#StayVolatile: That One Time I, a Black Queer Grad Student, Got Investigated for Racism
In 2016, I packed up my car and did not drive it from New Jersey to Texas because I am a Black queer non-binary person with anxiety. When my silver Buick met me at my new apartment in Austin, I was excited for three years of graduate school with the shiny letters MFA promised to me at the end.
I knew my program at the University of Texas at Austin would be white. I knew I’d have to find friends outside of my Drama and Theatre for Youth and Communities program, seek Black professors beyond my department, and adjust to the conservative heat of Texas. However, I did not anticipate being investigated for racism.
My cohort consisted of three white women and me, and two of them cried in one of our required classes a few weeks in. Turns out that being enthusiastic about facilitating a class on race and diversity isn’t enough to do it well.
Most of the professors in my program were liberal white women who believed they were doing Important Transformative Work. Anxiety followed me into each classroom as I awaited the daily dose of white nonsense. After the 2016 election, the tension intensified as my classmates became suddenly aware of how awful the country is. I scanned syllabi hoping for more than a token scholar of color. I straight-faced my way through the theatre games designed to foster a community I did not care to be a part of. I held my breath when a white man professor on the brink of retirement said the f-slur several times in class. The New Works Festival neglected to account for the needs of Black theatre-makers in a white space. Professors navigated pronouns in new nonsensical ways. There was always something.
I sought respite in Ghana for a summer Black Studies course through UT. I traveled with two people from my DTYC program and a group of Black and Latinx undergrads. A group of non-Black social work students from another university was also part of the program. Despite the course being taught by two Black women, I immediately sensed racism and transphobia simmering. On the trip, I became the problem student because I spoke out against transmisogyny and cissexism, and stated that I didn’t want to stand with white students while touring the slave dungeons. Both the professors and students from the other school took issue with my actions. I returned exhausted.
I returned to Austin for my second year determined to power through to graduation. My program assigned me to a Teaching Assistant position working with Tenured White Woman, a non-Latina focused on bilingual theatre, and a new professor, a light-skinned Latino. The class, Directing the Young Performer, was for seniors in the theatre teacher training program who were preparing to student-teach. My previous experiences with Tenured White Woman were not particularly positive. She was the faculty advisor for a conference I helped organize, and we interacted at meetings and gatherings for our program. I noticed that she identified as white when she would be praised for her Allyship, and would conveniently omit her whiteness when presented with the opportunity to speak authoritatively about Latinx identity or issues facing Latinx people. Other people in the department also assumed she was a white Latina due to how she portrayed herself. However, I was excited to finally be a TA and work with this group of future teachers.
The class consisted of seniors, almost all of them white. They were eager to learn how to best address representation, gender, pronouns, and race in their future theatre classrooms. The professors took it upon themselves to answer many of their questions. They assigned several of Tenured White Woman’s published articles on diversity and representation rather than the work of scholars of color. While I was frustrated by their pedagogical choices, I reserved my reflections on these topics for when I was asked to share. The classes became increasingly tense, as the students seemed frustrated that they weren’t getting the answers they wanted and needed from reputable sources. I documented the questionable statements the professors made about race, representation, and inclusion.
On September 8th, 2017, Tenured White Woman began a conversation about gender and pronouns with the class without prior preparation. I kept track of topics that arose in our main class sessions so we could return to them later in the lab sessions. How to navigate pronouns in the classroom was one of those topics, and I assumed we would discuss it as instructors before facilitating an activity with the students. From my recollection, she shared that pronouns were “complicated” and encouraged the students to discuss in a think-pair-share activity. She then asked me if I could speak on pronouns in K-12 classrooms. I agreed, anxious because my thoughts contradicted the uninformed opinion that she already shared. When I shared, I let the students know that I wasn’t sure if I was asked to speak because I am non-binary or because I have a sociology degree. I stated that it was important to not view pronouns as overly complicated, as the bottom line is to respect and protect trans students. I shared ways to help them navigate administrative policies and family dynamics while also respecting students’ genders
Days later, on September 14th, Tenured White Woman indirectly brought up the incident in a weekly meeting, expressing concern about how we disagree with each other in front of the class. She believed that my sharing differing opinions (even when asked) with students was “undermining the effectiveness” of their teaching. She seemed upset specifically that I contradicted her around pronouns, even though she had asked me to speak on the topic.
