Even though I’ve known you for many years, you hadn’t entered my thoughts much lately. Since news of this “classroom incident” entered my social media feeds yesterday, you were pretty much all I could think of.
I saw a link to the first article in the OU Daily, which had a headline that told me you used a racial slur during one of your classes, and immediately stopped everything I was doing to click on it and read the piece. I hoped it was one of those “twisted tongue” moments, like this one, or that there was some sort of misunderstanding that came from a student overthinking something or other.
Nope. You said it. The “n-word.” Clearly and unambiguously.
Students in your class were stunned, and yet a number of them did exactly the kinds of things you trained generations of students to do: They reported. They questioned. They published. Even as they wrote what could be your academic obituary, they demonstrated a professionalism and dedication to the craft you imbued in them and many like them for years.
Unfortunately for you, nobody’s going to remember that for a long, long time.
This situation is unfolding like so many others before it when someone says “that word.” People who sat through the class are upset. People who know the students are angry. People in administration are “fact-finding,” which means they’re running a panic drill and trying to figure out what the hell to do about this. Organizations have issued statements condemning you. People with social media accounts are demanding you be fired, or worse.
Two reactions always emerge when someone inevitably steps on that racially charged third rail: Outrage and silence.
The outrage comes from pretty much anyone, regardless of their connection to the situation. Those closest to the Ground Zero of this situation are hurt or scared or exasperated or worse. Others know the sting of this, through other similar incidents, and feel it is important to show solidarity with that first group of people against a term steeped in racial violence and horror. Still others just bandwagon on whatever outrage machine is up and running when they get to Twitter.
When you are at the center the outrage and the media coverage on it, it feels like you are falling down a flight of never-ending stairs as the whole house collapses in on you.
The silence has to feel worse.
Professors who “thought they knew you” give you the odd looks in the hallways. Colleagues at other institutions might drop you a “hang in there” call, but plan to sit this one out quietly, lest they be sucked into the vortex of rage that is kicking your ass. Friends plan to “let things die down” before they say much of anything, because, well, you know…
Peter, I would like to consider myself a member of all three of those groups. I’ve been a professor for more than two decades. I have known you as a colleague since I was a newbie Ph.D. student at your alma mater. I’d like to consider you a friend, both because I like you a great deal and you have gone to great lengths to help and support me over the years. It is wearing these hats that I felt it important not to be silent.
In the simplest of terms, and using only the language I’m allowed to use here, you massively f’d up. The analogy was dumb. The use of that word was stupid as hell. The attempt to try to justify it in front of people whose family, friends and ancestors likely felt that sting before from evil people just made it worse. You hurt people, regardless of your intention, and there is no justification for that action.
I’m guessing you didn’t need me or any of the 8,923,131 Twitter posts on this topic to tell you that. I’m guessing that right away after that word came out of your mouth and you realized what the hell you did, you could feel all the blood in your body drain into your feet. If your email to your class is any indication, I know you’re coming to grips with this.
Me? I would have seen my career flash before my eyes, everything that decades of education and dedication built gone in a flickering second. Ever since I read that first article, I’ve been reflecting on every stupid thing I have ever done or said in my academic life. My inner-voice tells me, “Yes, you are a crass human being, who has done a lot of dumb things, Vince, but you would NEVER say THAT or anything CLOSE to that hurtful.” I bet everyone who ever made a fatal mistake thought the same thing.
This might be the only thing a lot of people ever know about you, a man defined by his biggest public failure: Jackie Smith’s dropped pass, the ball between Bill Buckner’s legs and Donnie Moore’s 2-2 pitch to Dave Stewart. (If I were you, I wouldn’t Google my name for a while.)
What I know about you covers a lot more ground, which is why I can both hate the action in question, but still be public in my support of you as a person.
You helped me early in my doctoral career, with emails and advice. You let me know my failings were just part of the process and that I would eventually “get there,” even though I had no idea where “there” was at that point.
You recruited me for a position at OU back when the Gaylord school was a giant patch of open green grass. When true “OK, Boomer” faculty didn’t want to hire me because, God forbid, I was a “convergence” scholar who believed in the power of the web for journalism, you fought for me. When you lost that fight, you apologized to me, even though you had nothing to be sorry about. You told me that I wasn’t a bad candidate or a bad person and that I’d be just fine. Believe me, that made a difference.
You were always ahead of me, but you never treated me as less than. You treated me like a peer and a colleague, even when the rest of the “cool kids” felt no need to do so. I enjoyed telling people who saw your successes, cited your articles and read your books that, “Hey, I’m friends with that guy!”
None of those things change for me because of this incident, and I want you to know that, here and now, in a public way. I’m here for you, because I know you, I like you and I respect you, even though you did this truly horrible thing.
I don’t know what’s going to happen to you now. It could be some sort of “sensitivity training” or a “leave of absence,” two tried-and-true dodges administrators use when they don’t know what the hell to do but feel the need to do something. Someone mentioned you might “retire,” which is the quiet, peace-with-honor solution some schools use in this situation. I really hope it’s not the “Star Trek Red Shirt Guy” treatment, where OU decides to kill you off to show how serious the situation is.
I also don’t know what’s happening with you at this point of the process. I hope you have an armada of friends, who are offering you whatever they can as you deal with all this. If not, please know I’m still here to listen or talk or whatever you need.
Email works and so does the phone.