Two weeks. That’s the amount of time I had to decide whether or not I’d drop your class. It was only the second class of the course and I felt sick to my stomach. I had only taken classes where we faced the professor, not each other. It was easier to look up instead of across, because then I didn’t have to be looked at, I didn’t have to look at anyone else; it was easier because I didn’t have to look at myself.
I walked to the bench overlooking the pond near the front of campus. I sat and my eyes fell upon the pond, the reflection of the lush trees painting the water with strokes of green. I wondered if the trees saw themselves in the water, if they questioned what they saw. I knew they didn’t. At the time, I was jealous of that solidity, that sureness. But I also realized that to be human is to be fluid and to be anything but solid or sure. It is to at once to paint and be painted.
What was I feeling? My stomach was hot, my ribs felt heavier with each inhale, as if my lungs were pushing against them, as if there was not enough space. All I knew was that I wanted to run. From what?
“Politics of Identity”
“Professor Asma Barlas”
I stared at the button on my computer, hovering over it with my mouse.
I’d never felt physical discomfort and sickness from a class. Wasn’t that bad? Aren’t those feelings to be avoided?
I truly didn’t have answers at that point. All I had was a racing heart and mind, a heavy chest, and questions. As I’m trying to decide whether to drop your class, this question genuinely crossed my mind at a certain point, sitting on that bench in the sun: Do I want an easy semester or do I want to figure out why I’m feeling so uncomfortable right now?
That’s when I closed my laptop, got up from the bench, and walked home.
I took that class. And I took another. To this day, I say that those classes were worth the entirety of my college tuition.
You have arguably made me more uncomfortable, scared, sick, and confused than anyone else. You have also made me feel liberated by learning the truth, my truth, the bigger truths, and to stop being so afraid of it. This letter is my attempt at describing how grateful I am for that, how much I continue to admire your determination to create the circumstances for people to not only face themselves, but face others (literally).
The first few classes of Politics of Identity felt like the Twilight Zone. I was facing my classmates instead of the professor, I was not only allowed but encouraged to disagree and push back against not only my classmates but the professor, we discussed and debated without raising our hands instead of taking notes and waiting for permission to speak, and conversations often continued outside of the classroom. And on top of all of that, we spoke about race, something rarely discussed in such blatant terms. In short, everything about the class was off-putting. And that’s why I learned.
I came out of Politics of Identity feeling like I had just shed an old version of myself. Not to say I left that version behind, but I had a new way of understanding and viewing that version because the class allowed room for grieving how that version came to be in the first place. After that class, I saw shame and guilt as emotions that are asking me to slow down, as signals requesting my full capacity to listen.
And that’s why I took another one of your classes.
In the last almost two years since graduating, it’s become abundantly clear that college did not prepare me for many scenarios. For that, I do not think that college “failed” me, but I do think that college prepared me for a set type of circumstances, ones that are clear-cut and where I do as I’m told and am graded. Your classes and the class where I made a documentary film in four months were the exceptions to this.
I remember writing in one of my reflections on U.S. and The World that one course bled into the other and helped me understand the conversations had in the class prior better and in a new light. And I know that that was no accident. It’s because nothing is entirely separate from one another, whether it is a construct or us. Those courses were not meant to be contained separately from the world, and they never felt that way. I always felt I was me when I walked into that room and me when I walked out. There was no containment in that room. This is what I felt separated your classes from others and why I still remember what I learned in them to this day.
You did more than teach me about racism and the history of the U.S. You taught me how to think and how to speak to others. More importantly, you taught me how to not think or speak, but how to listen. I came into your class being comfortable with speaking and listening, but not having much experience with containing my need/want to speak to sit back and observe. And that this observance often is more valuable than speaking. At first, I wondered why we had mid-course reflections and final course reflections in your classes. It is abundantly clear to me now that it was to witness change and, moreover, to be seen. I felt seen by you as a person more than as a student. This made me learn better and made me more engaged. You gave me a space to, for the first time, process white guilt and shame and how to move on from those feelings. It was the first time that I had ever felt that way and know that if I didn’t experience it there, I would’ve experienced it eventually. But you gave me a space to process those emotions in a healthy way. I learned how to accept who I am and what that may mean for others and how I can take that awareness, listen, and continue growing as a person. In short, I looked at myself, and then I looked at others. It was all at once that simple and complex. It was awesome. It still is. I’m so grateful.
