CCSRE to form working group as students criticize its response to outcry over instructor’s use of racial slur

May 18, 2020, 2:54 a.m.

The Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity (CCSRE) announced plans to increase instructor representation, revise teaching methods and establish a working group as part of an ongoing response to outcry over an assistant professor’s use of the N-word during instruction. Initial responses have left students dissatisfied, including a letter from the center’s directors that struck many students as tone deaf and combative regarding the N-word’s use in academia.

The center plans to take “immediate” action to form a “Critical Race Studies Action Committee composed of students, faculty, and staff to assess and improve upon current course offerings,” wrote CCSRE Faculty Director Jennifer DeVere Brody in an email to students in the comparative studies in race and ethnicity (CSRE) program and in CSRE 196C: “Introduction to CSRE” on Tuesday.

The announcement of CSRE reform comes amid concerns regarding faculty diversity and cultural humility training after assistant art history professor Rose Salseda wrote the N-word in a course discussion post on May 4, one week after reading the word aloud in a different class, Introduction to CSRE, on April 28. 

Working group

The University and CCSRE have put a schedule in place to begin a search for faculty and instructors. The program is also looking to train faculty on teaching comparative race studies through a “pedagogy series.”

Additionally, CCSRE will establish a cross-sector group of students, faculty, staff and community members beginning this summer “to assess and improve upon current course offerings.”

“Your experiences, expertise and commitment to racial justice are critical to ongoing conversation, identifying scholars, artists, resources and more,” Brody wrote in an email to students in the CSRE program. “We anticipate rotating participation [in the cross-sector group] and events throughout the next academic year to ensure a broad range of values and reach.”

The Daily has reached out to Brody for comment on when the administrative changes will take place and whether students can expect any changes this fall.

Town hall 

In the same email, Brody invited students to a town hall discussion that took place last Thursday. An initial townhall had been scheduled for Tuesday but was postponed the day of due to “a combination of security concerns as well as wanting to broaden the scope and nature of the conversation,” Brody told The Daily. 

While the University did not say whether Salseda would take part in the town hall, some students said they were under the impression that she would be present.

In her email to students, Brody wrote that “our hope in this discussion with students is to re-center scholarship and racial justice as the shared focus of the staff, faculty and students engaged with CCSRE.” She added that “the measurable product of that session will be a collectively selected action that will be executed in the next 30 days.” 

More than 50 students joined the town hall on Thursday, where Brody responded to the demands expressed in an Associated Students of Stanford University (ASSU) resolution that condemned classroom racism and called for reforms to ethnic studies. At first, students were only allowed to submit questions for the town hall by text. After students questioned this practice, they were allowed to use the raise hand feature on Zoom to be called on. 

Students thought that the limited publicization of the town hall and its format as a Zoom webinar — which differs from a Zoom call in that participants’ video and audio are disabled unless called upon — prevented the open exchange they had anticipated. 

“I felt like the format made it structurally more difficult for students to express themselves and hear from each other, and it made the town hall much more like a back-and-forth, as opposed to an open conversation like it was originally advertised” wrote Layo Laniyan ’22, a member of The Daily’s editorial board.

Others expressed frustration that administrators did not directly answer student questions.

“I thought that the format of the meeting was frustrating,” wrote Dija Manly ’23, who is considering a minor in African and African American studies (AAAS). “However, not as frustrating as the people [from the administration] who chose to take part in the meeting.”

“Though students articulated themselves well when they were called on … their questions and concerns were never really addressed,” Manly wrote.

While the event garnered criticism, some students said they appreciated the tenacity of the event moderators who helped relay questions to Brody. 

“I really did appreciate how Professor A-lan Holt [director at the Institute for Diversity in the Arts] moderated the questions and followed up for clarity on behalf of students,” Laniyan wrote. 

Controversial CCSRE statements

The CCSRE town hall came two days after the department released two separate letters addressing the use of the N-word by assistant professor Rose Salseda during instruction. One statement released by Brody condemned the use of racial epithets and urged students to show compassion to those trying to redress the harm. 

“I believe that the utterance of the term by our colleague [Salseda] (who is an affiliate in both AAAS and CSRE) was an objectively hurtful mistake, and I was dismayed by the tenor of some of the responses to the incident,” Brody wrote. “Our students are paramount to our work and we must do our best to treat one another as fallible.” 

In her letter, Brody responded to dissatisfaction over Salseda’s apology and also wrote that certain student responses were inappropriate.

“What has transpired was a shame: the use of odious language in the class and in some of the responses to the incident was hurtful” Brody wrote.

The second statement, signed by the six faculty directors overseeing ethnic studies programs, called attention to the context in which the N-word was used and expressed concern over potential impacts of student dissent. 

