Racism in the classroom: When even our names are not our own

As a minority student, I've learned racism doesn't end in higher ed. And sometimes even our names are judged

Published December 11, 2013 8:52PM (EST)

Matthew Salesses   (Stephanie Mitchell)
Matthew Salesses (Stephanie Mitchell)

Sometimes it seems like politics is an endless battle for the ownership of stories. Who owns the story of health care in this country? Who owns the story of closing abortion clinics? Who owns the story of self-defense? Who owns the story of marriage?

I moved to Texas at the end of July, trying to take ownership of my life. One of the things I have struggled with is the idea that academia now has control over me, that my degree requirements, my professors, my program will dictate my future. But what has really bothered me are some of the ways ownership has been talked about in class. I have realized that I was under the false impression that when one reached a certain level of education, the racism and sexism would end.

Recently, one of my classes got to talking about race and discourse (what language has to do with power), and one student raised a hand and said he had an example that would help. Then he described how, when he was a boy, he couldn't figure out what a certain newscaster’s name was. The student complained that because the newscaster pronounced his name with a “Mexican” accent, he couldn’t understand it. He gave this as an example of “code-switching,” as an example of how this “code-switch” took away the newscaster's power. (I will get to code-switching, a term that I think was confused in this class.) The student claimed that the newscaster's pronunciation of his name stopped him from reaching his audience. Then the student said what has been bothering me relentlessly since then, that this—the newscaster's name as he himself owned it—”wasn’t his real name.”

I didn’t know how to respond. I knew how I would have questioned this conversation as a teacher, how I would have shut it down before ownership of someone's name was denied and then talked about the importance and implications of such a conversation, but I was not the instructor. I did not hold power in that classroom. What I did, which I hope was the right thing to do, was to say that “on the record”—I made a point of this—what this student had said made me extremely uncomfortable. I hoped that the instructor would take it from there, but he did not.

I have been repeating this story to everyone I know, or everyone I know who doesn’t share this other student’s opinion—which, in truth, is everyone I know well enough to tell. And I have tried to own the story, too. I have tried to make it slightly different than it was, a story where we would all be outraged, where we would all have time to process and examine what happened. But in the classroom, this comment went otherwise unchallenged, and I left the class feeling completely undone, and blaming, no doubt unfairly, the entire state of Texas.

It gives me the shivers, the idea that we do not own our names, that they belong to the (white) majority. And the way this student gave the example, like this would clear things up, like this was something everyone could agree on.


I am in Texas. Right now, Wendy Davis is running for governor. Wendy Davis whom I watched on YouTube (because no major news network covered it live) filibuster an anti-abortion law in the State Senate. Whose pink sneakers became a cultural icon. Who soon announced her candidacy for governor and her intent to write a memoir. She is taking control of her story, building on her new fame. (Not a complaint. I hear that desire and wish I were in the position to do the same.) What I want to talk about is a recent campaign stop where Davis claimed she was “pro-life,” which she described as follows:

I care about the life of every child: every child that goes to bed hungry, every child that goes to bed without a proper education, every child that goes to bed without being able to be a part of the Texas dream, every woman and man who worry about their children’s future and their ability to provide for that future. I care about life and I have a record of fighting for people above all else.

Texas Republicans, by most accounts, are not happy about this use of the term “pro-life.” They do not like how Davis claimed the term, though many Republicans refer to pro-choice as “pro-abortion.” This is the kind of ownership that wins or loses an election, and Davis has to play this game because she is playing the game of running for governor. The Republicans would argue that it is not her term to use, or that it is not right for her to use the term in a way that does not mean “anti-abortion.” Davis is clearly not anti-abortion. Yet she is using the term as a way to talk about what she is for, that she is for life; she is using the term as a way to define herself and to take ownership of her beliefs, rather than be labeled by someone else’s beliefs.

This is an issue of particular concern to me. I have, over the last couple of years, learned that many of the terms I have used to describe my experience have been called into question by people with similar experiences. For example, I have learned that many adoptees do not like to call the parents who give birth to us, “birth parents.” I have learned that some families call the day their adopted son/daughter arrived, “Gotcha Day.” I have been in shock over this term, too, for a long time: the idea that a word used to describe journalism that catches someone out is used to describe the day adoptees arrive, and in celebration! I have been in shock over the ownership element, and whose day it is “supposed” to be. It has become clear that to the general public, adoption is “owned” by adoptive parents.

Whose story is it, the story of the child who moves from one family to another, who leaves one life and has to start a new one?

And this brings me back to the issue of names. It is not uncommon that adult adoptees change their names to their original/birth names, or incorporate those names in some way. This can be seen as a rejection by adoptive parents. I have a friend whose parents refuse to call her by her legal name, i.e. not the name they gave her. Do they own her name? For some adoptees, that may seem too close to the question, do they own her? It must be remembered, of course, that adoption is a financial transaction as well as a familial one.

For some of us, ownership of a name, of a person, is something that can bring up some serious personal and historical trauma.


