top of page
  • Addie Tsai

Dear White Supremacist Student Whose Name I No Longer Remember

Updated: Aug 24, 2023

By Addie Tsai

a picture of an orange and black painting of James Baldwin with a small deer figurine in front of the painting.
Photo Credit: Addie Tsai

I know that this is a letter I will never send.


I consider myself a generous person, no longer to a fault (I have my therapist to thank for that), and I am making an intentional choice not to hold your name in the recesses of my memory—each time I try to recall your name, the forces that I’ve spent the last four decades building to protect my body will no longer continue onward to remember your name on the roll sheet that my hand led to the checkbox to mark absent on the computer, the variation of your name that popped up on my phone to indicate you’d sent me a message, and then another, and then another, or the same name on the same roll sheet that my hand led to click the checkbox to permanently remove you from the course.


Like Cathy Caruth said, “The historical power of the trauma is not just that the experience is repeated after its forgetting, but that it is only in and through its inherent forgetting that it is first experienced at all.”[i]


I do recall, however, that your name was unremarkable. It was a first and last name of a white American student that I’d read a hundred times before, and so when you did not show up for the first day of class, I didn’t pause to think much about it.


That all changed when you walked into the room.


Before I knew what details to retrospectively take note of and to re-frame them in a new light, your body immediately instilled in me a fear familiar, but not one I often encountered in the classroom, and not for many years.


There was the time that I played an episode of Mad Men for an introductory composition class ten years ago, the one where the junior ad man harasses the new secretary as the department’s “fresh meat,” and a young, white cis man enrolled in the class waited until every single other student had left the room to approach me.


He was tall and thin, wearing a white t-shirt, gray trousers, sneakers, and a smile that made me feel like a broken off piece of a dollar bill sticking out of the gutter.


He asked if I had a boyfriend. If I was married. If I was engaged.


I said yes, yes, yes, anything for him to leave me alone.


It didn’t work. He retorted that I was only telling him that so that he would leave. Which is to say that he knew his advances were unwanted. And he didn’t care.


Later, I would travel back in time and scrutinize each moment of the class during which I showed this film and discussed sexual objectification and harassment with the students only to be sexually harassed immediately following the lesson.


I questioned what I wore. I questioned the attention I attracted to my body when I leaned my bottom against one of the tables that was not occupied. Did I wear a skirt that day? Were my legs exposed? Could you see the indentations of the lace on the bra that I wore? Did I look too long at one student or another, or this student in particular?


After I scrutinized my behavior in the classroom, it didn’t take long for me to pick apart the fact that instead of saying that this student’s question about whether or not I was single or in relationship with another person were inappropriate, but that I instead answered the question as though this were an acceptable question to ask of a professor. I have never told anyone this, nor have I confessed the shame I feel that I have withheld this information.


Once I’d told the student that I was engaged, married, with partner, yes, all of those things, and once he’d refused to believe that answer as true, I tried a new tactic.


I’ll see you next class! I exclaimed, staring at the door, hoping longingly for another class to be signed up for this room in the slot after mine, but finding no easy way out.


His eyes bore through me like a strip search.


He left the room. I remained until the little hairs, standing straight as soldiers, would fall back against my thighs. I remained until my hands would stop knocking against the underside of the desk at the front of the room, where I had gripped them in my lap until the dark beige of them had turned white as the walls that confined me, isolated in my terror of the whatifs.


At some point, somehow, I went on with my day, and I wrote the chair of my department an email about what the student had asked me. Unusually, I received an immediate reply: Come see me in my office ASAP.


I was so used to being marginalized, to being asked to tolerate the small and large abuses, that it didn’t even occur to me that this was a protective measure, a measure to keep me safe.


My pulse quickened, my breath grew shallow at the base of my throat.


I assumed what I always assume when an authority figure needs to see me at once.


She is furious with me. She will fire me. She will yell at me.


This is just a slightly deviated version from years of growing up in a house with a dominant and violent Chinese father, years of growing up in a house where a man who loved me also required me to accept the small and large abuses.


I was taught, again and again, to expect that Baba would be furious with me, that Baba would yell at me, that Baba very well might hit me.


