Monday, December 9, 2013

Assault in Academia: My Meeting at RCA, Part 2

by Andre E. Johnson
R3 Editor

Read the series here

The first thing that ran through my mind was, “Did I just get slapped upside the head? Who would do something like that?” The slap startled me; yes, I did feel it, and yes, it caught me completely off guard. Rubbing my head to just confirm I was hit upside my head, I immediately turned around to see who would do something like this and I saw my assailant smiling and laughing as if he did not do anything wrong. My (African American) friends, who by the way, I encouraged to come to the meeting and join RCA, sat in utter shock and disbelief. I sat in shock and disbelief and my assailant continued to laugh and smile as if he was proud of what he had done.

However, that quickly began to change when my assailant recognized that I was none too pleased with his action. On seeing my displeasure and my friends utter shock at what happened,   he attempted to offer not an apology, but “explanations.” First, he actually told me that the slap “wasn’t that hard.” Hearing no response from me, he then said, “Oh, I was just playing” as he tried to hug me. This is when I looked at him, still in my chair, and told him to “get away from me. You hit me!” “What in the hell is wrong with you?” Hearing and seeing my frustration coming to a boiling point, he paused for a moment and retorted, “Okay, you can hit me back.” It was then I responded, “Man, I do not want to hit you, are you crazy? “Get away from me!” As he moved away and continued to pass out ballots for the election, my friends and I just sat in stunned silence as the meeting continued as if nothing had happened. As my head was down, I did hear some gasps and groans from those in attendance that were close enough the see the assault, but whoever they were, they did nothing to address this issue.

As I sat there a few more seconds, everything in me began to boil. I was just slapped upside the head; my assailant did not even once offer an apology—only pathetic justifications of his actions, and the folks in RCA who saw what happened, carried on as if “nothing to see here.” Maybe it was because I did not respond violently that others thought it was okay for him to assault me. Maybe folks thought I did something that “justified” my being assaulted or maybe folks thought that I was big enough to handle this myself.  

Therefore, I sat there—just fuming. It took every ounce of my teaching and preaching on avoiding violent confrontations (as much as one can), to sit in that chair and not to get up and retaliate. As I sat there, counting to ten, trying to understand what happened, asking myself did this just happen, still not believing what had happened, as my friends looked on, I however, also realized something else—and that something else probably had as much to do with me sitting there than my belief in nonviolence. I realized at that moment that if I had retaliated, I would have been the one who was wrong—I would have been the "big black man" (or some other word) at NCA acting up and not being "civilized." The one who assaulted me first would have had others rushing to offer him help and immediately getting security for me. If I had responded in any confrontational way, I would have been the talk of the conference and security would have taken me into custody.  

Therefore, on top of being angry, I also felt embarrassed and humiliated. I was embarrassed and humiliated because I felt I could not respond in a way that many would deem as honorable. While people have supported my decision just "to sit there" and applauded me for my demeanor in the situation, the truth is everything in me wanted to shut down that meeting! I wanted to jump up out of my seat and have a "come to Jesus meeting" with my assailant. I wanted to use some words that despite being a minister of the gospel, I have not forgotten and if I am not careful, they can find their way back on my tongue. I wanted to scream, “did anybody see this—anybody want to address this—communication scholars??!! In short, I want to give everybody a piece of my mind…….but I did not. I just sat there!

As I continued to sit there, as I looked around that huge room, as the meeting continued without a word about my assault, I did finally stand. I grabbed my bag and my coat and I started to leave the meeting. As we were leaving, (my friends joined me in my protest walk out of the meeting), a member of RCA followed me out and wanted to talk to me. Finally, someone was going to say something about my assault. Finally, someone from RCA wanted me to come back to the meeting and receive an apology, first from my assailant and then from the group. Finally, someone from RCA knew what had happened was wrong and wanted it known to the group. Finally, someone from RCA just wanted to apologize to me on behalf of RCA. No, it would not replace what had happen, but at least it would have been a start. This member of RCA followed me outside and wanted to talk to me—surely about my assault. 

