s not enough interest. People are otherwise occupied. I sometimes fantasize about having gone to the party myself, straw hat on my head and hooch in hand. What would I have seen? I suspect it would’ve just been sad.

Some people might be heartened by the fact that the party never took place. Goodness won out, right? This student was, at least in some way, shown that her stupid, stupid racism wasn’t actually funny or interesting. I sort of get that. But we also have the two students who responded enthusiastically. More than that, though, I’m deeply disturbed by the academic environment that could produce an email such as this one. What is rotten in Denmark? What must this program be like, that a student could write an email like this, and think it was ok?

I fretted over what to do with it for about 24 hours. You name a cliché, I felt it. I was speechless. My jaw hung open. My eyes popped out, cartoon-style. I flirted with the idea of saying nothing at all, letting it slip away completely. But doing that would’ve been such a betrayal. It would’ve meant going back on everything I’d said, on the work that I’d done to get myself into the PhD program in the first place. What sealed it was showing the email to my then-girlfriend, who looked at me straight-on and said, “You’re going to do something about this, right?” And that was it. I was off.

I had no idea what to do.

After a talk with my friend Dan, I decided to email the Director of Graduate Studies (DGS). I’m embarrassed, now, that I didn’t think to go to the black professors. Later, I would be scolded for that decision. But at that point I barely knew them. I was also scolded, somewhat, for not going directly to the professor in charge of the class. Look, I’m not going to try to disguise my naiveté in this situation. I could’ve handled this with a lot more finesse. One thing I know for sure, though: no matter what I’d done, the department would’ve tried its best to keep this quiet and make it go away.

And that’s exactly what happened. I won’t quote the emails between the DGS and myself here, because they’re ultimately uninteresting. I was shamefully deferential (I was scared of getting anyone in trouble. It was only my third week), and she said I’d done the right thing. She wanted to address the matter with the student directly, and with Bill. I agreed to let her share the emails with him. She met with the student privately, and the student was directed to apologize to me and to the class as a whole.

I fear that this is the point where I might lose a lot of folks. They will ask, “Why wasn’t this enough?” That seems like a fair question, and it’s one that I often entertain. But that question only works if you view this issue entirely as an interpersonal squabble between two students. One student said something mean and the other was offended by it. But being offended by something is cheap. Being “offended” doesn’t express the depth and breadth of what we’re dealing with here. From the beginning, I’d always seen the email as a problem for two reasons:

1) It was casually dismissive and derisive of black people and black experience
2) It was indicative of a larger callousness toward race in the department

And all of my experiences henceforth bore these assumptions out. I spent weeks feeling like I was crazy, lost. I’d wandered into some situation for which I’d had little-to-no preparation. In class, after the student’s non-apology (pretty much, “I’m sorry you were offended by my racism.”), I tried to explain the problem. I’d tried to, I thought, delicately and sincerely explain the volatility of the language the student used. I suggested that maybe using this material for “comedy” or “irony” was best left to black folks. This was later interpreted, and used against me, as “only black people can talk about racism.” But I don’t believe that at all. Plenty of white people talk about racism. Some do it well. That’s irrelevant to the point. You’ve read the email. I trust you to understand that this student was no Louis CK. This student had nothing funny or interesting to say about race. This student was just being a racist jerk. For god’s sakes, she flat-out says she’s going to yell racist things at the TV.

Everything at Rutgers felt upside-down, off. In a meeting with the black faculty, they offered two suggestions: forget it, or throw a party where the black students would invite the white students and stage a race dialogue. Just, like, over a few beers, say, “Hey, do you know what you did was racist? What do you think about that?” A beer summit. That was the suggestion. Grad school is apparently supposed to be isolating, but in that moment, I felt well and truly alone.