The heat I imagined striking off my chair’s glare, taut limbs, like a ball of fire pushed out of the body in its targeted attack towards me was the same heat that rose to a shriek that pierced my ear drums, the same white fury that bruised my naked bottom when I wet my pants, when I forgot my jacket at daycare, when I temporarily jammed the glowing gold combination lock on his briefcase.


I’m sorry, Baba. I said inside my head. The coils were magic and I’d hoped if I wore your blazer and striped tie of brown diagonals, and could gain entrance to what lay behind those numbers, that maybe I wouldn’t be afraid of everything either.


But, that’s not what happened.


My chair marched me up the stairs and around the corner and down the hall to sit at a round wooden table across from an administrator whose position I no longer recall. My chair explained that I had been harassed, and that the student needed to be swapped for another instructor’s class immediately.


The man lifted his brown hand and twisted his mustache.

My chair placed her black hand on the table in front of him, a reckoning.


The administrator: Well, if it happens again—

And before he could finish, my chair: If it happens again, Addie could be dead. I won’t risk it.


Before that moment, I hadn’t known yet what it would mean to have someone’s rage enacted in a professional space in order to keep me safe.


That is largely because the only bodies that were expected to keep me safe were ones I also felt endangered by.


My Chinese immigrant single father did everything he could to feed us, to clothe us, to bathe us, to provide for us as best he could with what he was and could offer—a Chinese immigrant single father of three children.


But, also. He was the man who terrified me. I would detail the fears he provoked within me in a journal that came with a lock and key, which I hid between the mattress and the box spring every night before I went to sleep.


I might end up in an emergency room one day.


One day he might go too far, and I won’t wake up.


I will die in this room, because I will be too afraid that he will kill me if I try to leave it.


But, here was this woman, in the body of a person my father hoped I would fear, who enabled me to live without fear instead. Who insisted on my safety. A gesture I imagine she would barely remember today, so many years past, but who left an indelible mark on me, one that insisted on my vitality and on my body being honored.


**


The semester you appeared in my classroom was no ordinary semester.


This was the post-Harvey semester, a semester in which excuses were the norm, a semester in which I would excuse any student for any reason because we were all connected to one another through the tragedy of a city that almost drowned. Some homes filled with uninhabitable waters. Some homes became the sacrificial lambs—offered up in order to save the lot.


I had been lucky. Our little bungalow was just high enough to miss it, tucked in one of the many miraculous pockets of safety that weren’t expected. The water curled up the curb each night, and then crept back to where it began. The only thing I lost was my belief that my city wouldn’t drown, and a pink cruiser I had hoped to learn to ride one day.


It was for this reason that when you wrote me to tell me that you had a work injury and you hadn’t been yet cleared to attend class, I accepted it without question.


After that first email, I forgot about you.


I assumed you’d end up like most students who write the first day of the semester to give a story of why you couldn’t attend. That maybe you would drop the class after a while, or never show up again at all.


A month in, suddenly, there you were.


An apparition. A wasp hiding in plain sight.


I was tending to a student, and didn’t hear the door open, or the hinges squeak as the door made its way back.


I was not ready for how you would appear to me, how I had been taught to receive a body and likeness like yours. Perhaps I will never be ready.


You were around 5’10”, white. You had the kind of build that looked as if you might have been muscular once, lifting weights at the local gym long into the night. Your belly strained against your t-shirt, your arms swelled. The swelling was the first sign of trouble. Your eye had clearly been cut, and it twitched as you asked me to explain what you’d missed. What most disturbed me, however, were the markings on your face and your left hand. A 5150[ii] in black ink above the wounded eye, a Reichsadler[iii] on the left hand. The Nazi symbol under the eagle quivered as your hand shook while you spoke.


I took a long, studied look at you, and I felt a new kind of fear. It was not the fear that my father provoked in me, or the student who sexually harassed me, or disappointing or angering an authority figure. This was a new fear, one I chastised myself for, based, initially, off what I imagined your life was like outside that classroom by the markers on your body—both intended and circumstantial.


I assumed your hands shook because you felt I had judged you, because you had been judged before. I would later come to discover that you shook from withdrawal.


I felt I had no choice but to treat you equally. And so, I had you send me a friend request to my Facebook account, so that you could get access to the secret group I used for the course for updates and sharing of assignments, like I arranged with all other students.


