This following information was prepared by members of The Coalition in response to requests by Georgetown University Law Center (GULC) faculty members to provide examples of micro-aggressions in the GULC classroom. It contains a series of personal experiences by GULC diverse students at the as well as specific recommedations for faculty members.
In February, The Coalition distributed a survey asking students to “briefly describe an experience in which [they] have felt (either explicitly or implicitly) alienated, unwelcome, silenced, or ignored in a GULC classroom based on your identity as a diverse student.”
Among the many powerful and insightful responses we received, we have selected a few examples that highlight certain micro-aggressions towards diverse students at GULC. We acknowledge that these stories are by no means representative of every diverse students’ experiences, and we encourage faculty members to engage directly with their students in their classrooms on these issues.
Additionally, The Coalition believes that the micro-aggressions described in the following stories are but symptoms of larger, systemic issues. Combating surface-level hostility in the classroom should be considered only the first step in reframing the way we learn about the law as it affects and is affected by issues of diversity.
Examples of Micro-Aggressions in the GULC Classroom:
I have almost always experienced alienation and lowered expectations for my performance as a Black woman in the classroom. More often than not I am confused with the one or two other Black female students in the class, being called by their names instead of my own. I often feel as though my contributions are not valued and therefore I do not tend to contribute much once an initial comment has been overlooked.
I also feel responsible for defending my racial identity, or speaking up for the voices that aren’t in the room. I also feel as though my comments, no matter how calm, rational, or reasoned, are interpreted as ‘angry’ or ‘extreme,’ and I am constantly conscious of making myself amicable towards White students and White professors. –Anonymous, 2L
In a discussion about the Asian race and American law, the professor posed the question, “What do you think it would look like if the Chinese Exclusionary Act never existed?” She shared her thoughts, saying maybe we would have more Pan Asian food trucks, for example. The lack of professional demeanor and insightful, intellectual conversation on this topic was deeply offensive. It made me feel like Asian American culture (my culture) was nothing more to her, and to the class, than “exotic” food.
We had a discussion about shield laws and some of the men in the classroom were saying they don’t know how to tell if a woman has had too much to drink and it “wasn’t fair” to put the burden on the man. One male student suggested “we should go to Wednesday Wine Down and test it out.”
[Also], in discussing the police search and seizure limits a student suggested that some “groups of people” who “fit a particular description” don’t deserve the same level of protection because that type of person “doesn’t respect the law” whatever that means. –Anonymous, 2L
When a faculty member went on a negative tirade about black women’s identity and expression, singling me out as an example. There was an audible gasp in the class. I suppose this faculty member thinks that they have it all figured out, that they really understand the issues, and that they are coming from a good place, the “right” place. Race relations is not their area of expertise, or even a topic they have engaged with professionally- I checked. –Anonymous, 1E
In an [international law] class, we were discussing different forms of marriage around the world. [The professor] often laid out the differences between Western and Islamic law. When someone in the class offered gay marriage as an answer, [the professor] departed from merely offering the view of Islamic law, offering his strong personal disdain for gay marriage, as well.
When we recapped the different forms of marriage at a later point in the class, someone again offered gay marriage, to which [the professor] let out a gutteral noise of disaproval. I think many people in the room were very uncomfortable. As a gay person, I felt very disrespected. I hope that the University can take steps to ensure that such strong personal and hateful views are not tolerated in the classroom. –Anonymous, 3L
In a class, a professor became frustrated when he mixed up my name with a name of a classmate who sat directly behind me; we are both of East Asian descent. He seemed almost upset at the fact that we have similar surnames (even though we are different Asian ethnicities) and sat next to one another. He went on to disclaim any fault; I forget the exact words but he said something to the effect of “how can it be my fault in mixing up your names when you two Asian students chose to sit near one another.” The class laughed alongside his little jibe. –Anonymous, 2L
During criminal procedure, discussing stop and frisk laws when a student voiced to the class that “since most black peoples are criminals it makes since that they’d be frisked more.” Was referencing a statistic read by the teacher that blacks are the perpetrators of more criminal acts. It’s hard to have these types of conversations with an underrepresentation of minorities in the classroom because the few minorities in the class are obligated to act as a spokesperson for their entire demographic anytime these issues come up. –Anonymous, 2L
My professor said he would welcome questions by email. He wouldn’t answer any of mine. Finally I asked around and everyone else American seemed to be getting responses. I am an Indian girl. One time I had to send in my questions through an American friend so I could get clarifications. I believe this discrimination significantly affected my performance. I truly loved the subject but I did not get much needed help to excel in the subject which everyone else got freely and often. –Anonymous, 2E
[Criminal Justice my 1L year] was the best class of my GULC career, but the worst classroom experience I can remember. Most of our cases were people of color having negative interactions with the police. If the case didn’t explicitly say the race of the defendant, there were names like ‘Jerome’ or ‘Jamal’ that implied the defendant was a minority. But that wasn’t the issue. The issue was the way my classmates responded to the readings.
