I fought academia’s cult of civility and all I got was this lousy PTSD diagnosis
I’m finally publishing this story about my experience leaving The Evergreen State College in 2017. I’ve been anxiously revising for months, trying to find a way to avoid the inevitable trolling and racist backlash that publishing this might provoke. Hopefully the catharsis of telling my story will outweigh the obnoxiousness of dealing with the trolls. If you like, please give some claps and comments.
I speak out of direct and particular anger at an academic conference, and a white woman says, “Tell me how you feel but don’t say it too harshly or I cannot hear you.” But is it my manner that keeps her from hearing, or the threat of a message that her life may change? — Audre Lorde, “The Uses of Anger: Women Respond to Racism”
Between late May and early June 2017, I received hundreds of email messages, phone calls and letters that called me nigger, bitch, and monster. Some included images of black bodies being mutilated and lynched. If you do a Google search of my name you’ll find Reddit posts and YouTube videos featuring images and video taken from my own artwork and social media presence that call me ugly, stupid and terrorist. And of course there were the letters calling for my firing, phone messages screaming that I ought to kill myself, and of course “I hope you get lynched you fat piece of nigger shit.” These messages were sent to me on campus while working at the Evergreen State College, where I was a tenured professor, in the aftermath of student protests about campus racism, during which I was a vocal supporter of the students’ agenda and right to protest.
Soon after this hate fueled campaign started, I discovered that a selectively-edited video of me angrily confronting some of my colleagues was circulating online, along with my name, campus address, social media and contact information; a malicious release of personal information known as doxxing. Other staff, faculty and students, particularly black women, femmes and non-binary folks, were also receiving threats and getting doxxed, and it was escalating as the days went on. I shared the threatening messages with anyone at Evergreen I could think of, including members of the administration, faculty leadership, the college president and the Board of Trustees. It took a full week of me sharing these messages on a daily basis before I received any sort of response. When I was contacted, it was from colleagues expressing their concern about my well being, though members of the faculty leadership also made sure to let me know that they disapproved of the uncivil behavior that I’d demonstrated during the student protests.
This is the story about campus free speech that keeps getting obscured. Black, queer and trans student protestors with legitimate grievances get reduced to caricatures of Social Justice Warriors while they, and those who support them, get threatened and belittled. Flagrantly racist trolls sling epithets online, respectable liberals wring their hands at the lack of civility, authorities dismiss the danger of the threats, and the school does nothing until it isn’t just black people being threatened. This experience had a chilling and silencing effect on many of Evergreen’s student protestors, but where is the concern about students’ right to speech being suppressed? Why don’t we hear the stories of people of color, and women, and trans people on campuses losing their platform and right to speak? I’ve spent over a year recovering from the trauma of becoming a lightning-rod for alt-right hatred and then being thrown under the bus by white liberal complacency. I was dismissed, disbelieved, and ultimately treated as though my anger in responding to racism was on par with the racism itself that I was trying to address. The backlash and condemnations that I received achieved their intended goal. I was largely silent about my experience for over a year, for fear of further recrimination. I’m now done being afraid of my anger.
When I called the police to report the threats on my life, I was told that I was likely just dealing with “kids pulling pranks.” A week after the doxxing and threats began, I met with the President and the Provost to tell them that I was afraid for my life, that I was afraid for students’ lives, and that I was concerned that there wasn’t enough being done to protect the safety of the people of color who were being targeted. My pleas for support were met with genuine personal concern, but little in the way of action to ensure the safety of those of who were being targeted. I asked why there were no investigations or sanctions against the people internal to the college who were recklessly spreading the names and faces of faculty, staff and students to notoriously far-right news outlets. I asked why the school couldn’t release statements supporting the students right to protest and free assembly. I asked why the school wasn’t publicly acknowledging or directly addressing the fact that black faculty, staff and students, and those who expressed views in support of campus equity measures, were being disproportionately impacted by doxxing and threats. I was dismayed but not surprised by the lack of proactive response. This is what happens when black women speak up about being harmed within white dominated liberal spaces. People may express empathy, but few in positions of power have any willingness or capacity to act.
