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?


jacked UP jazz said...

One word

Home training

Two words

The po po's are here

Three words

The Blind Side ain't just a river in Egypt

RiPPa said...

This chick is stupid! I don't know the lead up, and she may have been right to feel how she felt. However, from what I saw she kept running off at the mouth just like fools do on Cops until the taser comes out.

I swear while she was talking I was waiting for Epic Beardman to come rumbling thru the wall like Big Jim did in The Kentucky Fried Movie.

Big Man said...

I agree with your comments on maturity.

Her decision to blame others for "making her angry" is a sign that she doesn't understand that she has control, and responsibility, for all of her actions. Her use of profanity also weakens her position.

But, she is a black girl in a predominantly white class, where it appears that she is being set upon by the teacher and students.
Also, public chastising is fairly uncommon in college classes, if I remember my own experience.

Without some info on what actually led to the outburst, it appears to be something between students that the teacher became involved in, it's hard for me to say that this woman is not the victim of racism.

More importantly, calling the police was an incredible escalation of the situation. I've found that white folks are far more likely to make that escalation for black poeple than members of their own race.

Shady_Grady said...

I don't think it's racism. I think someone let her mouth write a check her behind couldn't cash.

There is something about cultural norms differing and all that but it seems that for 15 minutes or so the teacher had been telling the student that she wasn't going to change the answer but that the student could discuss it later.

At that point the proper response is to discuss it later at office hours or if the student really has a legitimate beef, take it up with the department head, the instructor's mentor, the dean of academic affairs or ombudsman.

Behaving as she did-yelling, cursing and THROWING things and then refusing to leave-was guaranteed to get the response she got.

I don't think calling security was out of line at that point.

Shady_Grady said...

Evidently Robyn Foster never saw this movie.

Anonymous said...

An African graduate student at the University of Florida was recently shot in the face with a semi-automatic rifle by University Police after it was alleged that he resisted arrest.

The student is small in stature, had polio, and walked with a cane. Police claimed they fired beanbags, tasered him, and he still resisted.

I think this case also warrants some attention.