I knew you would automatically gain access to my own personal timeline. I knew you would gain access to the daily Baldwin quotes I curated each day—and had been since the day Trump was elected into office—and I knew you would also be able to observe posts that addressed my queerness, my gender nonbinaryness, my Asianness, my mixed-race-ness, my pro-Blackness. But as I accepted the friend request I instructed you to send me, I held my stomach in a tight little ball, a metaphor for the fetal position I rolled myself into when I was unsure whether my father would hit me or strike me with silence, and hoped that you would ignore my posts and just do your work. Or never return.


It was the first time I’d ever hoped a student would not return. The guilt was a lead anchor in my foot. But so was my fear of what was beneath the skin that announced to the world who you would become.


You handed in a single assignment, an essay about your brother dying of a heroin overdose, twenty years after being incarcerated.


But that is still not the trouble.


The trouble begins on October 23, 2017, seven days after you’ve been given access to my Facebook timeline and twenty-one days after the Weinstein story goes live in The New Yorker.


The trouble begins with a Baldwin quote.


I’d like to say that when I say ‘white’ I’m not talking about the color of anybody’s skin. It’s a curious country, a curious civilization, that thinks of it as race. I don’t believe any of that. White people are imagined. White people are white only because they want to be white.[iv]


The trouble begins with your comment to a Baldwin quote.


I’m sick and tired of your nonsense and your racial articles.


After a few hours, I delete your comment, and I add a post to the course’s Facebook group’s wall—a disclaimer that my personal timeline is curated based on my particular reasons that have nothing to do with the course itself. I add that I expect students to respect student-instructor boundaries, and that students are free to unfollow my timeline if any of my posts bother them in any way.


Enabling students to have access to my own timeline is something I’m often questioned about, and many respond with anger when I insist on sticking with my decision. For the rare student that gets up in arms about my politically-leaning posts (and by this I mean that I share articles that address a politically-charged but very real incident), there are hundreds of queer, POC, trans, Dreamer, immigrant, and other marginalized students who feel, at a time so necessary, a kind of comfort in knowing where I stand, and whose rights matter to me. I largely insist on not censoring myself from my students with these bodies in mind.


To my disclaimer post on the course’s wall, you immediately respond.


Dialogue only when appropriate, right?


I close Facebook (thanks to my therapist) and hope that will be the end of it.


But, just in case, I email my dean, around 11 pm, attaching the story assignment about your brother, and explain what’s just happened. By the time I’m ready for bed, the dean has set up a meeting for the following morning.


By the time I awake the next morning, you have unleashed weaponized hate via Facebook message, the thing your body had set off within me, but that I didn’t have the words to name.


