Responding to Racist Comments in the Classroom
I wrote a post years ago about responding to racist comments and when that was written the discourse and awareness of racism in law school was not as out in the open as it was now. When I was in school (yikes that makes me sound old!), if someone complained about racist comments by other students, the students of color were told to grow thicker skin. There were few recourses for things that weren’t over the top overt so the idea was that you just grit and bear it, for the most part. And even though there is more self-awareness within some schools about implicit bias and space for students to speak up about commentary, law school is far from perfect. There is deep, engrained racism and casual racism advanced by students and staff that can make law school feel unbearable.
Just read some of the examples that went viral this summer to see some of the experiences people are still having in the most “prestigious” of institutes. How can you respond when you’re in class and a professor starts harassing you? Or a classmate makes callous statements?
Let’s take the example of the professor, asking inappropriate questions about immigration, hassling you in an attempt to get you to respond. In the midst of a situation like this, where a person in a position of power is directing odd commentary at you, may feel the need to push back, to stand your ground and prove them wrong. If you feel that’s the right option for you, go for it. But here’s another we don’t often consider, especially when it’s with a professor. Refuse to engage. When someone is egging you on like this, it is not being done in good faith. They are not actually committed to advancing ideas, rather they are (sorry to be blunt) getting off on their ability to bully you. Imagine being such a sad person. So there’s little benefit with you arguing back to prove them wrong. You don’t owe it to them to engage. If a professor is trying to rile you up or embarrass you don’t give them the pleasure. Look bemused and tell them, “I’m not sure if you’re intending your comments to be racist, but they are. And I’m not going to engage.” They can’t force to you to keep the conversation going and calling them out will likely stop them cold. If they keep going, it will give you more content to report to administration. And after class, that’s immediately what you need to do–report incidents like this to the appropriate offices in your school. I’d also suggest you write down what happened so the details stay fresh and you’ve made a record of the incident.
In other instances, mostly comments made by classmates, there is space to speak up and confront inappropriate comments as they are happening. Of course, it will be rare that someone will say something overtly racist; those comments that make you inwardly flinch are usually subtle in their isms (classism, racism, etc). They are made by privileged people who haven’t known much struggle. When they read facts of cases–of real people–they may reach conclusions or make judgements about them. I won’t ever forget the discussion in Contracts where a classmate said people that fall for predatory loans deserve it and the mix of emotions I felt for family that used payday loans to get by only to struggle to pay them back. In those instances it may feel right to speak up in defense, but don’t feel like you must always give your energy to those comments. If you’re not in the right headspace, if you’re tired, if you have other pressing issues, focus on that instead. Don’t feel like there’s a burden on you to speak up against every comment right then and there. Instead, take a beat, collect your thoughts and have a follow up discussion with the professor about why they allow those types of comments and seek out support from BIPOC student groups. Having a support system will make all the different in helping you determine response and next steps.
Ugh, I wish I could say you’ll go through your program without ever experiencing this. And that’s what I really hope for you. But realistically, you’ll be submerged with folks who are problematic in so many ways; who are flourishing in a mess-up system that supports and protects them. So always remember that you need to do whatever you need to do in order to protect your mental health.