From equal service at hospitals and banks to a sometimes quixotic quest for fair treatment by the justice system, African Americans still struggle to be treated with the same courtesy and given the same benefit of the doubt as whites and other more “acceptable” minorities.
Nowhere is this more evident than in a college or university setting, where slights to Black intelligence, ability and financial status are all too common, even on supposedly ‘liberal’ campuses. But, there comes a time when African Americans must decide if they will accept this ideal or fight it. Murray State University student Arlene Johnson chose the latter.
Last August, Johnson arrived to her Political Science class a couple of minutes early, only to find that everyone else was already in class watching a movie. At the end of class, Johnson and another African American student asked why the movie screening began before the official start of class. Her professor, Mark Wattier, explained that when he’s showing a film he starts it 10 to 15 minutes before class. That’s when things got ugly.
According to an interview with the campus paper Murray Star Ledger they had the following exchange:
“Well, we didn’t know that. It wasn’t on the syllabus, so we were unaware.”
“Well, it’s OK, I expect it of you guys anyway.”
“What did that mean?”
“The slaves never showed up on time, so their owners often lashed them for it.. I just don’t have the right.”
One student left in a huff. Johnson filed a complaint with the Office of Equal Opportunity that same day which resulted in Wattier’s suspension without pay following a January 4th hearing. Wattier subsequently claimed that he was suffering from depression, hoping it would explain his statements as he appealed the school’s decision while still seeking retirement.
In cases like this, you have to consider the complicated and occasionally murky waters that you must delve into when attempting to properly understand student / faculty dynamics. For undergrads college life is love, sex, education, and self development. For faculty college is a job. Age and level of intellectual maturation can sometimes play into that divide, making it very easy for students to misinterpret faculty jokes, or even off-the-cuff brusqueness as racism or hostility when it could be anything but.
However, it didn’t take long to realize that this is not the case with Wattier. A perusal of his “Rate My Professors” page attests. Ten pages of reviews depicts Wattier as your classic ‘throwback’ professor who belittles students in class, plays clear favorites and arbitrarily changes class rules. Believe it or not, there was a time when that type of behavior was acceptable because college was for elites as opposed to it being the financial necessity for anyone trying to get ahead that it is today.
Had it not been for Johnson taking a firm stand against Wattier’s racist remarks, he may still be teaching, insulting and promoting the routine racism that is all too common on college campuses and institutions across the country. Her swift action caused even swifter results as when tenured professors are suspended without pay it usually requires something particularly egregious like having sex with a student, embezzling money or breaking some type of major law. Wattier was ridded so fast that some students admit to not even knowing of the controversy until the actual suspension took place.
Trust, being compared to a wayward slave is not the last racist statement she will hear as a student in college and it probably won’t be the worst. However, the difference is that while one student left in anger, probably called their parents and brooded in their room, Johnson took the initiative.
There was a distinct realization that as a tuition paying student she deserved just as much respect from faculty as anyone else and wasn’t willing to tolerate snide comments from anyone, tenured or not. While some may perceive it as small, it is a lesson we could all benefit from. The modern day battle against institutional racism is fought by the individuals willing to stand up to those ugly enough to represent it.
This article originally appeared at TheLoop21.com under the title “No Class: Racist Professor Mark Wattier gets schooled by his own student.”