Last week I logged into to Twitter to see two friends and colleagues in a debate about prestige and grades.
I asked them, incredulously, who cared about grades in graduate school?
I am not just in higher education but I study it. And, I can tell you that grades must be achieved but they are, by no means, the true metric by which graduate students are judged successful. It seemed to me a harmless enough observation.
Robert Lee Mitchell, III saw our exchange and disagreed. He disagreed vehemently enough to call me “stupid”, “dumb”, “post-racial”, “post-grades” and eventually an “affirmative action admit at a b rate graduate school.” We had never crossed paths before this moment.
Well, alrighty then.
I dismissed this as the work of a professional provocateur but Mr. Mitchell wanted it to be known that he is a real graduate student in political science at a “prestigious” university — the University of Chicago — where, unlike me, he had been admitted based on merit. He told me to see his twitter page for an online article he had written that proved that he was “real” and meritorious.
I had a hard time believing that a black graduate student at a U of C would call other black graduate students affirmative action admits or tell a professor that she is an idiot or any of the other dozens of insults Mr. Mitchell was throwing about the half dozen or so black academics that engaged him during this exchange.
But, alas, a simple search of U of C’s website revealed him to be, indeed, an actual student. Still, I doubted Mr. Mitchell’s claim that bullying, insults, and vicious attacks of colleagues was the “University of Chicago way”.
I emailed Mr. Mitchell, not to chastise him, but to extend a sincere offer to explicate his thoughts on black graduate students, public engagement, and professionalization. I am on several committees of late organizing conferences around this theme. And despite charges that I am a no-merit graduate student at a sub-par university, I thought Mr. Mitchell’s style of engagement would spice up an academic exchange on the “culture of nice” and subversive politics that can characterize public scholarship.
The email said:
On the off-chance that your twitter is a performative aspect of your research, I wanted to extend an invitation to talk about the way you engage social media with some colleagues at an OS journal.
This invitation so angered Mr. Mitchell that what followed was no less than an attempt to blackmail me into…something.
He threatened to tell the world that I am a criminal.
Mr. Mitchell’s charges of a criminal past are true.
Last year I was stopped driving a car belonging to my parents.
The car was registered in N.C. and I was turning aimlessly, lost in the area near Morehouse Medical School attempting to find the entrance ramp to I-20.
The officer who stopped me for looking lost doubted the legality of my out-of-state tags and driver’s license.
When he took me to the campus police station to book me I called a friend, mentor and white lady — an administrator at Emory University — to vouch for my legal personhood.
It never occurred to me to be ashamed of what happened. Indeed, my friends and parents have razzed me so much about the mugshot that it has come close to becoming a holiday gag gift.
But Mr. Mitchell thought that spreading the word of this event would end my career and he was happy to be the one to do it. Indeed not five minutes later he and his colleagues began tweeting and posting the mugshot and sundry claims online. Because I emailed him an invitation to a professional engagement.
Later, his colleague, Arrianna Marie Coleman would join Mr. Mitchell in what is now a three day public attack on my work and character. But Ms. Coleman’s attacks are more pointed and troublesome.
They include claims that I have a “history of plagiarism” and that I have conducted illegal and unethical research without IRB approval.
I have repeatedly asked Ms. Coleman and Mr. Mitchell for evidence supporting these claims. Sadly, there is not much one can do to make someone be honest on Twitter.
But, there is a lot that one can do to protect her credibility through other venues.
Thus, I find myself doing something I never, ever, ever thought I would do: I am using they system against fellow black people. Black graduate students at that.
That hurts me because the work I do is deeply embedded in who I am.
I could do the Ronald Reagan Legacy project I initially proposed in graduate school. Instead I study for-profit colleges, social inequality, racism and sexism because I genuinely care about the structural inequality people who look like me encounter as they try to make a life in an unequal American society.
I care enough that there is little I won’t do to spread the gospel. I was near Morehouse the night I was detained because I had rushed back from a visit home to N.C. to make a meeting where I was brainstorming with Spelman faculty about how I could contribute to a social justice class she teaches there.
I read grad school essays from black students who randomly find me online or meet me at conferences.
I introduce people to my mentors and curate online resources on how to survive academia when you were not born to succeed.
I do all of this for no pay, no reward structure and no immediate benefit because I believe it is what I am here to do.
Along the way I conduct research as ethically and professionally as any scholar who takes seriously her work and her integrity.
Any suggestion that I am dishonest or that I have plagiarized is one that I simply cannot let go unchallenged.
So, I am all in.
I am taking every means available to me to protect the integrity of who I am and what I do. With the support of mentors, colleagues and friends I have requested of the University of Chicago an opportunity to address Mr. Mitchell and Ms. Coleman’s charges.
And I will go further.
I am selling my car and putting myself in debt to obtain legal counsel and I will go as far as necessary to protect the one thing I have: my name.
I do not do it with an unburdened heart but, as Tina Turner might have said, what’s love [of black people] got to do with it?
I will do a lot of things. I will accept an apology. I will allow you to call me a criminal. I do not care about Mr. Mitchell’s promise to start a t-shirt line with my mugshot on it. I really don’t.
But I won’t let you bully me or publicly slander my integrity or question the validity of my work.
To borrow from a great philosopher — one Mr. Meatloaf — I will do a lot of things but I won’t do that.
ETA on Feb 2, 2013
I do not ask people to fight my fights, not because I am some kind of superhero but because it just seems rude to ask of people who have their own lives and concerns. I am stunned and appreciative for all of my colleagues, known and unknown, who have spread the word, started legal funds, contacted U of C and contacted me. Stunned. And appreciative.
I am still committed. I passed comps and wrote a dissertation proposal draft between writing a book chapter and editing a book proposal this week. So, talking to lawyers and managing this conflict has exhausted me. I don’t know if there is a good time for such things but this strikes me as not one of them. So, if I have not been able to say thank you please know that is not because I am not grateful. I am actually so grateful that a mere “thank you” feels inadequate.
This has now gone on for months