White students preferring to be judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin might be leery of the diversity workshops held in one Washington, D.C.-area college classroom.
One student remembers a controversial incident in which Dr. Thomasina Borkman of George Mason University asked her sociology class to list examples of “white privilege.” When several members of the class questioned this exercise, she “dismissed them outright and refused to answer,” according to the student. “She refused to take any more comments and instead informed the class that only non-white students were allowed to answer to add to the list.”
Dr. Borkman’s account of that class is very different: She and her students “discussed forms of discrimination that remain against minority groups in the U.S.,” Dr. Borkman told Campus Report. “Then I brought up the other side of the coin, that the dominant whites have some privileges that are implicit, of which we white people are often unaware. For example, when I (a white woman) walk into an upscale department store, I don’t have to be concerned that their security personnel may follow me around thinking I am a potential shoplifter.”
“I invited students to help develop a list of white privileges. They were silent except for an African-American female who was willing to try to start a list…. When she started making suggestions, a white student and his twin brother started shouting,” Dr. Borkman continued.
“What I think they were yelling was that they were not interested in adding to the list, but in arguing that such a list was ridiculous; that whites had no privileges; that minority groups with affirmative action have so many advantages. I asked them to please be quiet, that they were disrupting class by shouting down anyone else from talking. I repeated this, and they continued.”
The student, meanwhile, insists that the “overwhelming majority” of the class objected to the list, including the black student, while the only one to add to the list was a male Muslim.
He also remembers that Dr. Borkman has “made comments to students who disagree with her that are meant to demean and embarrass the student in front of the class.”
Dr. Borkman, however, says that she resorted to such practices only when the aforementioned twin brothers began to disrupt her class. “If saying ‘shut up’ is demeaning, I said it and probably more than once. In 35 years of teaching, I have never had such disruptive and disrespectful students as these two,” she added.
“The yelling and shouting continued. My efforts to restore order were ineffectual. Fortunately, we were near the end of class, which I dismissed; they effectively ended the discussion of white privilege through their abusive, disrespectful behavior (not just to me, but to the class).”
The student also claims that Dr. Borkman once defended a student’s remark to the effect that all Muslims are terrorists. Dr. Borkman says she was misheard: “Quite to the contrary, I emphasized that there are unfair stereotypes in the media about Muslims as terrorists,” she explained.
“I discussed the extensive diversity among Muslims in beliefs, race/ethnicity, country of origin, attitude toward violence, and so forth. I had a special workshop on Muslim diversity in beliefs and behavior held by an Egyptian Muslim with a Ph.D. in conflict analysis and resolution who now teaches at George Mason University.”
The same student contends that Dr. Borkman made a requirement of attendance at a rally for Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., then a presidential aspirant. Dr. Borkman remembers it differently.
“In February, a number of students requested that I cancel class so they could attend a John Edwards campaign rally in a building only 200 feet from our classroom,” Dr. Borkman asserted. “Sociological research involves observing real-world social situations and I said, in effect, ‘You can use this as an opportunity to do sociological observation if you wish. If you want credit for class participation today, write up a one-page paper.’”
A spokesman for George Mason University, which is located in Fairfax, Va., told Campus Report that the school hosts many candidates for local, state, and national office and that it is common for students to attend their speeches.
The student who contacted Campus Report also claims that he remembers seeing Dr. Borkman wearing an Edwards campaign sticker to class the week of the rally. Dr. Borkman herself maintains that she has no recollection of such an incident.
Sean Grindlay is the managing editor of Campus Report.