Feeling stifled in her small, dimly lit office, I inhaled deeply, preparing to explain my perspective, hoping she would understand my approach. I intended to convey that my actions stemmed from the challenging position I was in, regularly having to decide when and where to intervene when I witness or express oppression.
I started to explain that I am a Black queer non-binary student in a program with no faculty of color. She asserted that the other professor, apparently just brown enough to not be able to speak for himself, was of color. I rephrased my statement: there were no faculty members darker than a paper bag. Despite being adamant about being experts on diversity and inclusion in theatre, they were not well-informed about the history of race in the United States.
During this conversation, Tenured White Woman said, “I’m trying to have a reasonable conversation and you are being volatile.”
According to Merriam Webster, volatile means, “tending to erupt into violence : EXPLOSIVE.”
Rage rising, I kept my tone level while the words poured out. The tension from the first few weeks of the class boiled over. I said that by positing herself as an expert on racial and cultural diversity, she was engaging in academic brownface. That she hides behind her brown Latino husband and Latina daughter to validate her expertise in a subfield that is not about her. That she is not equipped to be teaching future teachers about diversity, representation, or gender.
I did not await a response. Enraged, I left the meeting and ranted to the first (white) person I saw.
Finished with my obligations, I arrived at a friend’s house with a new T-shirt purchased from Target five minutes before it closed, iron-on letters, and vegan ice cream. This project was urgent.
The next day, I showed up to the class wearing a black shirt reading VOLATILE in blue letters, with a backward 3 as the E. A white classmate took photos of me in the shirt, blue Havaiana flip flops, a yellow and blue headwrap, and a Black Power fist. I posted it on Facebook with the caption, “#MxVolatile #NotTheOne.”
Tenured White Woman informed me that needed to have a meeting before I could return to class, so I left. I requested a meeting with the head of my program and my mentor. When we met on September 18th, the two white faculty members feigned support. I was not to return to my TA job and be paid while they found me another position. While I initially believed they took my concerns seriously, it became clear they were moving to protect their white sistren.
Prior to The Volatile Incident, all the graduate students in my program planned to discuss our concerns and present them to the faculty. We collectively were frustrated with many facets of the program. Many people had issues with Tenured White Woman for reasons unrelated to myself. After The Volatile Incident, we collectively decided to protest. However, the white students prioritized the feelings of the white faculty over the concerns of the Black students. They pushed us out of the process. I wrote in an email, “I trust you all, as a majority white group, will do what you need to do as white students, who care about the white faculty who could reasonably be you in the future, to get your white needs met.”
On September 22nd, they planned to protest at an All Play meeting, a regularly scheduled gathering for all the graduate students and faculty in the DTYC program. The white protesters had invited some seniors to attend as well. The faculty sat in a semi-circle arc facing rows of chairs, where I sat waiting with the seniors and the two other Black graduate students. When the white students entered, they stood in a line by the door and took turns reading from a statement (see pages 14–16) which butchered much of the language I had offered. They departed, leaving the seniors and Black graduate students to field questions from the faculty. Leaving after them would have signaled alliance with the protest. They later returned to the meeting and apologized for exiting, though they already had left us to clean up their mess.
The aftermath of the “protest” brought heavy tension to our classes, meetings, and rehearsals. Trying to move on, I ignored follow-up emails from the DTYC faculty and students. I attended classes, awaited my TA reassignment, and steered clear of my white classmates as much as possible.
