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Use of racial slurs in class prompts discussion: Intercultural Affairs hope diversity plan will ensure inclusivity

By Candace Mettle

Professor and Trustee of the College Kathryn Mohrman’s ’67 use of racial slurs sparked a discussion on classroom expectations and hiring practices. In her Women in Leadership short course, sponsored by the Wilson Center for Innovation and Leadership, Mohrman used racial slurs to illustrate inappropriate language in the workplace. Ceci Bergman ’19 was one of the students in the short course who believed Mohrman’s use of the words created an unsafe academic environment. After email exchanges and in-person discussions prompted by Bergman, Mohrman claimed to have acknowledged her ignorance and her privilege and apologized to the whole class the next time they met.

“It was not appropriate. I clearly hurt one and maybe more members of the class,” said Mohrman. “Grinnell is a learning environment, not just for students, but also for instructors, so something that was intended not to be hurtful was in fact hurtful.”

Bergman believed dynamics between professors and students make it difficult to raise concerns regarding a professor’s conduct. Her status as a fourth-year, she believes, emboldened her to even approach Mohrman about how she felt about her classroom conduct. However, Bergman worries that other students may feel powerless to approach professors when they experience racial bias by a professor.

“I would hope that Intercultural Affairs and the College would focus on what are systems we have in place so that this doesn’t continue to happen, because this isn’t the first time that I have been in a class and felt like I have experienced racism in an educational setting and how am I supposed to learn if I don’t even feel safe?” Bergman said.

Though taking on the burden of stating her discomfort and hurt, Bergman did not anticipate the toll it would take.

“I think overall I’m as satisfied as I can be,” Bergman said. “I think it’s been a good learning point for me with interacting with power in a really obvious way. There’s a lot of emotional labor I felt like I dealt with … I chose that, but I guess I’ve been reflecting a lot on respectability politics and the realities of power dynamics between students and professors and I hope we can find better ways of holding professors accountable without making students feel unsafe.” For now, Bergman feels like she has exhausted all resources available.

Other students from the short course contacted Director of Intercultural Affairs Maure Smith-Benanti. As a mandatory reporter, Smith-Benanti must report anything that violates federal law. However, anyone can speak to Smith-Benanti for guidance on bias and cultural insensitivity without making a formal complaint. 

“The best answer is that it really depends on what the student needs and what their goals are,” said Smith-Benanti. “Sometimes a student will come and talk about their situation because they’re not sure if it was bias and a lot of times people just want someone to check in with if this is an actual microaggression because I think a lot of times people don’t want to believe they are experiencing bias but it’s the case that all of us are biased so sometimes … students come to us for support or guidance and we do our best to honor that.”

“Primarily my work is educational in nature. It focuses on not a punitive response but an educational response,” Smith Benanti said. “The goal of the bias reporting from my perspective is supporting the reporter first and foremost and depending on what they need, helping or providing an opportunity for somebody who is engaged in bias behavior the chance to learn from something and do better.”

Smith-Benanti and Interim Chief Diversity Officer Leslie Gregg Jolly also find that the benefit of hearing from the College community on issues regarding bias can improve training and classroom environments. They cite the recent Diversity and Inclusion Plan as a product of College community input that they claim has already made an impact with the hiring of a diversity inclusion manager, Marc Reed, and requiring criteria on diversity and inclusion to staff member hirings. Reed was not available in time to comment on changes to staff hiring practices and training.

According to Professor Monty Roper, anthropology and chair of the Wilson Center, short course professors do not require training, only expertise in their given topic. Roper said that many of the instructors who teach Wilson Center short courses come through Doug Caulkin’s Teaching from Alumni course or through individuals or departments who propose a course they would want to teach. Roper says the vetting process of short course instructors is the same as for a speaker. He believes it is too early to tell if there needs to be a revisiting of Wilson Center sponsored short courses’ criteria based on Mohrman’s incident, but he claims to be open to suggestions.

“It will be very difficult … to have training like faculty who come in a week early and it’s just there’s not time for that who people who are active in careers in other places and inking out a piece of time who come here to offer something … I know the process is still being discussed in other places.”

As discussions on diversity and inclusion in the classroom continue, Mohrman hopes that she will not make the same mistakes again.

“I would think more about what I say or what I assign to read, what impact that would have on others because context is everything and just because you have good intentions doesn’t always mean that the it will be assumed for others,” Mohrman said. “I think that’s true with teaching, with dealing with people every day … what matters to the receiver is significant and if you have hurt them, that’s not right.”

The diversity and inclusion plan is available at

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  • J

    John WhittakerOct 13, 2018 at 7:00 pm

    Dear Editors,
    Appalling! If the October 5 article on “Use of Racial Slurs in Class…” is to be believed, a visiting professor is admonished for quoting racial slurs in class to illustrate workplace bias. It is good that students feel empowered to discuss the content and methods of teaching with professors, but it is horrifying that they feel threatened by the use of words in an educational context in a class. These words exist, and if we cannot discuss them frankly, we cannot confront them. If a student feels that this “creates an unsafe learning environment,” I wonder how they will find the courage to survive a large man in a red hat who screams epithets at them and does not back down and apologize. I am starting to fear that some students and some parts of our institution do not understand the principle of constitutionally protected free speech: that which gives a student the right to confront a professor also gives the professor the right to use offensive words. Without the right of free, and even sometimes offensive speech, we can have no academic or civic discussion. This sort of silly attack on people who are on your side weakens us in the face of the real racism and bigotry that we need to confront these days.
    John Whittaker, Professor, Anthropology Dept.

  • J

    JHT MainstreamOct 5, 2018 at 6:45 am

    First, anyone absolutely and always has the right and expectation not to be confronted with racism in word, action, or system.

    Second, a distinguished scholar and former president of Mohrman’s ilk is highly unlikely to harbor racist or hateful intent — though certainly such a person can surely display racist language or perspective.

    Third, within reason, reality is in the perception and the eye of the beholder.

    Yet, fourth, Grinnell College is creating a bunch of whiny, entitled students who expect the world to come to their defense for the slightest of perceived infractions. “Privilege” abounds for each and every student at Grinnell. From the massive amounts of aid and other money flowing all over the place to the raw educational opportunities, to the overt institutional commitment to social justice and agency — this is an incredibly privileged place.

    And so, fifth, consider your own privilege and how town folk feel the next time you are loudly drunk and walking down High or Seventh; the next time you aimlessly walk in the street instead of the sidewalk, whenever you make jokes about townies or the ruralness of the town, and mostly (and be honest here) when you talk about the town and the people and subconsciously assert your own standing, intellect, or world-view as superior. That’s privilege and elitism — both the flip-side any racist or other “-ist” paradigm.

    And it abounds here so much and with such frequency that you all are blind to it.