Dr. Stephenson is the Chair of the Physics Department at Gettysburg College. She was gracious enough to share the below story with The Forum, with the consent of the student involved, and we are grateful for the opportunity to publish it.
On the Tuesday before Thanksgiving I met with a frazzled first-year physics student who had been juggling her ambitious courseload with her cheerleading obligations. I assumed she was in my office, wringing her scarf and talking fast, because she was running on fumes like so many of her fellow students at this time of year. But Alana Allen was not fatigued. She was amped up, wired. She couldn’t shake three incidents that happened to her over the past few weeks and she needed to share.
I took notes, asked questions, preparing to inform appropriate parties in College Life, giving them in this case a first-year male (a self-proclaimed Southerner) and another white male student dressed as a Civil War reenactor to scold for inappropriate comments to students of color. I could have tracked down the students she would not name (in the first case) and could not name (in the second) and scold them myself, but the Thanksgiving break gave me perspective. A one-on-one meeting with a white 43 year-old female professor is easy for any 18 to 21 year-old to rationalize away. I am a meddling freakshow, one shrill voice in the wilderness.
The self-proclaimed Southern boy lives in Alana’s residence hall, a building with common spaces where she was studies with him and others. Tired one night, she slipped and said “axed” for “asked.” The first-year student told her she sounded like a “Southern Darkie.”
Now one would think that a white male student raised in the South would fully appreciate the outrageous nature of his comment, but as one who was also raised in the South (albeit two decades earlier), his comment informs me that he is a typical member of the self-segregated South where whites and blacks live next to each other, go to the same schools, but carry a deep suspicion of the Other, handed down from generation to generation. Perhaps this student has come so far from his Southern home because he is wants to know who he is and what man he might become. Perhaps his mouth has no filter because his own relationship with race itches at him like a rash. He has good reason to be captivated by his residence hallmate; she is charismatic, witty, generous, larger than life. Perhaps in his segregated South he has never allowed himself to meet a self-actualized black woman.
Perhaps he is tired of posing, putting on his UnderArmor and his Axe deodorant and parading around like he belongs here or anywhere. Maybe he will understand one day that this feeling, of being simultaneously invisible and hypervisible is what Alana Allen has known her entire life. Now she is a Francis Drake, navigating her world with precision, while the Southern Boy has only just realized he’s on the high seas. This unsettled feeling he has might make him jealous. And perhaps even mean.
The Civil War reenactor has a similar tale. Alana was sitting with a group of prospective high-school students in our large campus dining hall. All of the students were either African-American or Hispanic. The reenactor approaches them and proclaims, “We fought the war. Now you slaves are free.” It is safe to say that none of these high-school students are prospective students for Gettysburg College any longer. Perhaps the reenactor is new to the hobby and has rarely worn his costume in front of modern civilians. Did he feel too many eyes pan up and down his uniform and feel shame? Did he get angry over his self-consciousness, leading him to offer up the stupidest comment ever said to a table of diners?
Alana has had the opportunity to interface with her hallmate since he made the “Southern Darkie” comment. She even had the honest grace to tell him that his comment was hurtful. He defended himself, leaving Alana in a position where she either attempted to school him in race relations or just shut up. She chose the latter since she, like me, understands that the only people who can really school this young man are his white male peers, some who were standing right next to Alana when she had this second conversation. They said nothing to their Southern comrade, but instead texted Alana to say they supported her and how sorry they were over the entire thing.
As a physicist I know the limitations of the material world, but at times I wish I could take the energy spent on all of this, the energy of my writing, the energy of those text messages, the energy of Alana’s racing mind, and harness the energy; when the next racially-ignorant comment flies out of some boy’s mouth, this energy field surrounding Alana will glow silver-white and he will tremble and be mightly afraid. Of course, it would be even better and a tad more plausible if when the next racially-ignorant comment flies out of some boy’s mouth, another white boy steps up, speaks out, and talks back.