I was told that the administration had to “remain neutral” in the situation because the institution was facing an “existential crisis,” hearing rumblings about threats to defund. When the Provost told me that “the school could be shut down, and that is the worst thing that could happen,” I responded that someone on campus getting killed by a white nationalist would be much worse. The next day, on June 2, the first of two threats of racially motivated mass violence to the campus was called in.
I never returned to Evergreen as a faculty member after that day. I held the remainder of my classes off campus, and watched in horror when campus officials sanctioned a “Free Speech Rally,” organized by ultra-right wing activist Joey Gibson, on campus the day before Evergreen’s graduation. This rally was attended by a coalition of alt-right, libertarian and self avowed Neo-Nazis from all over the Pacific Northwest and beyond. Counter-protestors from Evergreen and the greater Olympia, WA community were also there in force, sending a strong message of love, resistance and support to the community. However, graduation had to be relocated due to safety concerns.
I left town for most of the summer, and laid low hoping that the harassment would die down. In July I attended an artists’ residency in rural Vermont, focusing on self care and creativity. This moment of tranquility was interrupted when Milo Yiannopoulos, a right-wing provocateur, got hold of the Evergreen story and shared a video to his followers that included screenshots of my name, face, campus address, email and phone number. Despite the administration assuring me that directory information was being protected from those outside of the campus community, this led me to wonder whether someone internal to Evergreen had shared my information.
When Milo’s followers got hold of me, on around July 24, I received upwards of 75 messages within a 24 hour period, all of them more vile and demeaning than the last. Die you fat cunt bitch. If you hate America so much, why don’t you take your monkey ass back to Africa? How did anyone let a dumb nigger like you teach at a college? I spent that afternoon organizing and forwarding the emails to the school, composing the calmest message I could muster to let people know that I was under attack again. I thought that if I could find a way to temper my fear and anger, someone might take me seriously enough to respond to the threats to my life. By the time I finished I’d broken out into hives and spent the night vomiting and sobbing. Almost two months after threats and harassment began, someone at Evergreen finally helped me change my email address and scrubbed my information from the faculty directory. A dean offered to check the area around my office, and I eventually convinced the communications team to remove the photos of my (Happy! Black! Female!) face from its featured location on the campus website. At no point did anyone offer me on-campus safety escorts, and if the threats to my life were investigated by the campus or county police, I never heard a word about it. I had no reason to trust that the campus would be a safe environment for me. I took a personal leave for the Fall 2017 quarter in order to give myself more time to recover and figure out my next steps.
The events and context of the protests were grossly distorted by the mainstream media, and became fodder for shady alt-right media sources. Faculty, staff and students who took part in the protests and/or campus sanctioned equity initiatives were doxxed and threatened. Students’ protest tactics were broadly characterized as violent, while many of us who were on campus during the events witnessed actions that were provocative and bold, but never included threats of physical harm. I witnessed students speaking stridently, loudly, and firmly about their grievances, and yes some were yelling and swearing. There were also students working to craft the demands with the administration and student newspaper; students offering water, snacks and access to first aid supplies in case of emergency; students gathering important stakeholders into the President’s’ office to discuss solutions to their grievances. Many faculty and staff took the students’ protests seriously for what they were: A demonstration highlighting our collective need to do better on behalf of marginalized students on our campus. Others were angry and dismayed that students would rise up in the ways that they did, and I recall discussions with some colleagues who complained that the students were too harsh, too loud, and too brazen in their approach. I found myself frequently thinking “I understand that this is stressful, but they are our students. We are the adults and people with authority in this situation, and they are our students.”
I wish that I could say that I was surprised that so many well educated and well informed people forgot that protests are not meant to create comfort and ease for those in cultural and political power. A tiny, but incredibly loud, minority could not muster enough critical thought about the situation to recognize the validity of the students’ concerns, and instead helped to broadcast false claims that students were rioting, kicking white people off campus, and that they deserved censure and ridicule rather than compassion and guidance.