And it’s impossible for me, really, to describe the space of that loneliness, to map out its contours. I felt a lot of abject fear— fear that I was already known as the sensitive/hostile black person, a dichotomy that would follow me for the rest of my time at Rutgers. I deeply feared the other white students in the program. Not one of them, even those in the class who had received the email, or knew of it through the apology, approached me to say something like, “Hey, that was pretty messed up. What’s going on?” Outside of the class, narratives of “blown out of proportion,” “too sensitive,” “doesn’t like white people,” etc. had already begun to reach me. As a result, I felt more alone, and thoroughly unwelcome. At this point I assumed it would all fade away, that the white student’s non-apology would be the last word on the subject.

Dan and I came into contact with another first-year student. She became the first to express, upfront, any sort of real discomfort and anger at the email and how it’d been handled. One of the big problems here is how hard the DGS tried to keep this thing contained; in doing so, she created a hostile environment that allowed skewed narratives to spread. She left the new black students feeling awkward and left out. Junie was a second-year. She already had a foothold in the program. She was vice president of the Graduate English Student Association (GESA). In a lot of ways, she and her friends were able to drive the opinion of how this email was regarded.

All of this eventually led to the idea that we should organize a forum to address what had happened. It would come to be known as the “Civility Forum,” though its official name would be “Facing Race in the Academy.” During conversation with the DGS, the event turned toward the topic of “professionalism,” which was the departmental buzzword at the time, but also emblematic of the clumsy kind of abstraction white folks are capable of when it comes to race.

From the beginning, it was all sort of doomed. Most conversations about race in America are always already doomed. White people tend to want to name the terms of these conversations, and that’s exactly what happened here. We were forbidden from speaking about the email itself. This, we were told, would not be a reckoning with the event that had led to the forum in the first place. We were instead supposed to sort of blandly address how one navigates race in academia. The idea that the email was racist, or in some way represented racism, was simply anathema. We weren’t allowed the touch it. We weren’t allowed to call the thing what it was. Students from other departments weren’t allowed to be invited. Faculty would later be disinvited, and then invited again, despite the fact that the students who organized the forum had always expressed the desire for faculty to attend.

The emails that were sent about this forum have taken on a kind of legendary status among my friends. They are phenomenally, powerfully awful. We have entire folders for them in our personal Gmail accounts. As organizers of the forum, my friends and I sought out the cooperation and support of GESA and the Graduate Executive Committee student reps (GEC). In our first meeting about the forum, one of the the GEC reps, Clara (close friend of Junie) flat-out demanded that we send a message to Junie indicating that we were not dissatisfied with her apology, and that the forum itself was not a personal attack. Never mind that this had already been assured by the limits put on the forum itself. She would later reiterate this demand in an email:

Perhaps you guys have already done this and it’s a moot point now, but I wanted to stress the importance of having someone besides Mike or I contact Junie directly and attempt to include her in the conversation in some capacity and (attempt to) convey the degree to which this is not meant to indicate dissatisfaction with her apology and is in no way intended as a personal attack. I am, as I indicated in the meeting yesterday, concerned that this has/had not yet happened, and, to be perfectly frank (and I hope you accept this as sincere concern, not only for my friend but also for a general sense of fairness and for the success of this project) I will not feel comfortable participating further in this project until such a gesture has been made.

This all seemed patently unfair at the time, and strangely corrupt for a small intradepartmental student organization. Now the memory of it pierces even more. Rightly, what role should the student who composed the racist email take in guiding a conversation about race? Moreover, in what universe should we be expected to console and, in so many words, apologize to the student who’d done something wrong, who’d made people so uncomfortable? In the meeting, the DGS looked at me, and said I’d be the natural person to write this apology. My voice curled up and died in my throat.

Later I was able to find the words to express just how much this sucked in an email to my co-organizers. Clara eventually backed off. This resulted in a follow-up email from her, accusing me of being dishonest and lying to her face. Strictly speaking, I guess that’s true. I was in the middle of processing all of it. It took some time for me to get it together. Ironically, after all of this, we still sent the email to Junie. So even when we won something, we really ended up losing, which is as close as I can get to the basic point of this story.