Imagine my surprise when he only wanted to tell me that I encouraged him to continue writing in the field of communication and religion when I issued a call for papers about two years ago focusing on rhetoric and religion. He told me that if it were not for that call I issued, he probably would not have published his article. He also mentioned that he hoped I would run again for Second Vice president because we need you in RCA

Again, it took everything in me just to breathe without hyperventilating. I reluctantly thanked him for his words, but did ask him, “Did you not just see what happened? Did you not see that man slapped me on the head? Did you see him assault me? Listen, I am angry and upset and I do not know if I would ever attend a RCA meeting ever again. I do not want to be a part of an organization like this!” After hearing me, he responded, “Well, I don’t know about all of that—I just wanted to tell you that you encouraged me and I will let you guys work that out.” He then turned and went back to the meeting and I just stood there in disbelief. 

To be continued………

Follow Andre on Twitter @aejohnsonphd
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Anonymous said...

I am saddened to know that in a room full of communication scholars no one could find the words to address the assault. Perhaps as a field we need to go back to the basics and readdress the ethics skills and empathy we all learned in our interpersonal communication courses. That this persons bad behavior was ignored means that we all need to re-learn how to negotiate difficult conversations and uncomfortable moments in order to have some strategy for handling this type of situation in the future.

Liz Desnoyers-Colas said...

Andre, I had a racist encounter with the RCA a few years back when we were in Boston. I was in a group talking about why there should be more diversity in the discussion of religion in the RCA when a scholar cut me off and said "really, do we need to bring that stuff to RCA? I too left but the chair of the RCA was astute enough to try to seek me out and "apologize. " I never went back and never will. I hope you stay away from those people, write a formal letter of protest to the head of RCA. You should have had the guy prosecuted for assaulting you. I hope they rename RCA WRCA, emphasis on the White.

Anonymous said...

Well, as a white member of the organization, perhaps I'll simply live up to the reputation Liz Desnoyers-Colas has so kindly placed upon the group as a whole. I feel compelled to address two issues as they are stated here.

First, it wasn't that the behavior was ignored on the part of many. Being that the event in question occurred in the midst of the meeting, I was unaware that this had even occurred, along with many others to whom I have spoken. I, along with others, agree that what occurred should not have, and said as much when I apologized to Dr. Johnson later that day when I realized what happened. While I would not necessarily agree that the behavior in question was ignored, I do agree with the first post wholeheartedly. We all need to re-learn how to negotiate difficult conversations and uncomfortable moments.

Secondly, while I also agree that what happened to the second author should not have, the title she so freely attaches to it does little to solve the problem. The only way that organizations, be they RCA or any other, can overcome the at times imbedded racism is to stand up as a voice of change.

I, for one, will continue to remain as a part of RCA, in the hopes that... in time... perhaps I, along with others, can serve as voices that lead to openness, acceptance, genuine dialogue and healing.

I in no way agree with what happened to Dr. Johnson, but I find myself uncomfortable, at times, with the way such issues are dealt with in this type of forum. The means, at times, obscure the desired ends.

Koritha Mitchell said...

Wow. Well, I guess this is yet another reminder that whenever people are involved, there's bound to be something foul going on and some serious disappointment. No matter the arena, there always seems to be A LOT of room for improvement.

Unknown said...

Anonymous is skirting the issue. The assault -- because that's what it was -- was ignored by everyone in the room. Kudos to you for apologizing later but that does not account for what happened in the room: someone was assaulted and business as usual went on. That is disgusting! I invite you to consider what the response might have been if a small white woman had been slapped instead of a big black man.

Moreover, the racism called out by the second poster is clear. Stop obfuscating the issue because of your discomfort. And Dr. Johnson has the right to use ANY medium he can to express his displeasure and concerns especially and expressly because they were ignored by others at the gathering. Stop worrying about bad PR for RCA and deal with the injustice in your face. Stop worrying about your own comfort and stand with the marginalized!

Liz Desnoyers-Colas said...

Amen to unknown. I wonder if the person who called my calling racist activity a problem would have reacted that way if a white female would have been slapped. The fact that RCA knows about this incident and has not apologized to Dr. Johnson as a body nor have they bothered to ask for forgiveness and censor the offending party means that they 1) don't take it seriously 2) want to sweep it under the rug 3) feel it is and can be business as usual. If that would have happened in an NCA division meeting you can bet the NCA President would have heard about it and dealt with it. But its "christian counterpart?" Sad. I AM STILL NOT GOING BACK AND URGE OTHER SCHOLARS OF COLOR TO BOYCOTT RCA. Dr. Johnson can use any forum he likes to discuss an issue that RCA wants to sweep under the rug. If I were him, I'd send it to Huffington Post.

Liz Desnoyers-Colas said...

BTW, you are living up to the RCA rep just fine.