On October 25th, I received a Summons Notification via email from Student Conduct and Academic Integrity in the Office of the Dean of Students. That same day, I emailed asking the head of my program and my mentor if they knew why I was being called into the office. The head of the program replied, avoiding my question, but offering to help “get a better understanding of their role on campus and/or what a summons entails.”
On October 27th, I received an email telling me to set up a meeting with the Office of Inclusion and Equity.
I soon realized I was being investigated for racism as both an employee and as a student.
Black men led both investigations. A white colleague accompanied me to the meetings for support and to take notes. The Student Conduct case was dismissed after two or three sessions with no violations found. The investigator appeared to understand my position and seemed surprised that I shared my thoughts while seated with an even tone. From Tenured White Woman’s description, he thought I was standing up and yelling at her. I am seen as angry and volatile no matter how calmly I speak. Anything I say or do is already too much.
The second investigation lasted eleven months. The chair of the Department of Theatre and Dance, an older white man who had been called out for racism twice at this point in the semester, formally filed the complaint.
“Briyana was objecting to the racial and ethnic identities of the faculty teaching courses, relative to what they are teaching.”
“Briyana spoke of the color and ethnicity of two faculty members in these incidents.”
I was annoyed that they did not even hear my critiques correctly.
The documents submitted by Tenured White Woman revealed even more paternalism and transphobia. She submitted a timeline of events surrounding the incidents. Included were dates from the summer when she bought me lunch after a conference panel she invited me to speak on. She included a moment where I corrected her co-teacher when he used the wrong pronouns for me during class. The timeline ends with, “I have tried to say hello but they seem disinterested.”
See how gracious she is. See how rude and disruptive I am.
I met with the Office of Inclusion and Equity several times in person, on the phone, and via email. The staff member had seen my Facebook photo with the VOLATILE shirt. I gathered that a former Facebook friend, a recent alum, must have shown Tenured White Woman the image, who then found it appropriate to share my personal social media with university administration.
Because the case was confidential, I wasn’t supposed to tell people except on a need-to-know basis. The faculty were already constructing a narrative blaming me for the white students’ “protest” and my social media was being surveilled. I couldn’t attempt to organize or speak publicly about what was going on without fear of repercussion. I could file a counterclaim, as long as I didn’t do anything that could be seen as retaliation.
Trapped by the power of a tenured white woman who felt threatened, the volatile Black queer graduate student must remain silent.
The complainants were open to mediation, and I agreed while also knowing I would not apologize or compromise my values. The white woman in charge of the mediation was condescending, poked at my boundaries, and made me deeply uncomfortable. I ended one conversation abruptly and hung up. The mediation never occurred.
I sought support from other Black faculty members, but as always, they were already lugging around too many institutional responsibilities. I met with staff from the Women’s and Gender Studies, African and African Diaspora Studies, and Performance as Public Practice programs at UT to discuss potentially transferring. When I asked a faculty member from my Ghana trip if she would write me a recommendation to switch into a Ph.D. program, she shared concerns about “how [I] bring up issues relating to social justice and diversity.” I broke that day. Even a Black queer woman saw me as too angry, too much, too abrasive. I had no hope for my future in academia.
Not sure who to trust, I didn’t see a way through three more semesters surrounded by white students and faculty who saw me as too angry and too demanding. How could I write a thesis surrounded by such suffocating white sisterhood?
When the spring semester began, I struggled to find classes that suited my path. I informed my original program I did not intend to continue. Shortly after, I learned that I was not accepted into the Performance as Public Practice MFA program I applied to transfer into. Despite the faculty confirming they would consider my application apart from the general applicant pool, they delayed their decision for weeks and eventually told me the pool was too competitive.
I finally listened. The department did not want me. I later learned the head of that program was a witness in the investigation and co-signed everything Tenured White Woman said about me (see page four).
