April 12, 2010

Africana Prof Accused of Making Sexist Comments

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Two months after an Africana professor allegedly called two black graduate students “black bitches,” members and allies of the Africana community — undergraduate and graduate students, faculty and alumni alike — have begun to speak out more fervently about the issue.

Earlier this year, Prof. Grant Farred, English and Africana studies, invited two of his advisees — both female graduate students who wish to remain anonymous — to attend a Feb. 5 and 6 conference at the University of Rochester entitled “Theorizing Black Studies: Thinking Black Intellectuals.”

The two students arrived late to a conference panel, after which Farred walked over and thanked them for making it out to the conference. According to one of the two students present, Farred then lowered his voice and said, “When you both walked in, I thought, ‘Who are these black bitches?’”

When the two students visibly expressed shock at the remark, the student said Farred changed the subject and, soon after, walked away. She said that both she and the other student later told Farred that his comment was offensive. She said he quickly apologized, saying that that he had meant no harm.

Following the incident, the two students informed other graduate students in the Africana community of the matter and also contacted several faculty. Eventually, word reached Prof. Salah Hassan, director of the Africana Studies and Research Center, at which point a University investigation was launched.

The students involved in the incident questioned the lack of propriety in Farred’s remark.

“In what context did [Prof. Farred] think such a remark would be appropriate to say,” the one student interviewed for this story said.

In the wake of Farred’s remarks, members of the Africanaand larger Cornell community have expressed concern and outrage through open letters addressed to Hassan in addition to University administrators, including President David Skorton and Provost Kent Fuchs.

Most recently, an open letter signed by 39 alumni and released last Tuesday and reprinted in today’s Sun publicly condemned the actions of Farred and the inaction of Hassan; it also advocated an open meeting for “all concerned members of the community.”

When asked about the details of the incident and his alleged remark, Farred declined to comment.

“This [incident] isn’t an allegation. Professor Farred has already admitted making these remarks to Deputy Provost David Harris,” one student involved in the situation said

Hassan, the director of the Africana Center, issued an e-mail response to an open letter that several alumni issued condemning the incident last week.

“The remarks are certainly racist, sexist and utterly ugly. No one deserves to be addressed in such a manner, let alone two black women graduate students in a program, like Africana, borne out of the struggle against injustice and all forms of discrimination,” Hassan stated in the e-mail, sent Apr. 6.  “What makes the remarks even more egregious that they were [uttered] by an educator.”

Hassan’s written response included a letter detailing the comprehensive steps that have been taken to address the incident. According to the letter, Farred, who was Director of Graduate Studies in the ASRC at the time of the incident, was promptly removed from his position. Additionally, a special faculty meeting was held amongst Africana faculty to discuss the incident, and Fared was asked to not participate in the 40th anniversary of the ASRC occuring this week. Hassan declined to comment beyond his written statement.

Faculty and students who have heard about the incident have expressed dismay and disappointment not only with Farred’s alleged words, but also the handling of the incident by Africana leadership.

According to Candace Katungi grad, Hassan’s response last week was the first public acknowledgement of the incident.

“I think [Hassan has] been forced to address this issue now that many alumni have been alerted about [the situation],” she said.  “I don’t understand why there has been so much silence around this issue, because it’s one that needs to be addressed.”

Prof. Margaret Washington, history, decried the incident as “absolutely disgusting and despicable” and discussed how the situation has cast doubt upon the notion of Africana as a safe space.

“This [institution] is supposed to be a safe environment,” she said. “Black female students should feel safe in Africana, but they don’t right now. They feel vulnerable right now.”

“What really tore at my heartstrings was to hear [one of the two female students involved] admit that she feels uncomfortable walking into the Africana Center and that the incident has created enormous tension among graduate students and faculty,” La TaSha Levy M.P.S. ’06, who has been advising the two students about the incident, said. “I could not fathom that these two students could attend a conference on theorizing black intellectuals and still be reduced to ‘black bitches’ by their professor and advisor.”

Another professor, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of retributive action, denounced Farred’s alleged comment to the two graduate students as an “[extremely] racist and sexist” remark that projected an image of patriarchy.

“Incidents like this only serve to foster a sexist environment that is becoming even worse. We are supposed to be nurturing students, not demoralizing them,” the professor said. “In the 40 years that Africana has been here, it has never seen a female director. All that does is promote a culture of fear and terror rooted in male chauvinism.”

“This is not a matter of incivility or of a person making a crude joke,” Levy said.  “This is a matter of a man who is in a position of power over students, who used that dynamic to degrade Black women, and they were traumatized by it.  Many of us are.”

“I don’t think that any one person — especially the professor in question — is bigger than the Africana community, so his ridiculous behavior shouldn’t reflect on Africana, but I do think that the leadership at Africana could have handled this a lot better,” Navid Farnia ’09 said. “Current graduate students have been pleading for an open community forum for all who are invested in the Africana community for weeks now, and the fact that this forum hasn’t taken place yet is more detrimental to the community as a whole than any actions of one single professor.”

Undergraduate students, like the alumni, have also been calling for an open discussion of the incident as well a larger conversation regarding racism and sexism.

“There should be some open dialogue, especially since the particular comments by [Prof. Farred] represent a blatant intersection of racism and sexism that black women experience,” Tia Hicks ’11 said. “Yet there is silence. If the silence and inaction continues, then then the very basis on which Africana was founded and the scholarship that the center is producing becomes futile.”

According to Washington, Farred’s alleged remark has implications that transcend the scope of African-American women.

“As a gender bias issue, it’s so much bigger than just African American women. It applies to all women,” she said.

Thu-Huong Nguyen ’11, an undergraduate student in Africana, echoed Washington’s sentiment and also expressed solidarity with members of the Africana community who have condemned Farred’s remarks.

“I believe this instance of race and gender bias is very telling,” she said. “It goes to show that gender oppression continues to pose a very real and very significant problem that may sometimes be overlooked — and that is a dangerous thing to do.”

The incident will be the focus of discussion this Wednesday at the ASRC, where graduate students will host an “Urgent Africana Meeting” to “make recomendations to the University for the immediate improvement of the situation and environment created as a result.” The University is currently investigating the incident.

Original Author: Lawrence Lan