While several students, colleagues and reporters have attempted to offer alternative perspectives on the events, a master narrative that paints students as single-minded “snowflakes” unwilling to hear alternative viewpoints caught hold in mainstream media. The roots of the students’ complaints have been continually buried under a simplistic conversation about “campus free speech,” as well as a false claims that white community members were forced off campus during an equity event. These misrepresentations made it difficult for others to tell their side of the story without appearing to oppose free expression and the exchange of dissenting ideas. The dominant discussion about campus speech vilifies and punishes black people for speaking stridently about our experiences of racism and then hides this disdain for our right to free speech and assembly beneath the guise of civility.
The widely-circulated video of me, shot on the second day of student protests, became a primary source of “evidence” that I was an anti-white provocateur bent on demeaning my white colleagues and radicalizing students. I’m accused of threatening and intimidating the group of white faculty members standing across from me, and yet I’m unclear what I did that indicated the potential for violence other than being a loud black woman with unapologetic opinions. When I look at that video I see myself standing before a group of mostly white people, keeping a careful distance from everyone as I’m speaking. I remember feeling exhausted and frightened for the students; I had no idea whether the police would be called, or how their protests were being portrayed in the media. I had walked up to the group alone, wearing gym clothes, holding my 8 lb. service dog, being black and pissed off.
The video leaves out critical context: Just 20 minutes earlier, students had disrupted a faculty meeting as part of their protests, where they expressed heartfelt and respectful pleas to their teachers to support them in their occupation of the administrative offices. Many faculty immediately joined the students in solidarity, some left campus, while others remained behind to discuss what they’d seen. When I challenged one faculty member on why she’d apparently dismissed the students’ request for support, she complained that she was witnessing “leftist McCarthyists” on a “witch-hunt.” It is ahistorical, myopic and intellectually lazy to compare a single student’s protest against racism to the hundreds of people accused of disloyalty and treason by the US government. I was appalled to hear such false equivalences coming from a tenured faculty member with a PhD in history, and I said as much. This is the same faculty member that I confronted in the circulated video and I’m not ashamed to say that I told her, and those with her, that her racism was showing and that she was being motherfucking ridiculous. But more importantly, my frustrated yells were not directed at the single actions of a single faculty member, but at the collective inaction of a majority white faculty body. I was angry, exhausted, and frustrated that students of color who had been asking nicely for change for years were being treated as though their demands were unreasonable.
The students weren’t asking for the moon. They were asking for mandatory staff and faculty training on equity issues, for student input into the campus conduct code, for increased funding for culturally responsive student services, for accountability and punitive measures taken against faculty and staff who had repeatedly exhibited discriminatory behaviors and, most importantly, they demanded that their concerns be addressed quickly and deliberately. Several protest leaders had taken part in less confrontational approaches to change by joining various committees, speaking to administrators, and filing complaints. Others had participated in a year’s worth of smaller actions directed at the schools’ record on addressing equity issues. They were demanding that the faculty and administrators of Evergreen take responsibility for the challenges faced by historically underserved student populations. The protests didn’t come from nowhere; they were an articulation of dissent from a group of students who believed that Evergreen could be better. Many students come to Evergreen because they want to be encouraged to think critically about social inequality, so it should not be surprising that some would challenge injustices that occur within the institution itself. Where some saw a mob of reckless and unreasonable thugs, I saw a group of young people with enough faith in their school to ask that it make changes for the better.
In my 7 years at Evergreen, I was on multiple equity focused task forces and event planning committees, I discussed my concerns for students of color and my own experiences of racism in my annual evaluations and participated in countless formal and informal discussions with faculty and administrators on the subject. I spoke out about being tokenized as a black woman, about nepotistic faculty hiring practices that favored the (mostly white) spouses and friends of the (mostly white) current faculty, about overwhelmingly Eurocentric curriculum, about a lack of racial and gender diversity within the administration and faculty leadership, about programs designed to support students of color being persistently under-funded, about being repeatedly bullied and targeted on an all-campus email list for speaking out about racism, about being pressured by administrators to accept under-qualified white male students into competitive upper division classes that I was teaching, about students of color and trans students frequently confiding in me about their negative experiences in classes, and about having my tenure case unfairly challenged despite years of glowing reviews by peers, students, and administrators.
