TA Lays the Smack Down

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Finals week, angry grad students, and vaguely racist comments do not a pretty picture make.

According to an anonymous tipster, Russell BRickford, a TA for Barnard’s American Civilization Since the Civil War class, objected to a statement written by one student in the course’s final exam yesterday. And so e-mailed the entire class about it. Full e-mail after the jump.

—————————– Original Message —————————
Subject: HIST X1402.001
Date: Wed, May 10, 2006 12:15 pm
To: ——

Dear beloved,

One of my students wrote the following statement in an essay on her final
exam yesterday: “This austerity is at the root of Protestantism in America, but
is considered quite different from the sensuality and decadence of black

Now, some of my best friends are black. Some of them show signs of sensuality. Others, not so much. Some are decadent. Some ain’t. As a matter of fact, I too am black. And I’d like to think that from time to time, I can be pretty darn sensual myself. What’s more, I must confess that, on occasion, and twice in recent memory, I have been as decadent as my graduate student stipend would allow.

But I feel compelled to gently disabuse you good white folks of the notion that we Culluds are, by and large, any more sensual or decadent than say, your average Korean. Don’t get me wrong. I’d love for black folk to be as sensual and decadent as you all seem to believe that we are. I think back to all those agonizing, wretched nights in high school and college spent trying to cajole some sista to hook up with me. If only those guileful creatures had known just how naturally sensual they were supposed to be, perhaps I would have scored once in a while. Alas, it was not to be. Indeed, in my short experience as a Negro (31 years this September) I have encountered not a few disturbingly un-sensual and un-decadent people of African descent. Perhaps they did not get the memo. Or perhaps they and their ancestors were too busy to allow their true “sensualdecadence” (better to identify these innate traits in one convenient word, no?) to shine through. Perhaps the forebears of the oddly repressed blacks I have known and loved were too occupied wading through mosquito-infested rice fields from dawn to dusk to indulge in the frenzied orgies that should have come so naturally. Perhaps they got so distracted picking tobacco and cotton, or harvesting indigo or sugar, that their sensualdecadence simply faded away. Perhaps stoking coal in blazing foundries, hauling backbreaking loads on and off the docks, or scouring the homes, clothes and children of good, industrious white folks dulled their prediliction for bodily pleasure. Perhaps the lynchings dampened their appetite. Perhaps the sharecropping put them out of the mood. Perhaps “last hired and first fired” turned them off. Perhaps they had their hands full with the KKK, Jim Crow, redlining, deindustrialization, COINTELPRO, police brutality and the prison industrial complex. Perhaps they were so caught up fighting the imperialist, racist wars you hardworking Anglos seem to start every now and then that they had to abandon their true, jolly, lascivious selves. Or perhaps, just perhaps, black folk really ain’t as sensualdecadent as
you good white folks have been claiming for the last 400 years.

I’m not saying we’re exactly the same as you people. God no. We season our food better. And we look better in bright colors. But perhaps we’re FUNDAMENTALLY the same–I mean, like, biologically. What I’m saying is, perhaps our humanity is as messed up as yours. Perhaps we’re as greedy. Perhaps we’re as stupid, cruel and ugly. If that is indeed the case, and I’m afraid that it may well be, then the
awful fact that we must face together is that we’re both utterly, hopelessly repressed.

Now, I’m willing to do my part to urge my people toward greater sensuality. I genuinely believe that a closer communion with our senses would do us a lot of good. But in return, I want you all to stop fantasizing about our alleged freedom from discipline and restraint. Okay? Do that for me and I’ll teach you how to cook chicken.


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  1. what?  

    this reply is completely uncalled for given the inital essay response of the student.

  2. wow  

    wish I had the guts to write something like that! Way to go Russell :)

  3. can you  

    elaborate on that...

  4. i meant  

    to the first commentator

  5. oh puhlease  

    yeah, the initial response was inappropriate, but we discussed the existence of the blacks-as-decadent stereotype whites cast on to blacks extensively in lecture and the student probably just didn't word his statement properly. i'm not justifying it, but russell clearly went off the deep end here by emailing the entire class with his vendetta against whites

  6. well  

    perhaps it wasn't a vendetta against whites, but a disbelief that after an extensive discussion, this kid clearly missed the whole point...

  7. my point  

    is that just because a student is an idiot, which the person in point clearly is, a ta has no right to essentially publically humilate them, much less with the rant that he seems to have written. certainly, he has the right to think and write such thoughts down, but the public expression of them is pretty unprofessional.

