“I think of too many of my white graduate students at Harvard who somehow feel perfectly comfortable calling me by my first name, but feel reluctant to refer to my white male colleagues– even those junior to me– in the same way. And I think about how my black students almost always refer to me as ‘Professor Lawrence-Lightfoot’ even when I have known them a long time and urge them to be less formal. The title indicates their respect for me, but also their own feelings of self-respect, that part of them that gets mirrored in my eyes. And besides, if their mothers or grandmothers heard them call me by my first name, they would be embarrassed; they would think that they had not raised their children right. So I completely understand when one of them says to me (n response to my request that he call me Sara after we have worked together for years), ‘I’m sorry, that is not in my repertoire, Professor Lawrence-Lightfoot.’
These private daily encounters with white and black students are punctuated by public moments– too numerous to recall– when the humiliation of being called by my first name seems to demand an explicit response; when I feel I must react to the assault not only for my own self-protection, but also in order to teach a lesson on respectful behavior. I regard these public encounters as ‘teachable moments.’ I make a choice to respond to them; a choice that I know will both help to shield me and render me more vulnerable.
A few years ago I was asked to speak at a conference at the University of Chicago, a meeting for social scientists and their graduate students about race, class, gender, and school achievement. The other speaker was Professor James Coleman, a distinguished sociologist, a white man several years my senior who was well known and highly regarded for his large-scale statistical studies on educational achievement. Both of us came to the conference well prepared and eager to convey our work to fellow scholars. The language of the occasion was full of the current rhetoric of our disciplines; focused, serious, sometimes esoteric and opaque. I say all this to indicate that there was nothing playful or casual about either of our presentations. Neither of us said anything that suggested informality or frivolity.
When we had finished speaking, the moderator opened the floor for questions, and several hands shot up in the air. The first to speak was a middle-aged white man who identified himself as an advanced graduate student finishing his training at another prestigious university. He began, ‘I would like to address my question to both Professor Coleman and Sara…’ I could feel my heart racing, then my mind go blank. In fact, I could not even hear his question after he delivered the opening phrase. I saw there having a conversation with myself, feeling the same rage that my parents must have felt sixty years earlier in Jackson, Mississippi. How can this be? How can this guy call him ‘Professor’ and me ‘Sara’? And he has no clue about what he has done, how he has injured me. I’m not even sure that the others in the audience have heard what he just said; whether they’ve recognized the asymmetry, the assault. Somehow, I must have indicated to Jim Coleman (we were friends and colleagues) that I wanted to respond first. He must have seen the panic in my eyes and my shivering body. I heard my voice say very slowly, very clearly, ‘Because of the strange way you addressed both of us, “Professor Coleman and Sara,” I am not able to respond to your question. As a matter of fact,’ I say, leaning into the microphone, holding onto it for dear life, ‘I couldn’t even hear your question.’ The room was absolutely still. I was not sure that there were any people out there who had any idea how I was feeling, any idea that I was on fire. But my voice must have conveyed my pain, even if the cause was obscure to them. ‘Would you please repeat your question?’ I asked the man, who had by now slid halfway down his seat, and whose face revealed a mixture of pain and defiance. ‘And this time, would you ask it in a way that I will be able to hear it.’ …My ancestors were speaking, reminding me of my responsibility to teach this lesson of respect; reminding me that I deserved to be respected.”
– Prof. Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, Respect: An Exploration, Chapter 2
Read More »