On Wednesday, some of you asked for a moment of silence regarding the outcome of Tuesday’s election and I joked about having considered cancelling class. I also said that I wasn’t sure if our classroom space was the place to have that discussion. I was wrong. Our classroom is precisely the space where we should have had that discussion. We’ve worked together to create a safe, comfortable environment where everyone’s ideas are valued and discussed. So, I’m sorry that I didn’t have the courage to allow us that space on Wednesday. Given the moment has passed, I wanted to share something about myself with you and to address how I’m feeling as it relates to our class, our department, and our University.
I am US citizen of Mexican heritage who grew up along the Texas-Mexico border. I am the father of 3 multiracial little girls. Many of my friends and coworkers are citizens of other countries who have lived and worked in the US for many years - buying goods and services from American companies, paying US taxes, owning cars and homes. Some of those friends have European heritage, but many are from Latin and South America, Africa, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and India. Some of my friends are undocumented workers who have worked hard to build businesses, to raise their families, and to contribute productively to American society. Some of my friends identify as lesbian, bisexual, gay, transgender, or queer. While each of these folks (myself included) has felt discriminated against, marginalized, and/or dismissed in one space or another, I hadn’t really thought about the safety of these people over the last 8 years. That is, until Wednesday morning. I am terrified.
I am terrified of how this discrimination, marginalization, and dismissal may transform into something even more disgusting - hate and violence. Let me be clear, discrimination, marginalization, and dismissal should not be tolerated in any form, but my concern is shifting towards those who might feel emboldened to take action against others who they perceive as not belonging in this country.
So, let me say this to all of you, you belong here. You belong in our class. You belong in our department. You belong at MSU.
My job is devoted to helping you find your particular path in life. I do that through teaching physics. I have chosen to help each and every student that I can find their way in the world. I can’t help you find that path if I think that you don’t belong here. The space we’ve created in our classroom is meant to be a safe one where each of you is valued, where you can try on ideas, where no question is off limits, and where we can learn together. I do hope that you feel that is the case. You should never have to put up with discrimination, marginalization, or dismissal - in our class or any other space. If in our classroom, in our department, or at our university, you ever feel this way, please know that you can talk with me. My door is always open to you regardless of what you want or need to talk about. My work doesn’t end with teaching you electromagnetism.
But, I know it’s hard to share those experiences. It’s hard to feel empowered to confront those kinds of ideas. To that end, I offer you this example. I experienced discrimination when applying for graduate school. I asked a professor with whom I had conducted research for 4 semesters to write me a letter of recommendation for graduate school in physics. It seemed like a good idea as he knew what I wanted to do in life and what work I had done for his lab. He wanted me to continue graduate study with him because “I was one of the good ones.” (That should have been my first clue.) He wrote a negative letter of recommendation that went to all the graduate schools to which I applied. Even with my high grades, solid physics GRE score, and two independent research experiences (one that lead to a publication), I was rejected by all of the schools to which I applied. I only found out about the letter because my academic advisor called each school to investigate why I hadn’t been accepted. From my perspective, that kind of discrimination was not uncommon. It was something I had been accepting of (and maybe complicit in) for a number of years up to that point. But reflecting back, in the position I hold now, it sickens me. I understand how much power I can wield over students; it is something I think about everyday because of this and other experiences. This experience reminds me (daily) that I should not hold power over any of you, but rather work to empower each of you.
As we move forward, we don’t know what the future is going to hold for us, particularly as we transition to these new shepherds of American democracy who came to power using messages of intolerance, anger, isolationism, and nationalism. That uncertainty can make us uncomfortable, frustrated, and downright angry. Those feelings are valid and have to be processed. Indeed, you don’t have to “get in line” and “support our president”, that’s the beauty of American democracy, you can respectfully disagree without fear of persecution. Notice the word, “respectfully.” What we must avoid is hurting each other. We need to support each other. We should make space for each other. But we should never accept discrimination, marginalization, and dismissal from either (or any) side.
So, let me say it again. You belong here. You belong in our class. You belong in our department. You belong at MSU. This is as much your country as it is anyone’s and my door is open to you.