  8. agree  

    whatever you think of the content of the essay and email, unprofessional is the key word. i wouldn't be surprised if the TA loses his position over this-- this is tantamount to public humiliation.

  9. ok  

    alright, you have a point- the student probably sparked his crack pipe that morning. but still, it's hard not to read this comment: "What I'm saying is, perhaps our humanity is as messed up as yours. Perhaps we're as greedy. Perhaps we're as stupid, cruel and ugly." as minorly offensive.

    and russell's actions were entirely inappropriate and unprofessional. that student must be horrified.

  10. public humiliation  

    just wondering, did he divulge the person's identity? if not, I'm not sure that's public humiliation. though you may be right about professionalism, I'm glad it was said

  11. what an asshole  

    Yeah, that was a stupid thing to write on a final. I could imagine saying something similarly obtuse and ill-concieved after studying for finals for a week straight and writing essays in long hand for three days straight.

    So what you do as an angry black TA is email the individual student and discuss you concerns. Or give her a C-. Or just ignore it as a poorly considered but innocuous comment jotted down in a Blue Book.

    What you don't do is humiliate this one student, and email out some half cooked rant that makes the generalized assumption that every white person feels the same way about black culture.

    Because isn't that, like, totally racist and stuff?

  12. fired  

    yeah, sucks for him, he'll probably get fired...funny as hell, though

  13. i think  

    his name is russell rickford. hence the r in his e-mail address.

  14. Confused as well  

    I'm in the class and I wondered what the hell Russell was smoking. # 5 is right, in class this stereotype was extensively discussed in class. The student could have stood to elaborate but when it's a timed test and some things, after a semester of discussion, are obvious to everyone grading the test then this is just a case of getting riled up for nothing. I say this and I'm as liberal as they come. Considering the actual content of the class, that statement was just referencing Protestant White America's view of blacks at the time-- not endorsing it.

    It's awkwardly said, but he did write "is considered quite different"

    I wonder if anyone had the guts to email back to tell him he went off the deep end.

    • anonymous tipster  

      as the anonymous tipster, i'll address some comments- yes, there's a typo, the last name is Rickford.

      yes, #16 is right- we discussed the STEREOTYPE extensively, and the student was probably overexhausted and didn't mean to rile anyone up.

      and lastly- i have a different TA whom i emailed expressing my offense over this, and after apologizing on his behalf, she said that he's stressed out studying for his oral exams (boo hoo, cry me a river) and although he should have only sent this to the other TA's and professor, it is very "provocative".

      yeah, provocative mixed with a little bit of crazy

      • I think this boils down to...  

        I'm an upper-middle class white male, and I'm not the least bit insulted. I think it's funny. I figure this TA knew there were black kids in the class, and just as well knew not every white person's ancestors had slaves or were racist. But I guess comedy is limited to certain realms. for shame.

      • wait  

        so its okay to use the overexhausted excuse for the student and not the TA?

  15. I HATE  

    How he specifically addressed "you good white folks." Bbuh?

    What the fucking fuck? Did he not notice that the class didn't consist of just a White/Black binary?

    *put on list of classes never to take*

    • That  

      is a good point, 18.

      Although with the history of race relations, I don't blame him for being pissed off, it seems pretty insulting to the entire class to think that none of them got the point that was apparently extensively discussed. Unless everyone wrote something similar, that's definitely unjustified.

  16. Anon Two  

    The TAs in that course are so incompetent. The instructor should get better TAs that don't let emotion sway what they are actually doing.

  17. You People?  

    "You People"?!

    So ofcourse the student had to be white that made the mistake. It couldn't have been an asian or african american so Russell has to address "YOU PEOPLE."

    Good fucking job, idiot. Take out your finals stress on something else.

  18. does anyone  

    remember what other classes this guy has been a ta for. i vaguely remember him in ken jackson's american urban history in fall 2004. or am i mistaken. i also believe he had another rant when a guest speaker came into class.

  19. get the point people  

    I think most posters here completely missed Russel's point here: people are fundamentally similar, and one shouldn't go around making race-based generalizations of characteristics like "sensualness" or "decadence".

    This is most definitely not public humiliation -- the student was never specifically identified. If he or she is privately mortified, then that's all for the better, as he or she should know better than write vaguely racist comments on an exam.