I just wanted to apologize if I made you feel like you weren’t free to discuss how you feel about any subject with me or any other student. I’m not going to pretend that your prospective on race is anything less than insane (look, we live in what is more or less a police state – American has been a few steps short of pushing people into cattlecars – which I have a rather strong and personal opinion on such matters, as the reason that my grandfather ended up in a Siberian prison as I mentioned earlier – he, a soldier who earned Germany’s highest honor, the Iron Cross, during WWI, surrendered to Russian troops? That’s laughable until you consider the circumstances – camp after being told that his options were to fight in WWII or he could take my family to the camps – by the Gestapo, no less . . . it’s no joke that they used to come to people’s doors at 3 am [funny how American police do the same thing], the way my mother tells the story chills your soul [if you ever want to know plenty of other insane stories about WWII Germany, feel free to buy me a beer, I am unfortunately heir to a whole legacy of such knowledge as well as it’s brutal consequences and legacy] – is because he got drunk and went the fuck off about prisoners in cattlecars . . . I didn’t have to be a rocket scientist as a kid to put two and two together when my mother told me the circumstances of his forced enlistment) and we’ve always had jackasses burning books (which, I might point out, isn’t too far removed from the censorship of dialogue you conducted by removing what I posted earlier – which, however longwinded it was, was not wrong; of course, none of it was appropriate for the classroom dialogue, your posts or my commentary). Anyhow, we live in a police state, and one thing that has proved effective time and again in oppressive regimes (look closely at history as it happened, not as whatever is the popular narrative happens to be) is to divide people. Don’t get it twisted, I’m a White supremacist (meaning I hold no truck with interracial sex, I don’t believe that races are equal, nor do I believe that people of any race can peacefully coexist in close proximity; I am from the streets and the penitentiary, and the reality of it is that once you start mixing people of such disparate beliefs and values, all what you end up with is violence and hatred, which doesn’t do anyone any good; better if you leave each to their own . . . believe my knowledge of this, I know exactly what a fragile thing peace between the races is when we are forced into close proximity with one another . . . even on the calmest prison unit, rape is a fact of life amongst ever race other than Whites – and that’s because homosexuality is an offense punishable by death amongst White convicts and White homosexuals are shunned – and someone is always getting stabbed) and you can look me up in the NCIC if you ever want to know exactly who and what I am – you don’t wear the tattoos that I do without having the hands that are quite literally washed in blood (please don’t take anything I say in a threatening manner, as I am certainly not dangerous to women, children, or any man that doesn’t offer me a threat . . . and my skin is generally quite thick, despite the impassioned nature of my commentary earlier). But, as I was saying, divisive politics only serve the interests of those who would be our masters (and it’s the oldest trick in the world to elevate a select group of people, often by race, and place them over a client body; look at your history books if you don’t believe me). I’m not a friend of the police and make no apologies for their behavior. But I’m also not going to pretend that how you talk about White people is anything less than offensive and ignorant. Nor do I think that the world is so small that it belongs to one race. But make no mistake about it, you’re not going to make me feel fucked up about who I am or my pride and identity as an Aryan man who fight to his dying breath to defend his people. Nor are you going to force me out of character in relations to you or anyone else who is not my people . . . I carry myself in a dignified and respectful manner in all things (do not mistake me for some ignorant thug who walks around in a fog of hatred and self-delusion; I have done many harsh and brutal things in my life, but only when required to by dire circumstance, and never lightly or dictated by fear . . . I don’t hate or fear different people, only acknowledge that we are different and that some things will never be solved by expecting us to live together or trying to force us to be the same). So I politely bid you to acknowledge that we are not the same, that I will not accept attacks towards my race nor will I participate in one-sided dialogue (speaking as an individual, I will gladly discuss any matter as long as it is meaningful and carried out in a respectful fashion), and that respect and learning should be the dynamic upon which we should interact.


**


I’m a White supremacist


I hold no truck with interracial sex


I don’t believe that races are equal


once you start mixing people of disparate beliefs, all you end up with is

violence and hatred


even on the calmest prison unit, rape is a fact of life amongst every race other than Whites


homosexuality is an offense punishable by death


you don’t wear the tattoos I do without having hands quite literally washed in blood


I am not dangerous to women, children, or any man that doesn’t offer me a threat


you’re not going to make me feel fucked up about who I am


an Aryan man who will fight to his dying breath to defend his people


**


I spooned a little too long with my fluffy dog covered in white curly tendrils. I scrubbed my face. I spun my electric toothbrush into little vibrating circles around my teeth. I dressed myself. I drank coffee next to my (former) spouse while he casually checked up on me through breaks in between watching highlights of the Houston Rockets.


Like a ticker tape, a sentence thrumming louder than the hours it took between the time the alarm sounded and I walked out the door.


Today is the day I may die.


Guns blazing, you blast me against the wall, then the students, then yourself.


You slip through the door just as class begins, you snatch me from the room. I am never heard from again.


A rape.


Or the worst of all: the not knowing what horror lies waiting for me, just that it’s like nothing I could hope to imagine. I dare not. I don’t want to taint the purity of hope with the poison of his words and the violence coating my skin.


**


Before I walk out the door, I text my therapist, a few friends. I tell my (former) partner to keep his phone close to him.


I don’t tell my partner why I’ve done this until after. That I am texting people in case something happens to me. In case I am shot, kidnapped, raped, or assaulted.


I walk the twelve minutes from my house to campus. It is a beautiful fall day, wisps of white streaking the sky. I want to pull it from above me and drape it around me until my body vanishes.


My steps are brisk, I wear my shades to avoid eye contact with strangers. I question whether or not you know where I live, whether you’re hiding in the shadows between the skinny city towers, the darkness large enough for you to conceal yourself just long enough to catch me off guard.


The minutes are quick, but they feel ancient when I don’t know what lies ahead of me, how far your erasure of me will travel. I am struck by how little an instructor can know a student, how much danger can buzz in their fingertips.