The forum happened on December 7th, around three months after the email. I decided not to speak, but to sit on the panel anyway. There were five of us, myself included. This is the point where I demonstrate my gratitude for two groups of people. First, to my co-panelists and organizers, whose graciousness was infinite, professional, and completely undeserved. Secondly, to the white and black students from other departments who made a show of support at the forum. My friends and I were able to tell people where and when the forum was, and they showed up. These students prevented the forum from being a one-sided bloodbath; instead, it was just a simple curb-stomping.

You can probably sense from my tone that the forum was bad. It was a disaster, a truly awful experience. But it needed to happen. I believe it was scheduled to be something like an hour, or an hour and a half, but it went on for three. It was miserable. I can only remember snippets of it. A black female student talking about what it felt like to be black on campus. A white English PhD student yelling, sarcastically, “What books?” when it was suggested that they educate themselves on racism. Another English PhD student attempted to mount a defense of the racist email using the idea of queer irony (essentially, a complex and academic way of saying, “It was just a joke.”) There was only one white student from the English department who stood up to speak out against racism, at length. There was a lot of crying. I cried. A bunch of white students cried, some out of genuine sympathy, and some because they were forced to contend with their own racism for the first time. Above all, I’ll never forget what it felt like to sit in front of all of the white students in that department. There was such a sense of defensiveness, of open anger and hostility toward the very idea of the forum itself.

All of the hurt feelings that the forum brought out forced the department to take the email seriously for the first time. A meeting was scheduled with the Chair, the DGS, a black professor, and the organizers of the forum. In retrospect, it felt like a formality, like a real, you know, “hush hush, children” kind of thing. I suspect what really ended up forcing their hand was a piece that got published in the The Daily Targum, the campus newspaper, a few days after the forum:

http://www.dailytargum.com/article/2011/12/english-department-fails-to-address-racism

This letter sets off a chain reaction that leads to a number of other stories:

http://jezebel.com/5867708/rutgers-student-stages-whites-only-screening-of-racist-movie

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/12/14/song-of-the-south-showing_n_1149395.html

http://usnews.nbcnews.com/_news/2011/12/16/9500346-racist-email-for-whites-only-movie-viewing-riles-rutgers-students-staff

It was legitimately a thing for a couple of days. What ended up killing it was, I think, how much Jezebel got wrong in its initial reporting. I mean, they got so many things wrong. Part of it is that the Targum letter is easy to misread, but the details in the Targum letter are on point. I know, because I edited and fact-checked it for the students that wrote it. But Jezebel fumbles the story kind of hard, and so when the Chair responds, it shuts things down quickly.

However, the Chair’s response was duplicitous and inaccurate. She writes that the department organized the forum. That’s not true. As I’ve demonstrated, the students affected and disturbed by the email organized the forum. The department, in fact, attempted to contain the email and to control the forum as much as possible. She also claims that the department publicly responded to the email, but they only did so when they were forced to by the events of the forum and the Targum letter, nearly three months later. It must be made clear: they would have done nothing had the forum never taken place. In fact, the DGS only told the faculty about the email *moments before the forum itself,* framing it as an email that “contained some dialect,” which is like saying Irreversible “contains some violence.”

From here, a couple of things happened. The department set up a kind of diversity training, which was my idea. I wanted people to at least be introduced to some basic ideas about race to just head off any more of this darkie watermillyums stuff in the future. This ended up being a terrible idea. Once again, the department attempted to avoid the problem altogether. Can you guess the first thing the DGS said at the start of the session? If you guessed, “you can’t talk about the email here,” you’d be correct. Though I can see how constantly replaying the event (even though it never got replayed in any real, substantive way) might be unhelpful, the department went a step further by making the event about how we, as TAs, should deal with racism when it’s spoken or done by our students. My head felt like it was spinning. I couldn’t understand how they were still getting things so completely, utterly wrong. I couldn’t understand the obstinance, the willful ignorance. To top it all off, during the training Clara, the GEC rep, referred to students as “colored.” We’re talking next-level, Twilight Zone-type racism and stupidity here.

