By MAX BROWN
Large displays appeared in many buildings throughout Drake’s campus calling for students and staff to pledge to not use the “n-word” on March 1. Included in the displays were links to a public google document where people could sign the pledge, large posters for people to physically sign and anonymous testimonials from black individuals describing their experiences with the n-word at Drake, in other schools and in life. Also on March 1, the Facebook page “Sign the Pledge” was created, offering commentary on the progression of the movement.
Student Body President Jose-Garcia Fuerte included a message supporting the movement in his March address to the student body.
“We need to hold the professionals in our spaces accountable for their use of harmful and hateful words notwithstanding the defense of ‘academic freedom.’ Garcia-Fuerte said. “The only way to stop this is to identify the individuals who are using it so that the appropriate steps may be taken to address and stop it.”
Also included in the address were several options for students to report the use of racial epithets in the classroom.
Megan Brown, chair of the English department, said she believes that this pledge reflects the cancellation of a similar pledge hosted by the English department earlier in the year.
“Early February I had written a message to Drake faculty asking them to sign a voluntary pledge not to use the n-word in classes,” Brown said. “I did that because after the rally in November, I spent a lot of time with individual students and groups of students who told me their stories, and they were deeply moving.”
Brown said that many of the students she spoke to said that hearing the n-word in class negatively affected their experience at Drake.
“For them…it shut down their ability or willingness to engage in classroom discussion, academic discourse, all of that,” Brown said.
Brown’s pledge was available for two days before she decided to take it down, citing concerns from staff regarding issues of academic freedom, freedom of speech, pedagogical concerns, as well as concerns that Brown was appearing as a “white savior.” In the time that it was available, over 200 faculty had signed the pledge.
In response to the cancellation of the first pledge, Sign the Pledge formed and displayed the posters throughout campus. The group’s Facebook claimed that Drake “enables institutional racism.”
The page states, “Drake University professors have shut down a public pledge not to say the n-word because they felt those who did not sign it would feel shame. Why should black students have to suffer for the comfort of white professors? Especially professors who do not want to offer these students basic respect?”
In Howard Hall, home of the English department, the office doors of several professors were covered with messages without the professors’ knowledge or consent, in addition to the posters and stories. Brown took down the messages on faculty doors but said she wanted to leave the stories up in some manner.
“I took down the messages on faculty doors because I did not want anyone targeted by anonymous postings like that, that did not seem right to me,” Brown said. “I took some of (the stories) and put them on a couple bulletin boards around the building. I have the other ones and I plan to switch them out and move them around so everyone’s voice is heard.”
On March 4 the Sign the Pledge Facebook page accused the English department of “whitewashing” their project by altering the displays.
The post stated, “Instead of just taking down the original posting they chopped off the #SignthePledge call and picked 8 stories to keep up out of the 23. Interesting what this school decides is worthy of censorship and what is not. We will not be silenced in the name of your comfort.”
Brown met privately with a leader from the movement in response to this dissent. Brown stated that sharing details from the meeting with The Times-Delphic would compromise that individual’s anonymity.
Brown said that there is disagreement within the English department on how to handle use of the n-word in the classroom.
“I have a particular opinion. I always tell my students at the beginning of the semester…if there is a reading with the n-word in it, I will let them know in advance, which I always do, and I don’t say that word out loud. I won’t say that word out loud, and you’re not gonna hear me say that word out loud. But not everyone feels that way about it, and people have multiple reasons for that disagreement,”Brown said.
Brown stated that this disagreement may be helped by holding an open forum or discussion between faculty and students on the use of the word.
“I think it’s important for students to learn more about that disagreement among faculty members in a forum that is more like a dialogue than a debate,” Brown said. “It’s not an argument, it’s not people screaming each other down, I just want people to learn from eachother.”
The English department’s current policy mirrors current legal policy, which holds that faculty members can use any “age appropriate language” that is relevant to the course material or lessons.
Beth Younger, one of the English department faculty members whose door was anonymously tagged, does not support the pledge, describing it as “empty and coercive.” She would like to see a “natural discussion about racially charged and offensive language,” and stated that she believes the pledge is oversimplifying the issue. She said she encourages students to talk to her one on one if they have concerns about the English department’s stance on racial epithets. She stated that she does not know why her office was targeted.
Religion professor Jennifer Harvey sees the pledge as part of a larger push for equality that stretches back further than any of the incidents from last fall or the #paintitblack movement.
“I think they are related, but we’ve been working, students have been insisting for so very long, to try to get some traction on getting the n-word out of Drake classrooms,” Harvey said. “So this goes way back before #paintitblack. Black students have been talking about the harm being done to them related to this word for years at Drake. They have had a hard time getting faculty to collectively respond in a meaningful way.”
Harvey sees the pledge as a positive development on campus.
“I think students and faculty should see this as a commitment to inclusive excellence in teaching and learning,” Harvey said. “There have been some who have framed this as an ‘academic freedom’ issue. This is about academic freedom. This is making a commitment to excellence in teaching at Drake. We have countless studies that show that the verbalization of the “n-word”—especially on a predominantly white campus on which the racial demographics of the faculty remains so overwhelmingly white—creates a hostile learning environment. I am committed to academic freedom. But, I am committed to academic freedom in the context of my commitments to be engaged excellent teaching and teach all of my students. The n-word’s presence on this campus has caused so much harm, and it has harmed the learning environment. So, I want people to publicly take this pledge.”
Representatives from the Sign the Pledge group have remained anonymous and could not be reached for comment.