Despite some people’s fears that academia is a place where students are coddled and spoon fed radical ideas, the truth is that the Ivory Tower largely remains an institution dominated by whiteness, from the administration, to the professors to the types of knowledge and material deemed worthy of inclusion. There’s nothing safe nor radical about that, especially for students of color.
When I entered a PhD program in literature at the University of Texas at Austin, my goal was to be a voice of change, to infiltrate the system, so to speak, and shake things up as one of the small number of Latinx women with the ability and privilege of teaching classes at a university. I hoped to become a part of the tradition of activist academics like Gloria Anzaldúa and Audre Lorde, those who demanded that the lives and stories of people of color and queer people of color were heard and valued in spaces that so often silenced them.
This work has always required bravery—a willingness to be outspoken, to make people uncomfortable and to be a vulnerable body in front of a crowd. But with the frequency of school shootings and the palpable hatred of people of color in the Trump era, the danger of spitting truth in front of a classroom is a reality that dominates my day-to-day life as a postdoctoral lecturer at UT.
I was still a graduate student at UT Austin when, amid the growing concern over school shootings, Campus Carry, legislation that gives students with a concealed handgun license the legal right to carry their loaded weapons into classrooms, went into effect in Texas. One idea behind the law was, of course, that in the event of a school shooting, a trained gun holder could theoretically save the day—you know, the “good guy with a gun” argument that is so popular today.
The law also makes it easier for guns to land in the hands of those without a license to carry arms. Last month, UT sent out an email notifying students that there were two “unattended guns” found on campus. Turned out both of them belonged to people who were licensed gun holders, but they could have very easily been found, picked up and used by any student, faculty or community member.
Ironically, the law went into effect on August 1, 2016—the 50th anniversary of the third-deadliest school shooting in the U.S. when, in 1966, Charles Whitman ascended the UT tower in the middle of campus and went on a shooting rampage, firing at students down below and ultimately killing 14 people and wounding another 31.
That’s right: at the very school where one of the biggest claims to fame is a school shooting, guns are not only perfectly legal, they’re practically encouraged.
Although UT has a reputation for being a more liberal school, my years as a teacher here have been anything but smooth when it comes to dealing with racism. For the past seven years, I’ve taught rhetoric and literature classes to undergraduate students, and from the very beginning, I’ve taught from a decolonial feminist viewpoint to empower students, especially students of color, to learn about and envision a world outside of whiteness. This means that I talk about the hard stuff in my classroom, like anti-Blackness, the pervasiveness of toxic masculinity and the importance of acknowledging that systems of oppression exist just about everywhere, including the very university my students attend.
As you can imagine, it’s damn near impossible for someone like me, a Latinx woman who looks younger than I actually am and stands at a mere 5’1”, to garner the same level of respect as my white colleagues, but it’s doubly hard when I refuse to participate in the long legacy of letting racist and sexist narratives go unchecked in my classroom.
Shortly before Campus Carry became law, a white male student in my class gave a presentation in which he vehemently insisted that most Latinx people were drug dealers and gangsters. When others attempted to engage in a healthy debate, albeit with calm and measured frustration, the student took to anger, hurling insults and stereotypes with a ferocity that frightened me and, by the looks of it, his peers. Because of this, I asked the student to leave the classroom. When class ended ten minutes later, he waited to confront me, stepping into my personal space so as to assert his physical dominance and command of the situation.
Despite reporting what happened, I had to continue teaching the student for the rest of the semester, which meant that every class was an exercise in conquering fear and anxiety just so that I could do my job. In the back of my mind, I couldn’t help but think, “What if this kid brings a gun to class?” And this was all before firearms were allowed, by law, in classrooms.
Of course, there are some who say that maybe I should be the person with a gun, that the fears and anxieties of many might be relieved if teachers like me are trained and armed so that if someone did pull out a gun, we’d be there to save the day. Interestingly, many conservatives are worried that people like me are brainwashing students with liberal ideology, and yet they trust me with a gun—a logic I find inherently flawed.
Nevertheless, the only weapon I’m interested in using, the one for which I have undergone extensive training and developed certain expertise, is knowledge. And here’s what I know: with every school shooting that occurs, I grow a little more paranoid, and a little more hesitant, to speak the truth.