One student said ‘Minorities just need to find better ways to avoid the police.’ As if we as people of color are at fault for police harassment! There were so many comments like that throughout the semester that I felt alienated from my classmates. I stopped speaking up in all of my classes because I felt outnumbered by the people who actually believed minorities are at fault for their police interactions. If this is how they felt about criminal law, I can’t imagine how they felt about other areas of law. In the end, I stopped speaking up in class and stopped talking to my peers.” –Anonymous, 3L
As the Jewish high holidays approached, students came to a professor before or after class to inform him that they would miss the Thursday class. He informed them that they would not have as valuable a learning experience if they chose to miss. One student, in response, replied, “I know, but religion.” On Yom Kippur, the professor commented during a hypothetical that we would all know what to do in this professional situation because we attended class on Yom Kippur.
The following incident occurred during office hours with a clinical fellow last year. While discussing my work, she interrupted me and asked, “Can I talk with you, woman to woman?” She then proceeded to tell me that my breasts were very distracting and I should do a better job covering them up. … The clinical fellow’s comments made me very uncomfortable, and I was afraid to challenge her or report the incident to our professor because I was worried it would affect my grade. –Anonymous, 3L
My professor keeps confusing me with the only other Black student in my class. Every time she confuses me and the other student she makes a big deal about how she is an “equal opportunity racist” because she confuses the Asian students as well. It makes it increasing awkward as the semester goes on and she keeps mixing up me with the other Black student and calling so much attention.
I’m an Asian American woman, and multiple professors have called me by the names of other Asian American men in the classroom. Moreover, professors rarely apologize or acknowledge that their behavior is rude and has racist undertones. Every time it happens, I feel disrespected and incentivized to just keep my hand down to avoid the problem altogether. –Anonymous, 3L
I thought the continued use of antiquated terms for race in particular to be troubling. In multiple classes, when reading about racially restrictive covenants or segregation or slavery the terminology written in the cases was used in the classroom discussions. I understand that terms like “negroid, negro, Mongoloid race” were common when the opinions were written but that doesn’t mean we have to perpetuate their use and regress to the time when those terms were appropriate. This occurred in several classes and the professors corrected the term, but there wasn’t really an explanation as to why the terms were inappropriate (which is possibly why this was a continuous problem).