    Moreover, I think that when discussing issues of race in class, one goal should be to dispell stereotypes and make all students more sensitive to the issues at hand. Russel was probably very frustrated that the class discussion did not get through to this particular student and wanted to make sure the entire class got the message clearly. In my mind his essay was appropriate, justified and most definitely not a "vendetta against white people" since his overall point was to emphasize basic comonalities among all people.

    It's something that should be self-evident, but obviously wasn't for the student being criticized.

  20. Why didn't he just  

    email the white students then if he wanted to yell at them specifically. This is both comical and offensive.

    Unlike the TA the student was not retaliating against what was an ambiguously worded thing. Even in Russell's lecture he says amibiguously worded things and had a few Jew jokes that I just laughed at as a Jew- because it was within the context we extensively discussed.

  21. because  

    that would have been racist. clearly he meant to address the class!

  22. provocative  

    is a good word to describe this, public humiliation is not. Who is he humiliating exactly? Also, let's close-read what the student wrote: "..quite different from the sensuality and decadence OF black culture"...I think that the word to be stressed here is "of", which implies the adjectives "sensuality" and "decadence" to belong to black culture, almost exclusively. I think it was this generality that the TA had taken offense to, and the way he wrote his response was a smart way to frame his argument--as a polemic for everyone to think about categorization. He is also not the first black person to address "you white folk"; ever heard of DuBois' Souls of White Folk? It's just a way of framing an argument in a polemic, I think it's been useful; see the discussion it's generated. And I don't think that the TA is wrong in emailing the class about this if you have all had 'extended discussions' about this issue in class, why can't it extend to outside of class?

  23. we need  

    those agree/disagree buttons from b@b

  24. Actually  

    It was obvious within the context of the class that this is White Protestant America's view of the culture at that time. Hence the "is *considered* different...."

    • passive voice...  

      Who is considering what? When he says "is considered" that implies the present, and it implies some universality b/c the subject isn't specified. S/He should have said "Protestant America considered" if that's what what s/he meant.

  25. I am commenter 25  

    I don't think he was "lashing out". He just wanted to make a (justified, imo) point to everybody. He also meant to do so in a humorous manner, and that part has clearly gone right over a lot of people's heads.

    I agree, however, with the posters who said he should be been more sensitive about eschewing the black/white binary. Especially when discussing issues of race sensitivity.

  26. 25  

    Indeed, #38, indeed.

    Fellow liberals, please don't throw your sense of humor out the window now!

  27. HEYYY!!!!  

    Not ALL black people make good chicken!! This is preposterous!

  28. Eh  

    Two Words: Time. Test.

    Another couple: This is obviously not an endorsement of the view to anyone who sat through the class. Not at all. I wonder why he didn't post MORE of the essay and just took that one sentence out of pages, out of context.

  29. okay, so he overreacted  

    But this is not something someone should lose his or her job over. That's absurd. It's just an email. Thanks to those who pointed out the humor.

  30. on chicken  

    ...that's why the chicken part was funny. I'm sure Russel realizes that plenty of white people make excellent chicken, some black people don't, and many people who are neither make good or bad chicken.

    c.f. Russe's original point

    • haha.....  

      What is your favorite chicken flavor? Personally I like Chick'n because I'm a vegetarian. Do you think that this guy is discriminating against vegetarians because we can't even eat the delicious chicken that black people or white people or any people make, thus making us all unable to tell if his point is correct? I mean, if all black people did make really good chicken, I wouldn't know!

  31. i'm black  

    my chicken is dry and bland...

    : (

  32. in defense  

    Russell was my TA last semester and he was undoubtedly one of the best I had in my three years here. I learned a great deal from him and he helped me with a huge registrar problem, which he didn't even have to do once the semester was over. Everyone attacking him here would be lucky to have him too. I read through the article and not once was I offended. Whomever wrote that on their test was not one of God's brightest creatures, and his response was perfect. He answered a dumb answer with all the dumb stereotypes he could think of in an extremely witty manner. Whoever wrote that should be embarrased, but he or she isn't mentioned by name so their secret's safe. And now everyone in that class is better aware of history and maybe realizes that a stupid statement like that, of anyone, is uncalled for. If this had been a South Park episode everyone would be laughing at how funny and on target it is, but instead you choose to lambast a man you have never had the pleasure of meeting.

  33. his 'point'  

    was certainly lost on me. now maybe it was how the bwog contextualized it, or that i am not actually in the class, but this letter comes across as a man who is angry, not funny. but maybe that's just me.