At the end of the event, when I’d summoned the fortitude to speak, I said that we were avoiding the problem. I said the problem wasn’t with our students, but with us. In response, one of the Deans leading the event said that he used to have a student who would “wait until the end of class, drop a bomb, and then take the bus.” Let me interpret this for you: by waiting until the end to speak, I was avoiding taking responsibility for my words. In return, I pointed out that I reported the email in the first place, and that his comment was insensitive. I actually used the word “insensitive,” which I thought was one of the calmest things I could have possibly said.  This moment would later prompt the DGS to call me “hostile” and “ungrateful” to a professor who asked her how the diversity training had gone.

The narrative tops out here. There was a student-organized gathering, but that was still mostly white defensive posturing. Even at that point, most of the white students who claimed to be allies were unwilling to speak out publicly and definitively against the email. There are lots of small, funny things that I’ve left out, such as the student who claimed she couldn’t be racist because she loved Langston Hughes. Or the professor who, when describing her own subconscious racism, talked about being surprised by seeing black people at Whole Foods because they only eat potato chips. P.S.: They sell potato chips at Whole Foods.

One best friend left the program due to the racism, but I remained for two more years, struggling against the anxiety and depression caused by that first year. Aside from a core group of friends, I kept my distance. Stopped talking in class. I mostly fell out of engaging with coursework. I gave the department more or less everything it needed to make pushing me out possible. When I received an Incomplete, I was told, in so many words, that if I had been any other student I would have been asked to leave. They wanted to give me a “chance,” but pushed back my exams and revoked my fourth-year fellowship. I decided to leave at the end of my third year, which was its own ball of drama. The sense of discord between the department and myself was, and is, readily apparent.

The feeling I recall most intensely from those following years was that of feeling unwanted and unwelcome, like I’d crashed a party. I was a nagging infection that just wouldn’t go away. And that’s often how it feels to be a person of color in white spaces who has anything to say about race. You become the introducer of bad feelings, though in reality those feelings are already there, silent and unchallenged, but present. Junie never faced any discipline, because of course she didn’t. She couldn’t even be forced out of her position on GESA. As far as I know, she’s still in the program, along with all of the other white students who helped perpetrate this mess. That’s the other lesson here, though black folks have known it for centuries, on scales both large and small: white people do the racism, and black people deal with the consequences. How screwed are we if we can’t even get it together on an email?

I don’t know what I expect to get out of writing this, other than some brief, fleeting relief. I finally got to tell my side, four years later. At the beginning, I said I wanted to break the awful cycle of remembering that these years represent in my life. They’ve left me feeling empty, used up.  In truth, I don’t know if it’s possible to break the cycle yet, if it is at all. I hope it is. I look forward to a time when I won’t, on some normal day, in the middle of some unrelated thought, be seized by these memories, reliving them over and over for hours at a time. I look forward to the day when I don’t blame myself for everything that happened. I left Rutgers, but in lots of ways I’ve only begun to wrest my soul free of the place. I’m still stuck there, alone.

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236 Comments

  1. So sorry this happened. To you, to anyone. Thank you for revisiting the pain of this memory to write it; it’s an important story to tell and a crucial conversation to have. I’m so sorry nobody served you well throughout this ordeal, except your girlfriend who urged you to speak up. Don’t berate yourself for how you spoke up, you did. It’s just that nobody had the courage to stay in that discomfort and really hear you and deal with their denial and racism. It’s good you left that toxic environment.

    You must learn one thing.
    The world was made to be free in.

    Give up all the other worlds
    except the one to which you belong.

    Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet
    confinement of your aloneness
    to learn

    anything or anyone
    that does not bring you alive

    is too small for you. ~David Whyte

    Like

  2. Now that we are fighting literal Nazis, how do you feel about expending all of this effort attacking some of our closest allies?

    Like

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