I am currently the Fiction Editor at a magazine called The Good Men Project. I also teach for a program called Writers in the Schools, which matches writers to school systems. They look at our resumes or our faces or hear us talk or read our work and then they determine a “placement.” I have been matched to an all-boys Catholic school, fifth grade. Though I requested kindergarten to elementary, or in lieu of that, high school. Though I have a daughter and am far better suited to raising a daughter than I would be to raising a son. They saw what they wanted to see.

It reminds me of when I would listen to complaints from white Americans, when I was in Korea, about Koreans. Then I would hear complaints from Koreans, about Americans. But when I tried to defend Korea, the Americans would shut down, placing me as not American and thereby devaluing my opinions. And when I tried to defend America, the Koreans would shut down. Being on one side and then another only made me feel more clearly that I will always be in between. Maybe a common experience for adoptees who return to their birth lands.

At The Good Men Project, though I publish stories that do not prescribe what it is to be a (good) man, so many of the submissions I get (from men) do prescribe this. That, on its own, shows the power of a name. But what makes it worse is that many of these submissions put forward, either subtly or unsubtly, a perspective of male superiority, and implicitly, white man’s superiority. I get a lot of fiction where men own their stories but women do not. Some writers see the name of the magazine and see a safe place for the existing power structure. To some, "The Good Men Project" is a forum where men’s agency is on the table and therefore women’s agency is off the table.

The magazine has run into its own fair share of privilege problems, in fact, including publishing a string of essays on the subject of rape. Part of the problem in publishing these essays, even as a way into a conversation, is the privilege the male voice already has in defining and framing an act that is most often forced on women. The magazine didn't offer a perspective sensitive to that position, or anticipate clearly what it would mean for a venue called The Good Men Project to run an essay by an unapologetic rapist. It is bad enough that there are plenty of other places where men can say terrible things about women. Why here? And what privilege it takes to think that this could start a conversation, not set it back. In founder and ex-contributor Tom Matlack's most controversial essays, what he didn't get, somehow, was that he had a platform of male goodness and was using it to judge women.

This environment is not lost on one's readers. I was recently on an email string where a reader accused The Good Men Project of “shaming” men, claiming good man status by saying he formed relationships on equality, and arguing that to suggest men should bear the brunt of equality was shaming. I wrote back that men bear more responsibility for establishing equality because of the power males have in our society, and that approaching relationships as if a gendered power structure doesn’t exist is to perpetuate that power structure. That argument, unfortunately, didn't get far. (I should mention that the other editors did not share this reader's, or Matlack's, views.)


This is something I see all the time now, in this “post-racist,” “post-sexist” society: those with privilege trying to get out of responsibility for that privilege by claiming that we’re all equal now, or at least, "I'm a liberal/not racist/not sexist, so." Or those with privilege displaying what is commonly referred to, as I understand it, as white guilt, saying “I’ll just never understand because I’m not like you” (read: why try?), or, “I don’t really have a better life” (don't blame me!), or “Your culture is wonderful, I eat your food” (don't blame me, I love kimchi!).

God how I wish people would own their privilege. I am a man, and an American. Those things carry a certain power. I write this with a certain power. If I ignore the power I have, if I pretend not to have it, if I downplay it, or if I say someone with less power is “special” or “valued” (read: exotic), I am perpetuating the power structure by trying to hide it from those who lose in it. If we ignore the power structures that are there, if we try to make them invisible, they don’t go away. We just validate them by putting the onus for them on the disempowered.


In the class I was in, where the other student said the newscaster’s name did not belong to him, I also got into an argument about code-switching. A second student was saying that code-switching was a way to make everyone feel empathy for each other, which was something I couldn’t get my head around.

Empathy is kind of a personal buzz word for me. I am all about empathy. And yet it was a failure of empathy that stopped me from understanding the empathy this student was referring to. I was looking at code-switching from the perspective of someone with less power switching to the code of the powerful. But he was looking at code-switching from the perspective of someone with power trying out the codes of the less powerful. That is, he thought of code-switching from a position of privilege. If a white American went to Japan and tried to “act” Japanese, he said, the American might learn something about a different culture. This is true. But what I think is most interesting here is the way this student was able to think about code-switching as an appreciation—because he was talking as someone who already owned the majority code, he didn't have to think about “coding up.” He was talking about “coding-down.” (Power structure-wise, not cultural value-wise.)

When I figured out where he was coming from, that angle of privilege, I saw the point he was making. But he still wasn’t seeing from my point of view, that code-switching can be a way of making people feel like their own culture is less important, because they have to switch to a different culture to be understood, the way the first student was talking about the newscaster. We have to talk about code-switching our names now! Or maybe this second student did understand and I'm not giving him enough credit, again. But what I wanted from him was to own the fact that code-switching is far more often something done by the minority to fit into the majority society. What I wanted from him was to own the fact that it was a privilege for him to think about code-switching as a choice.

I wanted ownership of that story, the story of race and discourse, as a minority student. I felt like that story was mine.


This piece is the latest in a series by feminists of color, curated by Roxane Gay. To submit to the series, email rgay@salon.com.

By Matthew Salesses

Matthew Salesses is the author of I'm Not Saying, I'm Just Saying and The Last Repatriate. Find him: @salesses.

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Code-switching Education Privilege Race