[T]here were instances where I felt singled out or expected to speak when conversations refocused to race and gender. Although I think it is incredibly important that people allow alternative voices and perspectives, the approach felt less celebrated and more “exoticized.” Namely, that I would obviously have more to say about civil rights than about law and economics. –Anonymous, 2L
I have always had a “critical race” way of thinking. This lens were natural to me. In the same way, maybe the introduction of other theories will give student’s who have not really dealt with issues of discrimination a lens by which they can at least attempt to understand differences in perspective. Wonder why we only do this in Con Law 2 classes when it’s applicable in every class or why only cover Critical Race Theory in Section 3. –Anonymous, 2L
[I]t’s Black History month. But as a law student at GULC, I wouldn’t have known that unless I looked at my own calendar and realized it was February. –Anonymous, 1L
In one of my seminar classes, there’s a white male student who is very confident in his abilities and speaks up often, sometimes interrupting others. While this student sometimes has good things to say, he is often long-winded without reason, doesn’t get to the point succinctly, and makes a point of showing off his knowledge. The professor has continually expressed appreciation for his comments. One day, when we were going around making comments, this student admitted that he did not do the work that was assigned for the class. Instead of reprimanding him, the professor asked the class to help him out. I’ve also noticed that the women of color in this class, in particular, are more often criticized and interrupted when they make comments. – Anonymous, 3L
We were hanging out in Hotung lobby with some people before the meeting when I heard one student (Caucasian woman) say to another (Caucasian man) that he has to do a comedy routine in a club in DC because he lost a bet. She said loudly, “Wouldn’t it be hilarious if he did this in a Black club?” I thought I had misheard, but she repeated it, this time using the words “African American.” The other students around us chuckled uncomfortably, but no one called her out. To me, she was implying that African Americans would be automatically hostile to this Caucasian student’s performance by virtue of his presence and it would be way more of a funny spectacle if the performance happened in a predominantly Black club in a Black neighborhood. In saying so, she was engaged in the process of “othering” African Americans. I do not believe that she would have made this comment if there were any African American students around us. – Anonymous, 3L
There aren’t just isolated instances that come to mind, but trends that are exemplify the reality that female students are often silenced and alienated. Female students are generally called upon less and speak up less often than their male counterparts, especially in large lectures. Similarly, not having enough female professors is an obvious issue, especially for 1L courses and other big lectures. – Anonymous, 2L
People who did not identify as diverse students also replied to this survey, which reveal some of the most problematic viewpoints and opinions at GULC. Other students identified what they describe as “reverse discrimination” or the “radicalization” of GULC’s campus as the true problems:
As a “privileged” female student I encounter micro agressions all the time from my “more diverse” colleagues. When I walked into my civil procedure class after the ferguson protests, I found advertisements and propaganda about the protests and I felt very uncomfortable because they were very biased, unprofessional, and honestly inappropriate for a classroom setting. – Anonymous, 1L
As an ethnically and religiously diverse student I feel that GULC is doing a great job promoting diversity and tolerance. As I see it, this is not the big problem on campus.
Radicalization of student body is leading to environment of alienation and intimidation for conservative and moderate students, especially with regard to issues of race and culture. Students are learning that their career prospects (not to mention semester grades) could be damaged by openly saying “actually, I don’t think that the police are the problem, I think that the criminals are.”
Also, perhaps the administration is focusing too narrowly on what it considers diverse? Description of diversity includes six examples, none for religion, while three are gender, sex, and sexual orientation? Why? – Anonymous, 2L
[NOTE: the description of diverse students included religion.]
Based on the above examples of micro-aggressions in the classroom as well as the many experiences that are not and may never be written down, The Coalition offered the following suggestions to faculty members during their Retreat as a starting point for discussion and action:
- We ask that faculty make an express attempt to promote an open classroom environment at the start of each semester. For example, a professor could say, “I acknowledge that this classroom does not exist in a vacuum. I encourage all of you to react and respond thoughtfully to issues that may affect persons of all different backgrounds and identities in different ways. If you feel like you experience micro-aggressions in the classroom, please come speak to me during office hours so that we can attempt to correct these problems.”
- We ask that faculty promote systemic diversity as a value in the classroom. This includes integrating thoughtful readings on issues of diversity with legal salience as a part of the curriculum. Further, we encourage faculty to delve into sensitive, challenging issues that diverse persons face and experience in the classroom and in the law. We believe that will help foster an environment where students feel incentivized and encouraged to discuss and respond.
- We ask that faculty address micro-aggressions in the classroom as they arise and throughout the semester. Evading or avoiding problematic statements in the classroom, made by students or the professor, causes real harm. One way to address these issues is to challenge students in the classroom to identify the intentions and sources of problematic comments.
- Finally, we ask that faculty have a standing agenda item at every faculty meeting on these issues. The Coalition believes that this is only the beginning of many conversations to combat micro-aggressions in the classroom. We appreciate the faculty’s active interest in these topics, and we encourage the faculty to make these discussions a permanent part of the faculty’s ongoing goals.
RESULT: The above information was not disseminated to faculty members at the Faculty Retreat that took place in February 2015. The information was sent to faculty, at their request, for this explicit purpose. The Coalition continues to be in contact with administration to bring about meaningful change, providing information and student perspectives, and offering talent, manpower, and expertise to facilitate the creation of a more diverse campus.