No longer in a program, I withdrew from classes from the semester on January 29th. I decided I wanted to focus on writing rather than theatre for communities. I continued my work as a research fellow for a project on Black Women & Violence based in African and African Diaspora Studies. I started The Starfruit Project. I had my first musical theatre audition in five years. I performed a solo show about unpacking trauma, sexuality, and home in a queer festival. I considered moving to Atlanta, New Orleans, or DC.
In the first week of May 2018, I performed in a cabaret, helped host a talk by Tarana Burke, and booked a flight for two weeks out. I was moving back home. I didn’t know where I would stay or how I would make money, but I wanted to be closer to my family and friends who could support me as I figured out my next steps. I wanted to be where everyone wasn’t suffocating (as intensely) under the humid white supremacy of ATX.
My friend moved into my apartment for the rest of my lease. I quit the summer job I had lined up and gave away most of my belongings. I missed my flight. I cried a lot. I showed up at the airport with three suitcases, my cat, half an MFA, and a pending investigation.
After moving to Philadelphia, I continued to receive emails and requests for phone calls from the Office of Inclusion and Equity. The Dean of the College of Fine Arts sent a request for comment, to which I did not reply.
On September 20th, 2018, I received a final report. They found that there were no violations of policy. The Dean of the College of Fine arts wrote:
“That being said, your behavior, Briyana, in this case, as documented in OIE’s investigative report, was disruptive to the department and to the learning environment of the undergraduate class for which you, Briyana, were a TA. In my judgment, your behavior and speech were uncivil, unprofessional, and entirely inappropriate for a teaching assistant in a college classroom. I would advise you, Professor Pope, to weigh these facts in any further consideration of Briyana’s potential teaching responsibilities in your department.”
This entire process lasted for a year. I received these results 9 months after I withdrew from classes at UT and 4 months after I had moved out of Texas.
After the investigation, I stayed mostly silent about this situation because I wanted to move forward with my life. I share this story of abuse of power, anti-Blackness, and cissexism because this experience does not dissolve just because I want to move forward.
I share because Tenured White Woman and her colleagues are in charge of educating others, including other teachers who will likely act the same way toward their own students. Because Black girls get arrested for not doing their homework. Because Black kids are tried as adults. Because Black girls are disproportionately punished in K-12 schools.
I share because these white professors could have spent time and energy ensuring Black students felt safe. They could have advocated for gender-neutral bathrooms or hiring more faculty of color. They instead used university resources, including the labor of Black men, to target a young underpaid Black graduate student from out of state. A tenured professor and a department chair, two white people with financial stability and status, leveraged the weight of the university to silence me.
I share because I faced more consequences as a 26-year-old graduate student teaching assistant than a white ivy league professor did for saying the n-slur twice in a meeting with me in 2013.
I share because I am not the only Black person something like this has happened to.
I share because white women weaponizing their womanhood and whiteness to protect their status and feelings is nothing new. This account is one small instance of white women leveraging power to terrorize others. While I was isolated and pushed out of my program, the consequences for many are more severe and even fatal.
There is a connection between Tenured White Woman calling the department chair on me and white women calling the cops on Black people for literally any reason. There is a connection between my department calling the Office of Equity and Inclusion and principals calling the cops on their students. There is a connection between how this university treated me and how K-12 schools, colleges, and universities across the country treat their Black, queer, and trans students.
I share because, as Audre Lorde wrote, my silence will not protect me. My silence will not protect other Black students who move through these programs or ones like it. My silence will not help us imagine alternatives to the violence of academic institutions.
I share because all Black people, especially Black trans and non-binary and gender non-conforming people deserve to learn. I hope other Black people feel empowered to leave abusive universities and liberate themselves from the notion that we have to fix these spaces. We do not have to spend our time teaching people how to treat us well. We do not have to accept white institutional violence as a necessary part of our personal or professional growth. I hope my story helps someone feel less alone. I hope it inspires people to dream bigger and build better learning spaces for all.