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First day, not first time Professor utters racist epithet on first day of class

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By Ashley DeLeon & Liam GayKilleen
Deputy Editor, Staff Writer

  On the first day of classes of the Fall semester, a racist epithet was uttered by a faculty member in a peace and justice course at St. Michael’s College, leaving students and community members questioning the incident. 

     While providing a brief overview of African-American history on Monday afternoon, John Reuwer, a former adjunct professor of the Peace and Justice Department, used a racial slur during his course Theories: Conflict and Resolution. The professor used the epithet when describing a term that degrades black individuals. 

     When the incident occurred, students remained silent. “I was very surprised with what was said. It happened so quickly that I had no idea what to do,” said Sean Birch ’22, a student in the class. “The professor never stopped to apologize or explain,” said senior Kenzie Traska ’21, “He just kept going.” After experiencing much outrage and uneasiness from the incident, Traska said, she transferred out of the course. 

     President Lorraine Sterritt released an email to the campus community about the incident on Sept. 4, sparking campus-wide speculation on the nature of this incident. “We immediately undertook a thorough investigation and then took appropriate action,” Sterritt said in a later interview. “As I am sure you will understand, I am not at liberty to comment on a personnel situation.”

     Margaret Bass, special assistant to the president for diversity and inclusion, stated, “Several administrators and I received an email from students a day or two before President Sterritt wrote to the community. Students reported that a faculty member used the N-word explicitly in class, and they felt uncomfortable, upset, and wondered how to proceed.” Bass explained that she visited the students in the class after hearing that some of them felt guilt in not calling out the professor’s behavior immediately, reassuring students that they shouldn’t feel guilt or shame. She described the action of students coming forward as a “Bold, honorable, and courageous move.”

     During that first class, before the incident the professor asked students why they enrolled in the peace and justice course. “I mentioned that I was shot by a police officer at a Black Lives Matter protest,” said Hannah VanSkiver ’24, a first-year student in the course. “He made no verbal remark,” she said. When the racial slur was used shortly after, “I immediately felt sad that I was black,” she said.   

An Interview with John Reuwer

You stated that you “immediately regretted having said [the epithet].” However, according to students in the class, you did not pause to acknowledge the impact and wrongdoing, even after class had ended. If you immediately regretted uttering the slur, why didn’t you acknowledge it right when it happened?

“It was a highly stressful day, and I did pause. It wasn’t a long pause. I searched the room [for reactions]. I didn’t see anyone react, so I made a quick decision to let it go. There was so much else going on that day that I was worried about. I took my mask off at one point without realizing, and it was difficult to hear students with masks on. It was a decision based on the stress at the time.”

You stated in your public letter addressing the incident, that “I was not as aware as I wish I had been of the extent of pain it could stimulate in students.” However, you also stated earlier that you “immediately regretted having said it.” Could you explain this contradiction further?

“I was immediately uncomfortable with it, but nowhere to the extent of the students. That was a lack of my sensitivity. I regretted saying it and I had no idea what they were thinking. If it was a normal classroom, then I would have seen the shock on people’s faces. There was no way for me to see that [because of facial coverings]. Nobody stood up, raised their hand, or flinched. I asked myself, “do I want to make an issue of something that is not an issue for them?” I was clueless as to what they were thinking. If I had known the pain they were experiencing, I certainly would have reacted.”

During the course of your academic career, was it brought to your attention that the word is racist?

“I did not know this was a loaded term. I didn’t think that the use of it to make a point was necessarily harmful. If I had used the word to imply that people were lesser, then that would be different. I was not aware that it was essentially a taboo word. No one told me that. In that, I have not caught up with the current times.” 

Did you partake in any anti-racism trainings or workshops at the College? If so, what was taught?

“I participated in one a year or two ago. Trainings mainly emphasized the different life experiences for people of color. It also highlighted that racism is inherent and hard for white people to see, and people need to be sensitive to that.”

A black student in the class disclosed that during a class discussion, she noted the experience of being shot by a police officer at a Black Lives Matter protest (after you asked students to share their thoughts). It was stated that your reaction was apathetic. What is your response to this?

“If I had heard that, class would’ve stopped and we would have talked about it. While speaking with an N-95 mask on, I was noticing how winded I was getting. Another problem I had was that I couldn’t hear many students, especially in the back. I asked students to repeat themselves a couple of times, then I realized that it would annoy them. There were a few statements I didn’t catch from students completely, and this must have been one of them. If somebody said that and I didn’t react, I’d be really pissed. I am shocked and horrified that it happened.”

Will you return to teach on campus, or are you on leave?

“My understanding is that the school has fired me.”

Given this incident, how do you plan on moving forward personally and academically?

“I very much want a chance to talk to whoever in the class would be open to talking with me. I want that ten times as much now than I did before. Especially now that I know about [the student harmed at a protest], better than anything, I want a chance to talk to the class to build respect, if not trust.”

Healing

     A new faculty member had been hired to teach the Conflict and Resolution course. “I play an important role as a young Black professor,” said Kayla Loving” This shouldn’t be recognized as a monumental event in 2020, but it is.” Loving said she hopes to provide a new perspective. “I’m showing students that they live in a biased system that favors those with more privilege– from their high school curriculum to global politics.” The new adjunct professor noted her background in restorative justice, stating that it allows for the opportunity to recognize harm and provide a space of healing. I want to provide my students with the skills to handle situations like the event they experienced in a way that will help them heal,” Loving said. 

     Loving expressed delight in the students vocalizing this incident of racism. “Usually, the outcome is a friendly conversation about how they are doing a great job,” she said, “but that it’s not okay to say certain words.” Loving said that all institutions should adopt a zero-tolerance policy for racism, homophobia, transphobia, sexism, ableism, etc. “We can’t continue to make excuses. How are protected classes supposed to feel safe when [students] know that they can experience racism at any moment?” 

Left In the Dark

     Some students have expressed disdain in the phrasing of the President’s email, claiming that vagueness and a lack of transparency left them in the dark about the August 31 occurrence. “The email doesn’t represent how severe the incident was,” said Jessie Anderson ’21, a psychology major who learned of the incident through the email.  “It seems that there was an intentional limit in the information we received. The email says that harm was done, but doesn’t address plans to give support to harmed students.” Other students argue that the language used was not just “racially offensive,” as stated in the email, but it was overtly racist.

     Margaret Bass, however, said that the email was not nebulous. “President Sterritt’s letter didn’t seem at all vague to me. She let us know that ‘a member of the faculty used a racially offensive term during a class,’ and that ‘racially offensive language will not be tolerated on this campus,’” Bass said.

     President Sterritt wrote in the campus-wide email, “… part of the endeavor [of accountability, inclusivity, and racial justice] is a commitment to review the College’s racial bias education and training for faculty and staff.’” Anderson ’21 questions, “If anti-racism trainings are effective, wouldn’t the professor immediately recognize this act of racism either before or after it was done?” 

Not the First Time

This incident follows similar rhetoric to a racist incident that occurred in February, when a staff member uttered the same racist epithet during the campus-wide Day of Learning and Reflection. Campus outrage demanded for immediate reforms, yet campus outrage about the August 31 incident has been dormant, said an anonymous student. When asked about the difference in outrage between February 2020 and the beginning of the semester, the student stated, “There’s less outrage because we’re used to the routine. The question is, are we willing to change our habits?” 

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