In the year leading up to the student protests, I was part of a team of 30+ faculty, staff, administrators and students who were tasked with creating a strategic equity plan for the campus. While we addressed a variety of issues over the many months that the group was convened, it became clear (at least to me) that one of the schools’ biggest obstacles to lasting change on behalf of students of color came from within the faculty. Evergreen is known for giving its faculty unprecedented freedom to choose what and how to teach. Many are drawn to the school by their desire to be creative and innovative in their teaching, and the school’s unconventional structure allows for many exciting opportunities for students. However, for some faculty this can mean a lack of accountability towards developing cultural competency or utilizing evidence based pedagogical best practices for supporting disabled students, first generation college students, or students of color. (There are many examples of this, and not enough room in one article to discuss in depth. See Tia McNair’s “Becoming A Student Ready College” for an in depth analysis.)
Some faculty, thankfully not the majority, are irrevocably tied to the idea that they should be allowed to ignore those best practices because they may inhibit their sense of academic freedom. The assumption that faculty always know what’s best for students is based in academic elitism, entitlement, and an unconscious bias among Evergreen’s (mostly white) faculty. I spent a significant amount of time making this argument in meetings with my colleagues. After years of being disappointed by a lack of collective action or bold leadership on this issue, I had grown tired of offering up explanations on this issue that focused on placating the feelings and anxieties of my peers. Instead, I took a cue from my students and made my concerns plain. On more than one occasion I bluntly told faculty colleagues that their unwillingness to shift their attitudes and behaviors towards students was, in fact, racist.
I fought these battles because I believe in Evergreen’s capacity to deliver on its promise of a truly progressive, innovative, student centered, justice oriented education. I worked with many colleagues over the years who shared that commitment, and who offered exceptional educational experiences to students. However, when faced with the crisis of confronting racism head on, the white liberal tendency to dismiss patterns of structural inequality in favor of avoiding conflict and hard feelings, undermined the school’s ability to take a strong stance in favor of justice. Various (mostly white) faculty colleagues and members of the administration approached me over my last year at Evergreen to let me know that they were concerned about whether I was being constructive enough in my approach to addressing these issues. They told me that I was alienating people, that I was doing a disservice to my own cause, and that I was making people feel uncomfortable and unwelcome in discussions. They told me to temper my anger so that they could hear what I had to say.
Just a few months before the student protests I reported seeing a man wearing white supremacist symbols on his clothing going through the garbage outside of my office, and did not receive any sort of response from the campus police or administration until weeks later; after I’d put pressure a dean to do so. I managed to hold back on the panic attack that I would have later that evening while I reported this incident to the Provost an hour after it occured. He brushed it off saying “that’s weird,” and proceeded to use that moment as an opportunity to critique my tone and level of constructiveness, seemingly more concerned that I had concretely named the behaviors and actions of a colleague as racist, then with the fact that I was experiencing and being impacted by racism.
This is a familiar pattern at Evergreen and elsewhere within white liberal circles: A person of color reports racism and they are either dismissed or chastised for their tone, hostility, or attitude issues. Naming racism, especially with any hint of anger in your voice, is treated as an attack or threat to the good name of an innocent, well meaning white person. This form of gaslighting and avoidance is not unique, but my experience at Evergreen has taught me that while many white liberal academics may possess the language to talk about racism as an idea, few seem able to address or transform their own racist behaviors. I constantly heard my colleagues use their academic training to speak articulately about systems and structures that uphold racism, but would stop short at recognizing that those systems aren’t just theoretical constructs. They are created and maintained by the choices that everyday people make to preserve their own comfort, ease and status.
