By Dr. Richard M. Chapman
Recalling the witness and work of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at Concordia has long awakened mind and stimulated soul amidst late January’s wintry blast. It is appropriate that our community now reconvenes classes on MLK day—a practice still in infancy—to celebrate King’s life and legacy; to advance the multifaceted work of social justice here and now where we live and learn; and hopefully, to move well beyond the easy appropriation of one-liners from King’s March on Washington address (August, 1963) wrenched from context; to face squarely King’s full-throated indictment of cultures of militarism, imperialism, and exploitative capitalism that degrade and destroy human communities the world over. This banner day in frigid January is and rightfully ought to be the work of every day. For me this year’s events felt just a bit colder, and so I wish to break silence.
As readers will understand, negative student references to me and to a first-day discussion I conducted in Black American History (History 313HG) last semester (Thursday, 29 August 2019), seized my attention even if the administration was the intended audience. A litany of grievances were aired in an open-mic format amplifying the voices of students of color. SGA sponsored the forum with comments recorded and subsequently available on-line through the student government’s Shuck weekly update. Since community dissemination of these comments, some students have reached out to me seeking additional information. I have politely declined to date.
Two, perhaps three voices at the SOC session raised questions about whether I should be teaching a course on Black American history, or teaching at Concordia at all. Honest people may debate the merits of setting, arrangements, and rules of such a forum. But I would urge thoughtful consideration especially from white folks of why it might be necessary to provide this kind of platform for students whose experience at Concordia is frequently one of being unheard, unheeded, and dismissed on a regular basis—apart from whether we might agree or not with particular points made. It is imperative in this place that students find their voices and that we encourage their doing so.
So, what happened back in late August? In short: a discussion about racial language and terminology that turned to use of the “N-word,” a subject that I introduced into the conversation. Here I wish to assert that characterization of that class discussion at the open forum as recorded and circulated by the Shuck is simply not accurate. Historians fully expect that individual memories of a shared event will differ—they are invariably selective and partial. Narrative embellishment may also serve political ends. Let’s not get stuck here.
Despite best intentions I was simply mistaken to invite discussion of the “N-word” at that moment. Right place, wrong time, wrong way. Read on. I have since thought long and hard about that discussion from the standpoint of my position as a white male professor. Here’s the thing: what may be academic to some—a matter of history—is lethal and ever present to others—not past at all.
An anonymous bias report was lodged by at least one student in the course to the BIRT (Bias Incident and Response Team) which generated an investigation through Academic Affairs for possible disciplinary action. The student(s) remain anonymous to me. I endeavored to take responsibility as best I could, first and foremost to students in the course, making extended comments of regret and apology at a specially-convened extra class session (late Friday afternoon) accompanied by CDO Edward Antonio, again on the second regular day of class. Resigning my position as chair of the Diversity Council, appointed by the president, seemed the only right thing to do at the time. A role-playing simulation in the course (Reacting to the Past) focused on Frederick Douglass and Slavery later met unexpected resistance (one student dropped the course on this account) and persuaded me to rescript the course syllabus almost entirely following the midsemester break, eliminating a second role-playing assignment.
All things considered I cannot but feel some disappointment by student opinions directed my way. But I am more distressed by the state of our diversity, equity, and inclusion project on this campus on whose success the future of the college rests. I worry that the work has bogged down in partisanship, dueling identities, accusation and counter-accusation, and zero-sum contestation; that we are producing a climate of silence, suspicion, and recrimination. Perhaps generative dialogue around DEI and the promise of real change is more apparent where you are situated on campus. I certainly hope so.
In asking us individually and collectively to do better together in this difficult work, I recognize at first my own image in the mirror. That we might all be willing to do likewise. Humility, openness, generosity, and honesty are often illusive in this embattled terrain; without them, however, our highest hopes for diversity, equity, and inclusion cannot take flight much less soar.
No one of us can claim to possess all the answers, nor do we currently own all the resources we’d prefer for the tasks ahead of us. But we have foundations upon which to build, to learn, and to grow. I beckon students who would improve the world to the study of history, philosophy, literature, and religion whose understanding is indispensable to venturing so tall an order. Registration is right around the corner.