Today, Kennesaw State University made news when a black student was refused advising from a white advisor. She accused the student of “harassing” her by waiting patiently in the lobby. Links of this event and video can be found all over the internet right now. Black Twitter, as awesome as they usually are, called out the racial undertones present in the video and made this event a public ordeal. Though no explicit racial remarks were made, many on Black Twitter promoted the hashtag #ItsNotJustKSU for them to express moments when they were denied services by advisors and mentors, relating these similar events to a racial oppression many of them feel in their own education. A similar occasion transpired for me at the University of Texas at Tyler when I was studying for my BA. The moment altered my view of education, power dynamics, and cultural capital.
To begin, I loved my undergraduate experience because of the major progress I made between my freshman year and my senior year. I entered college in the Fall of 2006 and had absolutely no tenacity nor work ethic. I partied my first two years of college and my grades reflected this lack of effort. I transferred from Tyler Junior College into the University and Texas at Tyler with a 2.8 GPA in the Fall of 2007. I decided to become an English major when I made this transition and began taking classes that fulfilled my major.
My transition into upper-division English reflected my lack of primary education. Being raised in small, rural area, I never had the advanced readings and learned the complexities of language that many of my peers had in my junior-level English classes. When I proofread their work, I became ashamed in my own. Specifically, in my Literature and Critical Theory course, I recall making many Cs and even a few Ds on papers. To become a better writer, I knew I must become a better learner; thus in my junior year of college, I promised myself to make better grades.
My grades improved quickly. I made mostly As and a few Bs, and as I finished the courses prior to my senior year, I raised my GPA from 2.8 to a 3.4. These grades, of course, are not great, but I believe anyone can see the major improvement. At this time, I decided I wanted to enter graduate school and eventually earn my doctorate in English. Thus, I made an appointment with my advisor to talk about my senior year and being smart with my graduate studies pursuits.
I entered my advisor’s office (I will keep him nameless here), and we began chatting. He usually kept a sarcastic but funny tone and was known by students as being kind of a “dick.” (I truly have no other word to use than this one; my peers called him a “dick” on many occasions). But his persona appeared funny and light-hearted, so I enjoyed many of our conversations. On this particular day, we conversed about my senior year and the courses I needed to fulfill in the fall semester. Slowly, I brought up the idea of graduate school, hoping he would be proud of a young student wanting to try their hand at graduate studies and follow a similar career path. His one sentence response to my idea disrupted this fantasy.
“Chase,” he slowly expressed while leaning in closer to me, “people like you wanting to become a professor are who people like me laugh at.”
That sentence, uttered to me over six year ago, remains verbatim. I recollect these words exactly because a part of me changed that day. My professors once inspired me, making me want to become an educator and to help students become better thinkers and writers. But he stripped this naïve notion from me.
My face swelled with anger. I did everything in my power to not yell at him. To not scream. To not tell him that I was better than what he perceived of me. And once our session ended I called my mom and cried.
What prompted this occasion? Why would an advisor tell me I could not do something and basically laugh in my face? What gave him the right?
His remarks probably did not come from some inner hatred towards my skin color, but I believe it did stem from my cultural positioning within race, place, and class. I appeared undereducated, a Brown body who typically does not represent academia in many circles. My single mom raised me in a very low-middle class/low class lifestyle. I never fought for things I needed, but like many kids in my area, I did not benefit from wealth. Also, being that I was from rural, East Texas, a place not known for its educational standards, I am sure my advisor thought I had no chance to get past UT Tyler. Though he did not need to represent some false, bootstrap myth to me, his statement could have been more encouraging, more empowering. He could have inspired me. As a Brown English student with a terrible lexicon, he thought my choices in life seemed more ready for a desk job or a banker (as he told me many times). To this white male professor, I, undoubtedly, seemed beneath him.
Needless to say, I am now in my fourth-year of doctoral school in Rhetoric and Composition and should be finishing my dissertation next year. I raised myself out of the stereotype he presented me, and I honestly utilize my words now to spite him. Every year of grad school, when the times get tough, I recollect how his words sliced me, and that motivates me every single time. No doubt, I had professors who encouraged me (a big shout out to Dr. Sloan, Dr. Wu, Dr. Pooler, and Dr. Ross), but his one statement wounded me on an identity level, in a way I could never imagine.
But I cannot help but reflect back now and think of how many students in my position maybe gave up, felt discouraged, never rebounded, thought they were failures. The embodied pain I felt encourages me to always do better by the students. They are not nuisances or problems; they are the reason why we are here.
Looking back over the case at Kennesaw State University, I have no doubt that similar occasions happen to students of color and students from marginalized positions daily across this country. People with power often look at them with doubt, wondering if they are only here because of affirmative action, believing they are a problem rather than a gift. I promised myself years ago I would never do that to students, and I hope you promise yourselves the same thing.
The case at Kennesaw is not exceptional. If you talk to people of color, you will hear similar stories of how they were dismissed by people who should be uplifting them. If we ever want true change in our politics of academia, we will need to position more culturally-aware people to wield power. Until we do so, advisors like mine and like the student’s at Kennesaw will keep telling people like us “no.”