  34. person 30  

    this is getting so ridiculous. But I think person 45 summarizes it well.

  35. white folk  

    I don't think Russel's use of "white people" was offensive because, well, it sure isn't other groups that generated these stereotypes about Blacks.

    In other words, they're basically white stereotypes, even if others now hold them too. I don't think he meant to address the class as such (he's not retarded...he's certainly aware of its racial composition; he's the kind of person who would pay attention to these sorts of things...)

    I think he meant white people in the historical sense, not "my white students on this email list"

  36. person 30 again  

    hi yeah bwog did contextualize it weirdly--presuming a certain reaction, probably. Not fair. About chicken, Popeye's is pretty good too.

  37. popeye?  

    you're mom's fucking chicken is pretty good

  38. sensualdecadence  

    I agree with Russel, however, that the Columbia population could definitely be more sensual and decadent!

  39. diction  

    you mean contexutalize. Although yes, bwog didn't conceptualize anything either

  40. context  

    well, bwog provided a little intro...and a cute picture, and as far as I can see, this constitutes "context," no?

  41. Dali  

    this is why i hate columbia...

  42. whitey  

    Isn't Russel's reponse (addressing pretty much all white people) racist? Taking one person's thought/action/essay and attributing it to an entire race?

    somebody call SHOCC on him, he's hating on white people.

    • dammit no  

      It is NOT racist because he is talking about the stereotypes (mostly) white people have perpetrated about blacks and how that is divisive and harmful to everybody. He doesn't hate anyone, that's why he is talking about why we're all "fundamentally" similar, etc.

      I don't think he was generalizing about his white students...he's pointing the problems invovled with generalizing about racial groups in the first place!

  43. You should all...  

    Either be studying or celebrating being done.

  44. procrastination...  

    ...continues for the unfortunate ones among us who still have exams and papers tomorrow...

    or the dorkiest bwog addicts, which are a-plenty, as you can see

  45. bwog  

    besides the entertainment and procrastination factor (which go hand-in-hand) it's fun battling the humorless and decidely unsmart among us. off to 'studying' now.

  46. pretty amusing

    that was really intense and quite hilarious.

  47. TA  

    if this guy passes his oral exams and gets his masters/phD/what-have-you... god help us all. he's a nutcase for sure.

  48. Nope  

    They just recognize a moron when they see one.

  49. last year  

    I had Rus. for a TA last semester. For our final essay he told us "you're not allowed to write about white guys, you HAVE to write about minorities, women and the under represented classes"

  50. TA  

    to #74: i'm not a TA, im in russell-psychopants class. i just don't think someone as irrational as him deserves to be granted a doctorate... pulling the KKK card is just not acceptable - move on folks!

    to #75- word.

  51. But  

    nobody's addressed the issue that sparked this controversy: Was slavery-era black culture less austere and more sensual than White Protestant culture.

    I'm not a history major, but I would argue... DUH.

    Look at the music. Look at the dances. Look at the displays of affection. It's not offensive; it's not a value judgment; it's a FACT. Or maybe it's not, in which case I'm wrong but no more/less racist because I just didn't know the facts.

    Comment 73 is right; this guy is a total crackpot and, so far, one of the biggest racists I've heard of at Columbia. The way he talks about "you good white folk" makes me want to puke. It's just little Russ against the big bad white world, isn't it? America is so harsh and oppressive -- it's all he can do to make ends meet as a pampered Ivy League graduate student in Manhattan. The heart bleeds for him.

    • agreed  

      Agree w/ #78- WEB DuBois said it himself- black culture was inherently sensual whereas white culture was "vulgar" and destroyed the joy and freedom African Americans received from embracing this "sensuality".

      Here's an excerpt from WEB DuBois' "Black Reconstruction in America" which we EXAMINED IN THIS CLASS (hence, the unfortunate student who sparked this whole damn thing's statement on his/her essay) - "A great song arose, the loveliest thing born this side the seas... It did not come from white America-- never from so pale and hard and thin a thing, however deep these vulgar and surrounding tones had driven... It was a new song and its deep and plaintive beauty, its great cadences and wild appeal wailed, throbbed and thundered on the world's ears with a message seldom voiced by man..."

      Yes, white Protestant Americans embraced a different culture. Yes they enforced a different work ethic. This student clearly didn't mean however, that African Americans continue to be sensual and decadent and lack the self-discipline and responsibility of us "good white folks"

      I'd love to read that student's entire essay- I can guarantee Russell took that statement out of context and blew it way out of proportion.

