He was trying to prove a point about a paragraph of Robinson Crusoe, wherein Crusoe explains that he would have returned to Brazil to make money off of the slave trade, but did not want to convert and become a “papist.” Catholics are papists, he told us. Professor Eugene Hill likened the word to a modern day racial slur.
After this statement, he slowly looked around the room and laid eyes on a student we all knew to be Chinese. She had told us. He said, while looking at her, “if I was to say something derogatory about a Chinese man, I would call him a ‘ch*nk,’ right?” The ears of those who had not tuned out this far into the day’s lecture perked up. Did he really just say that? His eyes scanned the room again.
“What would you call a Puerto Rican?” he mused. “I think you’d call him a . . . a ‘sp*ck,’”
He continued to think about other racial slurs that could possibly exist (including Italian and Irish); and at that point, I realized that he was looking for ethnicities he could insult. He was choosing from among us. After a few more racial insensitivities, openly inviting us all to join in with slurs we knew and the interjection of a friend who asked “Why are you doing this?”, he turned to me and another Black student who happened to be sitting right next to me.
I was dreading what I knew was coming, yet I noted a pause. The other Black student was not from the United States. It was as if he was deliberating who would have the closest connection to, and the most familiarity with, the word he was going to say.
“Danielle. What’s the slur for African-Americans?”
My mind was racing but physically, I was frozen. How do I react to this? In high school, I would have walked out of the room straight to my car. I would have called my mother on the way home, and she would have arrived at the front office in under an hour to rip the principal and his employees a new one. All is well when you are young and do not have to deal with these issues head-on. But in college my mother is over 1,800 miles away. This time around I was on my own.
I debated getting up and going back to my room. I debated directly calling him out on his bullshit, his entitlement and his audacity. Instead, I decided to just answer the question.
“No,” I said.
“You know what it is.”
“Negro? That’s as far as I’ll go. We get what you’re saying. Just drop i-.”
“‘Nigger!’ I would say ‘nigger!’”
Finally, he dropped the subject. And as if he was satisfied after eating a hearty meal, he sighed and said “alright, let’s move on.”
I started tearing up later in class because I was mad at myself for not reacting as boldly as I used to when encountered by racists. Since that day, multiple people have told me it’s not my fault or my responsibility to deal with that type of situation -- especially something so sudden and with such a heavy power dynamic between a first-year student and a tenured, older professor. Yet I could not help but beat myself up over it.
I shouldn’t beat myself up because, based on my own experience, he clearly has had a past in being discriminatory. Before this particular course, I had took my first-year seminar (“Reading Nonfiction”) with him. Strong favoritism, elitism and sexism (and transphobia, at the beginning of the course) had always been present in various ways within this course. He would be visibly impressed if we could demonstrate knowledge of multiple languages or mastery of an instrument, and visibly unimpressed and dismissive if we proved to be mediocre. On the first day of the seminar, he asked what schools we all went to and what they were known for. He was dismissive of those of us who couldn't say much more than "we have a great band" or "our football team is number one in the state." It was as if he was already gearing us up to compete against one another. Another day in this course, an article we read led him to wander off on a tangent about Lena Dunham. As much as I don't like her perpetuity to promote white feminism and its exclusionary ideals, he made a comment on her body that still has never set right with me -- claiming that he didn't find her rather attractive and tired of seeing her naked body on her TV show, Girls. Despite the fact that she was not ever looking for approval from a random old, male professor in Massachusetts.
After the class, the same student who questioned his motives approached me and said she was going to report it to the Chair of the English department, and encouraged me to do the same. So I met with the Chair, who was in shock and disappointed that this was one of my first experiences with the English department -- considering that it was my newly declared major. After a long discussion in her office, she promised to do what she could to remedy the situation. By the time the next class was to occur, those of us who wished to leave (seven out of ten) were transferred to the same class in the same time block but taught by two different professors and in a completely different building.
I was then handed off to the Dean of Students who said similar things. I filed a formal report in her office but I did not request anonymity because I felt no obligation to. I stopped expecting him to be reprimanded in the manner I hoped for because time after time, I was told:
“Professor Hill has tenure,” as if he was impervious and free to be a raging racist. Apparently, that is what it meant. He has job security and even a situation this extreme does not serve as grounds for immediate firing. He knew this, which is why he felt safe enough to make us all feel uncomfortable, awkward and disrespected.
A few days after the incident, I finally got up the courage to write. I wrote a weakened article for the Mount Holyoke News. I wrote for my personal blog. I wrote to my mother, boyfriend and others I needed the support of. Since then, I and many others have relayed this story many times and each is more exhausting than the last. Every time I worry that I’m overreacting and when I tell the story to someone, I scan their faces for traces of the same idea.
