In an opinion piece for the Boston Globe Magazine, Linda Chavers, a lecturer and dean at Harvard, complains about her “first angry white student.” Near the beginning of her teaching career, a student in Chavers’ class was upset about his low class participation grade and told her that he “felt he was a minority in a classroom ‘led by a Black woman.'” In my opinion, this sounds like a pretty good point. Every student has a right to ask teachers why they got the grade that they did and if there’s anything they can do to increase their grade. But Chavers considers this student’s comment to be an example of racism.
Chavers also sees racism in her interactions with co-workers, including those who ask her “What do you do?” She describes this as a “loaded question” and a “sinister covert act.” Describing the co-workers who ask such questions, she writes, “it’s as if my resume has personally insulted them” and “as if I have committed an assault.” Silly me, but I thought that asking a person what they do for work was a friendly way of making conversation. Are people supposed to automatically know that Chavers is a professor by looking at her? “I am the only one truly affronted by these interactions,” Chavers claims. How someone could be affronted by kind, polite, and completely non-race-related interactions is incomprehensible.
Chavers complains that “the stripping of our power started long before we were in the workplace” and that she has “endured so many battles that what some might call ‘attitude’ is actually just exhaustion.” But she doesn’t give any examples of actions that people have taken to strip her power away, of battles that she has fought, or of elements of her life that are particularly exhausting.
“Prioritize the Black women in your workplace,” Chavers urges. “Listen to what we say and listen when we say it the first time, not the hundredth. Don’t be defensive. When we say something is racist, believe us.”
There are a couple of problems with this, however. Prioritizing black women might sound like a positive thing, but prioritizing any race or gender over others is discriminatory. Treating everyone equally is the fair thing to do. Similarly, it might sound like a good thing to believe black women when they say something is racist, but this fails to take into account the rights and the point of view of the accused. Accusing someone of doing something racist is a serious allegation. To take such an allegation as automatically true is unjust to the person being accused. If someone does something racist, that is wrong, and the person absolutely deserves to be punished. But falsely accusing someone of being racist is equally wrong. It’s important to determine whether or not an allegation of racism is actually true.
As for telling readers not to be defensive… it’s difficult not to be defensive when one is constantly being criticized and attacked. Chavers dedicated an entire essay to accusing the people around her of being racist, sinister, and engaged in a conspiracy to take away her power and cast doubt on her qualifications, without providing a single piece of evidence. If she were reading this blog post, she would likely accuse me of being racist for demanding evidence as opposed to accepting without question her claim that complaining about a grade, or asking someone what they do for work, is inherently racist. Chavers complains about how upsetting it was when one colleague whispered, “everyone’s tired of what she has to say, and she should just be grateful to be here.” Maybe she should start saying things that actually make sense, instead of making baseless accusations and seeing racism where it doesn’t exist.