  52. re: last year  

    i had russell as a TA last semester too. he's very very biased in his teaching style and would basically steer us toward topics of race (particularly regarding black oppression, which while obviously relevant in an American Civ to the Civil War course, certainly wasn't the only topic on the Profs syllabus) in almost every discussion section. i'm not saying he doesn't have a point, but the extremity with which he attacks all white students in the class for one student's remark (likely taken out of the context of the essay) is a little outrageous

  53. bye  

    this kind of response and most of the preceding arguments are why i can't wait to be graduating from this supposed educational institution. i'll see you imbeciles in the real world.

  54. sexually deprived?  

    i think russell just needs to get laid... it would really help him out with some of that repressed sexual aggression.

    volunteers? anyone? anyone? no? oh well... i wouldn't touch him with a 10 ft pole either. besides, he might criticize me for my lack of culinary soul food skills, since i'm not a "sistah" and all

  55. wirc  

    82 posts? Is this a record?

  56. Out of nowhere  

    I'm finding it hard to understand why Russell thought that this was a productive respone to the student's comments.

    So the student improperly rephrased a concept introduced in class... I don't see the logical transition into "Perhaps they were so caught up fighting the imperialist, racist wars you hardworking Anglos seem to start every now and then that they had to abandon their true, jolly, lascivious selves." WHAT? This is an absurd and bizarre tirade.

    Would Russell be happier if the student hadn't acknowledged the existence of the stereotype in the first place?

  57. He just needs  

    to lay off the Special Crack. pronto.

  58. FYI  

    The Professor just emailed...

    "The student Russell quotes in his email has informed us that the sentence she wrote was meant to refer to white perceptions of black culture as "sensual and decadent."

    Can you say no fucking shit? Still can't believe Russell needed to explain that to the other Russell. Seriously now.

  59. Graduating in 6 days  

    People at this school are so fucking sensitive, as is indicated by the fact that some of you even paused for a moment to consider the merits of this TA's reply.

  60. question, FYI  

    could you post the professor's email? i'm curious and i'm sure other bwog readers are too.

  61. Still Laughing  

    To the class:

    The student Russell quotes in his email has informed us that the sentence she wrote was meant to refer to white perceptions of black culture as "sensual and decadent."

    However, I want to make it clear that even if she had claimed that "black culture" was "sensual and decadent," her essay should be judged by the quality of the argument, not the political correctness of it.

    What I most regret about Russell's message is the suggestion that certain ideas should not be voiced.

    In my view, there are no unacceptable ideas, and certainly not on a final exam. There are only weak arguments and strong arguments.

    Having said this, Russell and I agree that a weak argument is one that uses the categories of "black culture" or "white culture" in a way that suggests that black people or white people were monolithic. There is no such thing as a monolithic culture -- at least not until someone presents evidence of one -- and from the first class to the last, I made it clear that both whites and blacks have always been deeply divided over such issues as sexuality, family, work, pleasure, and discipline. Indeed, that was the theme of the course.

    If you have any questions or comments about this, please email me.

    Thad Russell

  62. J Train  

    oh well, if this student gets a terrible grade, he'll be able to argue it with good reason. Crissakes, Russell, no need to publically humiliate someone.

  63. I am betting  

    that at least 95 percent of the class understood the girl's original statement without explanation. You'd have to be brain damaged to sit through an entire semester of in depth discussion on this and similar topics and not understand what she meant sans the missing word or two that would have made it more PC.

  64. McFister

    Write or wrong, this makes for damn good comedy. I want to thank everybody involved for brightening my day.

    While I agree that the TAs email was an unprofessional, inappropriate, and impulsive response to the student's essay, unprofessional, inappropriate, and impulsive response can be quite funny. The email is also quite witty, this guy should give up academia and write comedy instead.

  65. stop hate  

    I love that we are supposed to be "stopping hate on campus" and this is the type of stuff the TAs send out to entire classes of students. Maybe Barnard needs a "safe space" campaign too.

  66. Absurd  

    I'm really glad that the Prof. intercepted this and seems to recognize the silliness of the TA's response. I've talked to over a dozen kids in that class and literally, EVERYONE, knew what the poor kid was saying in her essay. The TA is just a righteous nut who is relishing the power dynamic. I'm sure he has admirable qualities, but I'd be really uncomfortable with this kind of person assuming the control of a professor.

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