I left the situation in the hands of the school. I met with one dean after another, and a third-party investigator. I was excited that they were taking care of it and took pride in trusting the system. However, months passed and I had not heard a word from anyone regarding the investigation. Was any action at all to be taken? How long was I to wait? I started my summer on-campus job and as I walked back from lunch one day within the first few weeks, I saw him sitting in a chair, people-watching on Skinner green.
Upon the third month of waiting, I contacted the Ombudsperson and we scheduled a meeting. The office was dimly lit and provided a calming atmosphere. Light R&B music played in the background and I sunk into the low set couch. She was polite and attentive. I was read the Ombudsperson’s rights which explained that she would neither deny nor confirm that she met with me, but I was free to share as much or as little information with others as I saw fit. She overtly refused to give me advice but instead told me what she could do, which was to attempt to ease my frustrations with the administration. She was going to meet with the Dean of Faculty later that week and she could definitely ask her what was up with the investigation.
After more conversation, she remembered that she had the dean’s cellphone number and quickly sent a text asking if she was aware of any changes in the investigation regarding Professor Hill. Within minutes, she was given a reply which stated that the dean was planning to meet with me after a trip to France. I was simultaneously annoyed and relieved. The relief came from finally having a solid plan and date.
The annoyance came from having weeks of waiting on an email boiled down to ten minutes of waiting on a text.
The ombudsperson offered to join me in the meeting to serve as a buffer, if I felt comfortable. I took her up on the offer and we joined the dean in mid-June. They both asked me what I was hoping to see as an outcome of the investigation and I explained that, at the very least, I expected all of the students to receive a letter of apology. It was unfair to all of us that our lives had been shuffled around but yet he comfortably, and literally, sat in the same position without the slightest reprimanding. Toward the end of the meeting, I also requested a copy of the investigation but was ultimately ignored. To this day I, and other students from the class and investigation who requested it, am waiting to receive a copy. It wasn't explained to me if I couldn't receive the report due to legal reasoning.
July passed without hearing from the deans again. At this point, I expected as much. I took a vacation from my job during the first week of August to attend the annual conference of a national policy-changing group I am in. The Monday after my return, on August 10th, I received an email from the Dean of Faculty at 6 a.m. It stated that a physical copy of the letter Professor Hill wrote was sent out on the Friday beforehand, but just in case there was an issue, she wanted to provide me with a scanned copy of the letter.
I opened the letter, read it, chuckled, and went back to sleep. Due to this summer and my interaction with administration, I am not surprised that the buildup was for something so nonchalant. The briefness of the letter not only represents how much of a priority Professor Hill did not find this matter to be, but also how much administrators found it to be. In my original meeting with her, the Dean of Faculty stressed how the letter would pass through her first and that she would deem it fit (or not) to be sent out. This letter is what she found to be acceptable. Not only did the students in that course wait months for any action to be taken, but when it was it turned out to be a note in which sincerity was nowhere to be found, aside from the valediction.
I would be angrier with Professor Hill but, if we’re being real, he and the administration share the blame. The anger I feel now not only comes from the incident itself but the snubbing manner in which the school has dealt with it. I think they hoped that I would forget about what turned out to be the biggest occurrence of my first-year; topping that of moving to a different state by myself, making the mistake of rooming with someone I’d met during Prospective Students Weekend and getting slapped in the face with my first college GPA (not as pretty as my high school one).
So I think I have an answer to the question I was asked a few times this summer: what do I want from the administration? I've written it in a letter format, similar to that of Professor Hill’s, only a bit more detailed.
September 24th, 2015
Dear Mount Holyoke College,
Having had experienced this regrettable class on March 4th, I wish to encourage the administration to do the following:
Take responsibility for your employees -- especially the tenured professors. Stop protecting them. Professor Hill is not and has never been the only professor to provide such a hostile, uncomfortable environment in a classroom. From Sociology to Politics to Computer Science, almost every student I've encountered can share a story about a time they were forced to feel belittled, humiliated and hindered by tenured professors. They reflect your actions and beliefs. The way they are treated after incidents speaks volumes about how the school feels about their choices. And when students speak up but are ignored, they are encouraged to never speak up again. But perhaps that is what you want.
If, when recruiting students, you stress to them the cultural "diversity" of the campus but fail to protect those students after they have accepted your offer of admission -- notice your hypocrisy and work to remedy it.
Lastly: Recognize that, despite recent accounts from multiple old, white critics and professors, “freedom of speech” has not been lost. Asking to be treated with basic human decency and not tolerating a mindset appropriately placed in the 1950s does not make for a “softer” generation. We are sick of your intolerance and portrayal of “political correctness” as a negative modern day attribute. We have found that it is high time for your bullshit to be put on display for all to see.
Danielle M. Brown