Wednesday, March 24, 2010
An African American College Student is Arrested in Class for Being “Disruptive”: Is Robyn Foster a Victim of Racism?
With access to less than complete information, I would like to believe that I would have magically defused this situation and turned it into that pedagogical unicorn, the mythical thing educators call a "teachable moment." But in all honesty, I am unsure if I could have mustered that wisdom and patience.
Being a teacher is very difficult. Regardless of your years of teaching, level of competence, or depth of expertise in one's field of specialization, we are always a bit naked before their students. When that normal awkwardness is compounded by an unruly student (quite literally) anything can happen.
In my years of college teaching I have been faced with Holocaust deniers, hit by a student, called out of my name on more than one occasion, and have had to deal with what the all too common and generic sickness that is student entitlement derangement syndrome. But luckily, I have never had to call campus security to remove a student, because to do so is the ultimate disruption in the rhythm and sense of community in a class, and where subsequently, it is quite difficult to recover from such an episode. As I tell my students, teaching is like dating, we are building a relationship and have to be mindful of respecting one another, learning to trust, and to be open to sharing. That having been said, while in a dating relationship--as in all human relationships--there is an asymmetry of power. In the teacher-student relationship, the teacher (even with unfair and punitive student evaluations, bureaucratic interference, the corporatization of education, and helicopter parents) more often than not remains supreme, for they have the power of the gradebook.
In reviewing the video of Robyn Foster's arrest, I will be transparent in letting it be known that I don't have much use for "racism chasers." You know, those folks who cry racism at every slight, raised eyebrow, or indignity--real, imagined, or otherwise. Why? because just like the boy who called wolf, racism chasers diminish the power of their claims such that when real bigotry comes about, folks will not likely pay much attention...and then it is too late. Allies are lost, ears are closed, would-be protesters are tired, and folks (of all colors) may be deaf to the call to arms. The Foster case seems ripe for characterization as one where police authority has run amok and racism is the culprit. I do not know what to think, save for the following instincts and questions.
One, while I am not so naive as to believe that all things being equal that race is not operative here--I must suggest that a white (or even Asian) student acting in the same fashion would be treated more benignly (but in this age of school violence I am unsure). Nevertheless, Robyn Foster is no Henry Louis Gates Jr. (who is a legitimate victim of police harassment)--as much as the racism chasers will christen her as heir to his throne. While some "celebrity" will inevitably come to her--and perhaps this is what she yearned for subconsciously--Foster is not, nor should be, a Cause celebre. Two, what do we do with a college educational system, that at the highest levels, is being pressured to admit an excessive number of students (many of whom may not be equipped for success socially, inter-personally, or intellectually) for purposes of enrollment and to fatten the fiscal bottom line? Who is being served? Who is being cheated?
To point: in this incident I see a culture clash that is centered upon deference and comportment in the face of authority (quite literally, I suspect this student does not know how to deal with criticism. To boot, the idea of either public censuring and/or correction is too much for her to manage given her understandings of what "respect" and local norms of "prestige" and "power" are).
To my eyes, this video screams a lack of maturity and not race as the overriding issue of dispute and controversy. Some may say that this reading is my impressing of a bourgeois norm of respectability--and Black Respectability--onto a student who may be born of neither milieu. I disagree. Good comportment is good comportment--however awkward my phrasing may be--in the classroom and elsewhere, and the lessons of higher education should and ought to be how to best transcend one's origins and circumstances.
Nevertheless, I must ask myself: How much have things changed when in 2010 it is the norm for a professor to be so easily able to call campus police to their class in order to subdue a student? When did things get turned so topsy-turvy that educators have learned to be afraid of their students, students afraid of one another, and police authority has made itself known even in the college classroom?
Please share. What is your call? Is this racism? A scared and overreacting teacher? A teachable moment lost? How would you have handled this incident?