Thursday, May 13, 2004

Cheating with the race card 

What happens when you confront students who have cheated on an exam? Most of the time, as James McWilliams notes in this week's Chronicle of Higher Education (subscribers only), they are quite embarassed and apologetic. You read them out and give them a zero and hope you've made an impression. Not this time for Prof. McWilliams, though:
But here was Mr. J7, heels dug into my floor, arms crossed tightly, studiously avoiding eye contact, and disarmingly armed for what he must have known was coming. I took a deep breath and began my well-rehearsed question, but before two words left my mouth he aggressively interrupted, "Here we go again. It's the same thing everywhere I go. I know what you're going to say, so don't even bother. It's so predictable."

He caught me completely off guard, but I still managed to respond, "Fine, then am I right?"

The next few seconds were a blur. Mr. J7 took two sharp steps forward and began yelling wildly. For an instant I seriously thought he was going to hit me, if not toss me out the window. I remember noticing that my hands were shaking. The situation was unraveling beyond my control. A couple of colleagues gathered in the hallway. But at least I was holding the damning evidence in front of me like two small shields. And at least through his sustained outburst (I recall hearing "sick and tired" over and over again) I managed to yell, "Just look at these, will you?" Then, without really intending to, I gasped a rather commonplace but evidently effective expletive.

He stopped, grabbed the papers out of my hands, slammed them on my desk, and studied the evidence. I stood behind him, now next to my door, and watched him shake his head repeatedly. My heart was slamming into my chest. And then, for a brief moment, I was relieved. He looked as if he was going to confess. God, I wanted this incident to be done with. ...

Turns out, however, that Mr. J7 was shaking his head not in regret but rather as if to say, "What a moron you are." And then he sat down. His tone changed dramatically as he explained, quite calmly now, how he hadn't studied for the quiz. He just guessed, at random, without even reading the questions and, well, I talked about Andrew Jackson in lectures all the time so, well, it seemed like as decent a random guess as any other. Soon he was smiling. Sure, it was quite an amazing coincidence but, as he so eloquently put it, "Shit happens, sir." And then, just when I thought things couldn't get any more confusing, he went for the jugular.

"As far as I see it," he concluded, "you owe me a huge apology."

Mr. J7 is black. In addition to being green, I'm also white. I know that he cheated. He knew that he cheated. But, after his performance -- a brilliant but subtle flash of the race card conveyed through body language and facial expressions more than words -- the once-crystal-clear context that had me in charge evaporated into the stale air of my office. We both knew he'd won this game. I ripped up the quizzes and tossed them into the trash. He left my office without a word. I felt horrible.

After telling my department chairman about the incident, I asked myself a series of difficult questions: Did I think J7 was going to hit me because he's a big, black guy? Should a black kid have any reason to tell the truth to a white figure of authority? Am I gutless? Should I have been truly race-blind and treated J7 as I would have treated a wealthy white frat boy? On some level, do all white people owe all black people an apology? Did this kid just play me like a fiddle?

Of course he did. He's completely bought into the "white privilege" lesson that Dick Andzenge discussed yesterday. Professor McWilliams could call him out only because Prof. McWilliams was white and student J7 was black. And it's not inexperience. Even when we've found that applicants for faculty positions here at SCSU have included false listings in their curricula vitae, we end up paying these people off because the right to point out dishonesty is part of our white privilege.