Black On Campus
Higher Education and the African American Experience

Black Cornell Professor Uses the B-Word, Shocks and Offends Black Female Grad Students

April 15th, 2010 by Ajuan Mance

Cornell Professor Grant Farred ‘s reference to “Black bitches” has caused a campus-wide uproar.

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It’s only the month of April, and I have already found the first item for my end-of-the-year Hall of Shame.

The internet is abuzz over the highly inappropriate comments of Professor Grant Farred to two African American women graduate students who he had invited to participate in a conference on Black intellectuals. Inside Higher Education explains:

Being called “black bitches” wasn’t quite the response two Cornell University graduate students thought they’d get from a professor after arriving at a conference on black intellectuals that he’d invited them to attend.

The students — both African-American women in Cornell’s Africana Studies and Research Center who have asked that their identities not be made public — got to the event, at the University of Rochester, late. But they still didn’t expect that after their professor, Grant Farred, thanked them for making the unfamiliar two-hour drive, he’d briefly pause and then add, “When you came in, I thought, ‘Who are these black bitches?’ ”

Yet, that was the response they say they got from Farred, a professor of Africana studies and English. And, in the more than two months since the alleged incident on Friday, Feb. 5, the students and others contend, the Africana center and the university more broadly have failed to foster a public dialogue on the incident and to address deeper tensions involving the center and its role on campus.

“The university’s inaction speaks volumes,” one of the students said. “They have for a few months chosen not to publicly censure the remarks and are, in effect, publicly complicit with the remarks.”

Dozens of students and alumni have written to Salah M. Hassan, the center’s director, as well as David Skorton, the university’s president, and Kent Fuchs, the provost, to express concerns. “[T]he silence from you has been deafening,” a group of Africana graduate alumni wrote in a letter dated April 6 and published Monday in the Cornell Daily Sun. “Not only did you fail to act decisively immediately following this episode, but you have continued to remain inactive …. Instead, you have allowed the environment at the Africana Center to devolve into a toxic, dysfunctional and hostile climate for students, staff and faculty alike.”

Jennifer Epstein for Inside Higher Education

Cornell officials have defended their perceived inaction, saying that there is “a confidential investigation that is ongoing and it hasn’t concluded.”

The two unnamed women students report that they informed Prof. Farred of their displeasure at his comments, but that his response (“I’m sorry if I offended you, I’m sorry” ) seemed “insincere.”

Since that time Farred has been asked to step down as director of graduate studies for the Africana Studies and Research Center, and on February 15, 2010, he was replaced in this position by Judith Byfield.

At present, students and the larger Cornell community are debating the failure of Africana Studies to formally censure Farred’s comments, and the perception is growing that the Center actively worked to keep quiet the news of this incident, possibly to avoid embarrassment.

In a community meeting on campus yesterday, Farred’s wife, a professor of English, spoke in his defense. The Cornell Daily Sun printed her comments:

Farred chose not to attend Wednesday’s conference because of a confidentiality agreement, according to his wife.

However, Jane Juffers, his wife and associate professor of English at Cornell,noted during the forum that Farred actually submitted a letter of resignation from his post as Director of Graduate Studies and chose to miss this weekend’s events on his own accord.

“He has a long career of redressing intolerance in his scholarly work and teaching,” she said. “I would simply ask this group to understand that it’s unfair to use this one incident as the lens through which we look at him.”

– Dan Robbins for The Cornell Daily Sun

The more informal interactions that characterize today’s academic institutions can be a minefield for professors, and sometimes it can be difficult to discern where to draw the line between interacting with graduate students as casual peers and interacting with them as relatively disempowered apprentices. One approach suggests that the boundaries are more permeable, while the other holds traditional boundaries firmly in place. Minefield or not, though, Professor Farred’s use of the term “bitch” in what was effectively a workplace environment is highly inappropriate and even more painfully disruptive when paired with the modifier “Black” (as in “Black bitch).

As a fellow English professor (English is Farred’s home department) who is also an African American woman (and who was at one time a Black woman graduate student), I sympathize with the two Black female student who are simply working to make their way through what is, under the best of circumstances, the grueling path to the Ph.D. As a professor, though, I can also imagine the fear and concern on the part of Farred and his wife, that his long and distinguished career as an opponent of racism will be completely erased by the indiscretions of one moment. And yet it is in these single moments that one’s reputation is made or broken. It may feel unfair and, indeed, it may be unfair that all of one’s positive contributions as a scholar and teacher could be swept aside by one error in judgement; and yet academic institutions are, fundamentally, about the students. And our success in or failure at creating an environment in which all students can learn may well be the measure against which our effectiveness as faculty members is weighed.

Posted by Ajuan Mance

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3 Responses

  1. JC

    Thanks for sharing. I’m sure his wife IS NOT BLACK! Had he been married to a sister, there is NO WAY this would have come out of his mouth.

  2. ThePoshMiss.com

    This is a tough one. This statement is very inappropriate, but I am assuming that he has a very comfortable relationship with these two women. I honestly think he forgot where the heck he was and pulled a dummy move. Even if he thought it, he should have not let that come out of his mouth. I understand they were late and there are stereotypes with that, but he took it to another level.

  3. Sean

    At least he didn’t say ‘who is dem black bitches yo?’

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