“To dismiss … context entirely is to ignore a crucial point,” the statement reads. “Even if her [Salseda’s] words had a hurtful impact, she did not intend to harm anyone, as many have asserted.”

“Why is it okay for black people to use [the N-word]?” the letter adds, “because, so the argument goes, they do so in a specific context: one that is grounded in a shared history, experience, and structure of feeling. Context, then, actually matters a great deal.” 

While the letter from the faculty directors did not say that Salseda’s background justified her use of the N-word, it did condemn some discussions of her Latinx identity with regard to her use of the word: “Indeed, much of the important work undertaken by CCSRE is about debunking pernicious racial constructions while supporting, institutionally and intellectually, a plural conception of Latinidad.”  

Students interviewed by The Daily said the faculty directors’ statement fell short. They felt the statement from the faculty directors was disjointed in its message and condescending in tone.

“To say that students who point out Salseda’s racial positionality when using an anti-Black epithet are perpetuating ‘pernicious racial constructions’ against a white woman” wrote Alexess Sosa ’21, who identifies as white and Latina, “is manipulative and ignores the reality of race dynamics in the U.S. It is gaslighting … nobody is discounting plural conceptions of Latinidad or framing it as a monolith, we are recognizing that, in fact, Latinidad is plural and that Salseda’s position within it is one in which she has no place to use the ‘n-word’ under any circumstance.”

“The department should have stuck with Brody’s letter and the town hall idea as a way to make amends,” Sosa added. “The faculty director letter was defensive, argumentative, and unsupportive.” 

A first-year student and AAAS minor took issue with the faculty directors’ discussion of context more broadly. This student and others quoted in this article were granted anonymity due to concerns about being targeted online.

“How can you claim to take accountability for the hurt inflicted upon Black students, then in the same breath lecture us on what arguments can and can’t be made about the n-word?” the student wrote to The Daily. “I feel like they only ‘listened’ to us to respond, not so that they could hear us and fix the underlying issue.” 

Students also objected to parts of the faculty directors’ letter that seemed to suggest that students’ criticisms of Salseda discounted the contributions of Chicana/o(x) and Latina/o(x) individuals and would threaten the program’s ability to hire Afro-Latinx and other diverse faculty. 

“We also worry that without these considerations, students’ actions can and will be counterproductive to the mission of CCSRE and the achievement of a truly diverse student body and faculty,” the faculty directors’ statement reads. “If scholars perceive Stanford as unsupportive of its faculty, we will not succeed in recruiting Afro-Latina/o(x) scholars. And if we do not nurture and protect our current faculty, we run the risk of losing them.”

In response, a sophomore and political science major wrote to The Daily that, “Despite having solidarity from the Latinx and Asian community, Black students were made out to be aggressors against other minority students.” 

“They’re just throwing Afro-Latinx folks in there,” said a junior studying biology and AAAS, “first of all she’s [Salseda] not Afro-Latinx. … What are they trying to say? Because we’re speaking out that all of a sudden they’re going to stop being able to hire black and Afro-Latinx faculty members?” 

Sosa characterized the letter as manipulative, writing that student complaints won’t determine who gets hired: “They [the faculty directors] really drive home their manipulative points by implying that students’ complaints undermine the hiring of more diverse staff (as if these complaints are the ones that sit in the offices doing the interviews with or reviewing the CVs of potential POC faculty).” 

Students said that the release of two separate statements, one from Brody and the other from the faculty directors, signaled a lack of consensus within the department.

“If you have your director needing to write another statement that takes a completely different tone … that shows there’s a lot of fundamental issues with the program,” said the junior studying biology and minoring in AAAS. 

Professor David Palumbo-Liu, who teaches comparative literature courses cross-listed in CSRE, noted that the letter from the faculty directors did not reflect all faculty views. 

“Everyone I know at CCSRE is deeply concerned about this matter — no one is taking it lightly,” Palumbo-Liu wrote to The Daily. “I was not involved in composing the letter — my understanding is that many people gave input of different sorts, and that would explain the fact that it is not as cohesive as one would wish. Various faculty felt that they could not endorse it for any number of reasons. I do not believe that the Directors all were in agreement, and I have no idea why the letter was presented as coming from them.” 

CSRE wrote to The Daily confirming that it will conduct another town hall in the “near future.” Some students have said they would like an opportunity to interface with Salseda in future discussions.  

Thus far, the responses from CCSRE have left some students saying they are confused and skeptical of the promise of reform. Despite CCSRE’s proposals, it remains uncertain what action will be taken on some of the broader demands that were raised in light of the initial incidents — demands including the departmentalization of AAAS, cultural humility training and the formal recognition of racial violence on campus. 

Contact Melissa Loupeda at mloupeda ‘at’

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