I carry the lessons and insights you have given me every day, and it often surprises me how universally applicable they are. I could write an entire book on how you have changed my life. I will leave you with this: Please know that you have changed the lives of those you have encountered in more ways than one, in more ways than you are aware of. You have changed the lives of your students who, because of your guidance and insight, are changing the lives of others in everyday life. Who are listening, know how to pause, know when to shut up and look. Your legacy will live on for centuries after your retirement. I feel bad for those at Ithaca in years to come that will not be able to take your courses. For this, I am honored to have been one of your students.
I’ll tell you a story. I work as a News Assistant at The New York Times now. A 40-something year old black man trained me for a few weeks. After two or three days with him, something started to happen. We started talking about where he was from, that he grew up both in London and Jamaica, that his experience in either place was very different than in the U.S. I asked him why, open to the real answer. The flood gates opened. I learned that he had been at the Times for 20 years and in the beginning, had a racist manager. I learned that to this day, he doesn’t have many friends at the Times. Again, I asked why. But I already knew. He said that he feels energetically that some are afraid of him because he is a dark, large, black man. I said that I am sorry he experiences this and to know that I think he’s a wonderful person. I started discussing what I learned in your classes. He told me that he had not met a white person who had been so knowledgeable of racial tensions and said that he is happy I had exposure to that kind of class and to know that it has made a difference. I saw something soften in him after that day. For the next few weeks, I got to deeply understand and know someone’s experience that I will never have myself and that I may not have known about at all unless I understood how to listen, how to be all at once uncomfortable and welcoming to the fact that there are differences in our experiences and be starkly aware of my whiteness. I sat and listened, looked at him, nodded, and heard him. I made a friend with a lovely person and felt honored that he trusted me and felt comfortable. I left work that day with tears in my eyes for letting himself be seen by me. I saw in those few weeks that giving someone my time and attention often has a deeper effect than words. Him and I are still friends.
I don’t know if I would’ve felt as comfortable being blunt and ask why or even discuss race period with a black person in this way before your classes. I see race and culture now less as uncomfortable and taboo topics but boxes to break open to set us free for a moment, to share our true experiences of being the exact people we are in this world, to be seen. I used to feel I needed to understand before speaking but this simply isn’t true. It’s okay if I don’t understand. It’s okay if I listen before I understand, and then listen some more.
This may seem like the end of a chapter for you. That’s how it felt when I graduated. But no, it is an obvious continuation; This is your life. Just as in the situation I described above, you opened these doors for me that I continue to walk through and navigate what is inside each day. For you, your existence and energy is disruptive and forces people to pause and it will continue to do so, no matter what exact room or institution or people you are around. You will continue to walk through and onward. Everything will bleed together, like the reflection of the tree in the water.
To be clear, you have not given me answers. I have to thank you the most for that. You had as many questions to ask me as I had to ask you. This seems simple, but it is bar none one of the most beautiful things that I’ve experienced: to question and be questioned in an openly compassionate and curious way. I’ll never forget many things you said, but one in particular has stuck with me into my adult life: When two students in the class were debating back and forth and the rest of the class was silent, you said to the rest of the class “If you have something to say, say it. No one is going to make space for you, you have to create your own. What are you so afraid of? Someone disagreeing with you? So what? You’re still you.”
Professor Barlas, Ms. Barlas, Asma (I will truly never know what to call you and will likely call you Professor Barlas for eternity), you have made me feel so many things. You have made me cry, smile, shake, laugh, feel alone, feel apart of something. You have helped me speak when I did not know what to say. You have helped me listen when I was afraid of the answer or lack thereof. You have helped me sit in discomfort and become curious about it rather than run from it. Know that your rebellion and frank way of being has had and continues to create a ripple effect.
This letter has only scratched the surface of how grateful I am for you. I hope it has done even a bit of justice to the inspiring, giving, and intelligent woman you are. Thank you for making me, helping me, guiding me to see and feel horribly uncomfortable things, for holding my hand and then abruptly letting it go again and again, for because of you, I am able to critically think and ask “why?” and welcome whatever answers come openly, compassionately, and continuously. You will always have a friend in me. *wipes tears*
Warmly, always, with more love and respect than I can communicate,