As far as I can tell, my major sin, the one that made me a target, and the one that made me unworthy of protection by the administration, is that I stood in solidarity with students. I decided that their right to be heard was more important than my colleagues’ right to feel comfortable. I told my colleagues, many of whom had watched me spend years attempting to advocate through “proper channels,” to get their collective heads out of their asses. It is hard to make well meaning white people understand the impact of their obsession with civility. When people are more upset about the way that black people demand justice than they are about the absence of justice in the first place, they are upholding a racist value system. It is easy to buy into the narrative that the disruptive anger of protests against racism invite or enable racism. People of color aren’t free of this; plenty of us have internalized the idea that we’ll be more accepted if we’re easier to digest. For the past year, I’ve remained quiet about my experience for fear of further backlash, but also for fear of being characterized as the stereotypical “Angry Black Woman.” However, I’ve recently decided to let go of that fear because I am angry. In fact, I am furious.
I am furious that students standing against racism were characterized as thugs. I am furious that so many of my colleagues working towards equity on campus were targeted, and that several have left the school. I am furious that there are staff of color on campus still experiencing fallout from this disaster. I am furious that misinformation has damaged the morale of those at Evergreen who are working to support students of color. I am furious that I had to leave my job and practically remain in hiding for the past year in order to regain a sense of safety. I am furious that this pattern of valuing civility over dissent and comfort over justice is repeated so frequently and in so many parts of American culture.
During my fall 2017 leave, I submitted a severance request, asking that I be able to complete Winter and Spring quarters, and finish my time at Evergreen at the end of Spring 2018. Despite my extreme anxiety and concerns about my safety, I felt an obligation to the students who had signed up for the course I was offering that year, and a desire to finish my time at Evergreen on a positive note. My request was honored after protracted and confusing communications with the college’s lawyers, though I was not given the option to return to work. It seemed as though the school was ready to see me gone as soon as possible, and at first this added insult to injury. I ended up relieved not to have to return, and grateful to be done with the whole ordeal. I received a $240,000 settlement for my trouble, the majority of which I used to pay off the student loans I’d acquired getting the advanced degrees required to be an academic. I resigned December 6 2017, cleaned out my office on December 13, and I haven’t been to campus since.
I believe that anger is useful and productive, and I’m no longer afraid to express mine with all its potency. Students and young people are often at the forefront of our movements and if we’re smart enough to pay attention, they can teach us important lessons about resisting the systems that demand our complacency and compliance. Civility hasn’t stopped the oncoming train of far right white nationalism in this country, and it doesn’t solve racism on college campuses. The concept is totally subjective, based on the values of those in power, and is consistently weaponized against women, people of color, young people, queers and others marginalized within public discourse. I lost my willingness to adhere to this arbitrary standard of behavior with people who should know better.
I’m grateful for the opportunity to learn with and from Evergreen’s student protestors, and for the opportunity to let go of my lifelong dream of being a professor. For years I thought that academia’s illusion of comfort was worth swallowing my anger and compromising my integrity. I’m grateful to have gotten free of that lie before it rotted me from the inside out.
I cried a lot through this process, trying to understand where I’d gone wrong, and how I’d ended up so alienated from an institution that I’d committed myself to for almost a decade. Once, while crying, I told my mother that I felt stupid for not knowing better than to fight like this. She told me “Naima, it is not stupid to care. You’re not capable of seeing something that’s wrong and not caring. I love you for that, but you’ve got to care about yourself too, so get out of there before that place kills you.”
Another time, while crying, I told my father that it was hard not to see all of the harassment I was receiving as my own fault. He told me “Naima, of course this is your fault, because you had the audacity to spend the last thirty-eight years of your life growing into yourself. You live in a world that could barely handle you when you were three feet tall, and there you go being ten feet tall and still not done growing.”
Fuck your civility.
My momma and daddy love me.
Correction: I originally stated that black women were disproportionately targeted by the backlash. This is incomplete, as it was black women, black femmes and black non-binary folks who were targeted most heavily. Black (cis and trans) women, femmes and non-binary folks were at the forefront of these protests, as they are so many movements to support black freedom, and they/we get punished for it.