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Teaching while black

11/29/2018, 6 a.m.
We have read with disgust report after report from around the nation of incidents of white people calling the cops ...

We have read with disgust report after report from around the nation of incidents of white people calling the cops on African-Americans who are engaged in nothing more than the normal activities of daily living — barbecuing while black, going to the pool while black, waiting at Starbucks while black, going into your apartment building while black, vacationing at an airbnb while black, selling Girl Scout cookies while black and campaigning for public office while black.

The racism and hubris of white people who falsely believe they have authority and power over public spaces and who has the right to occupy those spaces becomes like an invisible dragnet waiting to ensnare an unsuspecting person of color. 

So we were both astounded and disappointed by reports that Caitlin Cherry, an African-American artist and visiting professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, suffered the same ugly treatment at the hands of a colleague in the university’s School of the Arts.

The Chicago-born Ms. Cherry, who holds undergraduate and graduate fine arts degrees from the prestigious School of the Art Institute of Chicago and Columbia University, has exhibited in galleries around the country, including the Studio Museum in Harlem, and in the United Kingdom. She also has completed a residency at The Robert Rauschenberg Foundation in Captiva, Fla. She was asked to come to VCU to teach graduate students and help bolster their work in the painting and printmaking program.

But on Oct. 25, Ms. Cherry experienced irrational bigotry and unfairness while eating breakfast and checking her emails in the Fine Arts Building. She was in a room dedicated for the use of professors, grad students and administrators that can be accessed only by a code when, according to reports, Javier Tapia, an associate professor in the painting and printmaking department, walked in. She stated that he did not respond when she greeted him, and he looked at her and left. Moments later, VCU campus security arrived and asked her for her ID to prove she belonged there.

According to reports, Ms. Cherry complained to the department chair and the dean, who apologized and said he would look into what happened. Since then, the matter has been turned over to VCU Equity and Access Services, which still has the case.

Dozens of letters and emails have been sent to university administrators in support of Ms. Cherry. Some call for the firing of Mr. Tapia, a Peruvian-born artist who earned his undergraduate and master’s degrees from the University of Texas. He has been at VCU for the last 29 years.

While Mr. Tapia has made no public comments, a simple apology would be a good start.

This is not the kind of behavior we expect to emanate from VCU, an urban university of more than 33,000 students, where African-Americans, Latinos, Asians, Native Americans, Pacific Islanders and other people of color are in the majority among students from the United States.

Nor is it the kind of behavior that would help attract or retain talented professors of color like Ms. Cherry. Instead, this type of insidious behavior can lead to more dangerous events that involve bodily harm, not to mention lawsuits.