Opinion: “Woke” Professors and Microaggressions
By Lauren Chu, Social Media Manager
The higher education system in the United States can often be exclusionary and hostile to minority students. The prevalence of microaggressive professors in universities and colleges across the country compounds this exclusiveness. Unfortunately, I have personally been faced with remarks of ignorant microaggressions by one professor during my last semester at Gettysburg College.
After being raised in a predominantly white Philadelphia suburb as a person of color, I had been acclimated to attending a predominantly-white institution such as Gettysburg. Since kindergarten, my Americanness had often been eclipsed by my Asian heritage. Some of my white peers and educators did not see me as equally American as themselves. I have been singled out on many occasions, with repeated ignorant questions about where I was born, why my parents, sister, and I “speak English well” and why I call myself “American” if I’m of Chinese descent.
In recent years of technological development and information, many people of all ages have access to information through news platforms and social media. In turn, some of this information has helped people be mindful and aware of specific sociopolitical issues, such as racism and other forms of prejudice or bias. However, this era of technology is a double-edged sword through its creation of performance activism. It is often comprised of a surface-level understanding of social issues rather than delving deeper to be more educated on such issues thoroughly. Some may wear this mask of wokeness to hide their deeply-rooted, underlying ignorance. In turn, it can become a way to overcompensate to show they aren’t racist, homophobic, sexist or carrying any other prejudices.
In my experience this past semester, for instance, one professor seemed to have felt the need to wear the façade of his performance-activist “woke” mentality as he exclaimed to the class with glowing pride, “Nazis suck!” Just in case anyone was unsure that a group responsible for the genocide of 11 million people “sucks,” this prideful announcement will indeed be one to inform and enlighten future generations. In addition to this excessive statement, this professor would single out students of color and LGBTQ+ students, asking why they would not explore these facets of their identities. Whenever a minority group artist would be discussed, this professor would solely ask students of the same or similar minority group to look to the artist for “inspiration,” even if race, gender or sexuality were not pertinent subjects of the students’ artworks.
Personally speaking, this professor once discussed the Japanese-American artist, Roger Shimomura, with our class. In a group discussion on the artist, other non-Asian students had thoughts they wanted to share. I did not have my hand raised, nor did the other Asian-American student in my class. We both sat in the front row of the classroom where the professor could clearly see that our hands were not raised. He called on us both, asking if we had our hands up. When we both told him we did not have our hands raised, he asked us to share our thoughts “due to [our] Asian identity.” He had only asked the two of us to share a comment about our identities, and he seemed to only see our “identity” as being of Asian descent. In his eyes, through this comment as well as other microaggressions he had directed at me throughout the semester, the only facet of identity that had any importance was my Asian heritage.
First, Shimomura is an artist of Japanese ancestry who created works based on his experiences as a Japanese-American living in internment camps during World War II. Neither the other student nor I are of Japanese descent; nor are we remotely old enough to be able to relate to any of his lived experiences in WWII. I politely deflected his ignorant statement, to which he responded in an overly-defensive manner, insisting that we share a comment with the class.
If this insistence had been one not racially targeted towards me, I would not have had a single problem with this scenario. I would’ve shared an answer with him and the class, despite not having a raised hand. The problem arises due to his aggressiveness toward me to provide a response solely due to and based on my Asian heritage. Why should he be the one to decide and assume that I have a personal tie to all things Asian?
After this instance, along with other repeated offenses of microaggressions, I took my complaint to an administrator, along with other students who had similar complaints. I was disappointed to see that, in the email the administrator sent us, he seemed to try to downplay and negate our experiences, stating that the professor’s actions “did not violate any policy or expectations of faculty professional behavior.” This response did not follow the idea to “advance inclusive excellence in the College’s learning and working environments,” as explicitly denoted in Gettysburg College’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion mission statement.
Such behaviors from the professor and what I saw to be a lack of action and seriousness from the said administrator was frustrating and disappointing to experience, and it has made me want to drop my second major of studio art in my senior year.
Especially as someone who found a passion in studying the fields of both art and English, there is no reason I should have felt a need to drop one of my majors during my final year in college solely due to this professor’s repeated offenses of ignorance and racism that I personally had to experience. I should also not have had to witness my fellow peers in the class, some of whom happen to be in the LGBTQ+ community, experience such instances of “othering,” nor should these people have experienced it.
Then came the end of the semester. I worked tirelessly to create a thoughtful and put-together series for my final project, which I created into a visual personal narrative surrounding my identity. Upon receiving my final grade, my professor took off a significant amount of points on my preliminary sketches leading up to the final project, writing that I did not delve deep enough “to express [my] concepts surrounding identity.” In these sketches, I followed the instructions to a T. My sketches related more to my personal identity rather than my ethnicity. Very few sketches related to my ethnicity, since it is not the only component that makes up my identity.
Rather than asking me, either in person or via email, about whether the sketches were relevant to my final and its theme of identity, he made his own assumption-based judgments on what constitutes one’s identity. I believe that, in his eyes, he saw my race to be the only factor that comprised my identity, almost as if I have no other traits, hobbies or interests.
I am a young woman, daughter, sister, friend and community member of the campus who just so happens to be of Chinese descent. I have family that has been living in this country for generations. My race is not the sole contributor to my identity.
All members of our campus community should be seen and treated as equals to one another. Students including myself want to know we attend an institution that truly believes in equality, diversity, and inclusivity. Otherwise, what are we doing here?