Opinion

What Happens When a Tulane Student Queries Jews' 'Whiteness'

When I heard my professor ask 'What's a Jew?' I expected a nuanced discussion of identity and race, not least in today's political climate. I didn't expect to be shut down and worse.

Tulane University.
AlbertHerring, Wikimedia Commons

Confucius said, “He who asks a question is a fool for one minute; he who does not remains a fool forever.”

I’ve always been a firm believer in open dialogue, especially in the realm of academic discourse with my educators. I was born to be a Communications major; I punctuate every lecture with a raised hand, I attend office hours more diligently than I do my own laundry, and one of my favorite Tulane memories is eating King Cake and debating Freudian theories with my Cross-Cultural Analysis professor. After all, I selected Tulane with the expectation to engage with scholarly experts in their field. And up until my senior year, I did just that.

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But on December 6th, 2016 following another challenging and compelling Critical Race Theory class, I approached my professor in attempts to follow-up on a provocative statement he had made just 20 minutes prior.

“What’s a Jew?” he asked, somewhat rhetorically, to his silent 3000 level elective classroom. 

Giddy at the controversial theme—“Jew” is a word I seldom hear in classrooms beyond the Hillel building— I rolled up my sleeves; I smelled an intellectual conversation simmering. After the drawn out pause, he concluded that Jews in American society are tantamount to Whiteness, suggesting that Jews in today’s secular society reap the same privileges that the collective White majority does. Jewish people today, in his eyes, exist in a much larger social structure embedded in anti-Blackness in the U.S., and thus are actively benefitting from a colonialist and imperialist government. 

His opinion aligns with those of many anti-racist scholars, like Karen Brodkin in her book How the Jews Became White Folks and What That Says About Race in America (1998) or Eric L. Goldstein in his acclaimed novel, The Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race, and American Identity (2008), but the Jewish querying of racial status is far more nuanced, especially in today’s political climate. Between Emma Green’s, “Are Jews White?” and the blatant anti-Semitism on white supremacist David Duke’s twitter feed, today more than ever Jewish people grapple with their racial identity. This issue is complex, highly debatable, and—no pun intended—not black or white. It remains a grey area. 

Needless to reiterate, I looked forward to following up on this topic during his office hours after class. But much to my surprise, the excitement was not mutual. 

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“If you want to argue your opinion on this matter, I’d be happy to read a 12-page paper with Chicago style citations,” he snapped. “But until then, this conversation is over.” 

I stammered nervously. Class had just ended and he collected his belongings, preparing to head to his open office hours. 

“Professor,” I pleaded, “You introduced a topic that excites me, and I would love to discuss the many diverse commentaries on this incredibly pertinent topic” Without hesitation, he retorted, “Would you like to reconstruct my syllabus?! Again, this conversation is over.” 

Tears were openly streaming now, despite how hard I tried to stifle my frustration in the public Newcomb hallway. Looking back, I’m not sure why I stayed. Perhaps I was waiting for him to invite me to office hours to elaborate on the issue in depth? Perhaps I expected him to suggest an alternative time to chat? Not only did I feel unfairly silenced, but also disrespected as a student. I could not pinpoint what it was about my character that infuriated him so, but in this power dynamic, it simply did not matter. This was his course, not mine. I walked away before we arrived at his office door.

Later I received a letter from the Office of Student Conduct, informing me that I’d been accused of two violations: abusive, disruptive and disorderly behavior and interfering with the educational process. As a graduating senior with merit scholarship and Dean’s List grades, I had never received an infraction so intimidating. Previously employed by the Housing and Residential Life at Tulane and a current ambassador for Tulane Admissions, I don’t think I ever could have anticipated an accusation like this.

The subsequent weeks became quite bureaucratic and procedural as I spent my winter break arranging pre-hearing meetings and appointments. I received a D on a final paper worth 40 percent of my grade—a letter I have never seen in my entire life on any essay I’ve ever written— which felt petty and retaliatory. But most frustratingly, I felt powerless and worthless as a student. He made cameo appearances in my nightmares and I would begin to panic whenever I discussed his class too much. After all, he categorized my voice as violent, disruptive and dangerous; naturally, I became too afraid to use it. 

Ultimately, my role within the larger institutional system was simply to defend myself against the attack on my character, and after a long six weeks, the case was closed. As it turns out, according to the Student Handbook, a student is required to oblige to a Professor’s demands to conclude a discussion; he did not owe me any further explanation, clarification or polite invitation to continue at another time. And technically, he met the university’s expectations. He conducted a class lecture, shared his academic opinions, completed the class, graded assignments accordingly and then continued his research and work toward a hopeful tenure. That is his job after all. 

But reflecting on this experience allows me to call to question the role of our educators. Are students entitled to open dialogue and inquisitive conversations? Can educators balance responding to undergraduates with the pressure to prioritize personal research goals and academic book requirements? 

Perhaps I need to realign my expectations as a Tulane student. Perhaps I am incorrect to believe that I’m paying for intellectual growth, rather than blatant disrespect. Maybe we all are just an eclectic collection of pompous millennials, demanding that our voices and narratives be heard and validated from instructors who are not hired to necessarily give us the time of day. Maybe.

Either way, I am leaving the process with the following take-aways:

No teacher, be it a Ph.D qualified or tenured veteran, will ever interfere with my desire to learn, study, expand my views and test my knowledge.

In a system defined by protocol and structural guidelines, the conduct hearing was unavoidable and against my favor. I wish there could have been more available student support services, because I had very few advocates. 

As a woman at Tulane, being silenced by a grown male instructor in power is terrifying, and only reassures my ongoing struggle to earn respect as an individual—especially when my passion is wrongly interpreted as “emotional” or “angry.”

As a Jewish student at Tulane, it is always humbling to remember that generalizations about Jewish culture and their racial identity are still fair game for the classroom. I feel solidarity, if not comfort, to learn that this vernacular exists at other schools as well.

As our former (beloved) Tulane University President Scott Cowen emphasized, “I find nothing more enriching than engaging and inspiring our next generation of leaders and passing on to them what knowledge and skills I have acquired during a lifetime of learning.” 

I’ll hold you to it, Tulane.

Carly Goldberg, a South Floridan native, will be graduating from Tulane University in 2017 with a double major in Communications and Jewish Studies.