**


In the dean’s office, I sit across from one dean—a middle-aged white woman wedded to an Asian husband, three mixed-race children in picture frames scattered across her mahogany desk. Next to me sits another dean, one I’ve never met until now—an older Black man a few shades lighter than the department chair who once pushed back on administration to keep me safe from a mention of sexual harassment.


I tried to read him your message, but his boredom took the wind out of my chest, as he listened nonchalantly while reading the new emails that popped up on his phone.


Well, it’s all on you what happens at this point, he said, his words scattering in the air above me like fruit flies.


He told me I could say that you’d violated the Code of Conduct. He told me that the message, although problematic, just wasn’t threatening enough to do more.


Those two words suspended in the air above me.


I stopped listening. I kept thinking about all the Black lives being obliterated from the earth for no damn reason. I wondered why you were given so much room, why they were given none. I wondered what would have been threatening enough to remove you from my classroom, what would have made this circumstance not all on me.


I told him that I was queer and that you wrote you believed homosexuals should be punished by death.


I told him that I was not white and that you believed in white supremacy and an Aryan nation.


I told him that you believed racial mixing should be abolished, that you knew that I was of mixed race.


I told him that I felt you were unstable, that you were possibly addicted to chemical substances, that you were agitated by the loss of your brother.


At some point, I gave up. The other dean offered to keep the police on call. I wondered how many men would need to shoot students in order for a warning to be taken seriously. I wondered if there would ever be a number to answer to this question. I wondered how much evidence of instability of a student would be necessary to mark one as worthy enough to be removed from the classroom.


**


The door to the classroom locked when shut. My class started that day with a call from the police, who happened to be a former student, and who reminded me how to reach them on the phone inside the classroom. I shut the door, dissatisfied until I heard the little lock click us into a bubble of safety, after every person entered the room. The students were concerned but they didn’t ask questions. Later, they would tell me that they suspected it had to do with that guy who wrote that thing on the class group on Facebook.


You never showed up.


In the middle of the afternoon, you sent me another message, that arrived just underneath the message where you threatened my body and my existence, another excuse for missing class, except this attendance was intended to be joined by an apology.


I didn’t respond.


Two days later, I learned I could remove you for lack of attendance, a ray of hope, an unusual bit of power in a powerless situation.


I knocked my mouse against the table, thwack-thwack-thwack, afraid. I clicked the checkbox to withdraw you.


I waited two more days.


I emailed you, copying the chair and one of the deans, explaining in as reasonable an electronic tone as I could manage, that you’d been dropped for lack of attendance, nothing could be done about it. You could take it up with them if you had questions or concerns. You responded with appreciation that I’d been so respectful about our differences of opinions.


I didn’t respond. I didn’t say that I’d learned from over ten years of therapy how to de-escalate a situation when a person was projecting their own baggage on you, that I’d learned this therapy from having two narcissistic parents, and two parents who betrayed any boundary I would hope to hold for myself. I didn’t tell you that I already knew what it meant to believe that I could die. You weren’t the first. You wouldn’t be the last.


What I did instead was I blocked you on all the social media accounts you created that I could find, including the Twitter account with the handle: Violence is the only answer.


I imagined that if I had escalated the situation enough to provoke you, if I had “offered you a threat,” that a snapshot of your Twitter handle would be the first thing to grace the media outlet headline.


I imagined that mine would be a screenshot of my timeline with a litany of my Baldwin quotes, my queer, nonbinary, non-white face the little thumbnail in the upper left-hand corner.


I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.[v]


One must say Yes to life and embrace it wherever it is found—and it is found in terrible places; nevertheless, there it is.—Baldwin.[vi]

 

[i] Trauma: Explorations in Memory. 1st ed., Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995. [ii] Section 5150 is a section of the California Welfare and Institutions Code which authorizes a qualified officer or clinician to involuntarily confine a person suspected to have a mental disorder that makes them a danger to themselves, a danger to others, or gravely disabled. [iii] The Reichsadler is the heraldic eagle used in modern coats of arms of Germany, including the Third Reich. [iv] Mel Watkins, “James Baldwin Writing and Talking,” New York Times Book Review, September 23, 1979, 3. [v] Notes of a Native Son, 101. [vi] Collected Essays, 705-706 (originally in “Nothing Personal”).






 

Addie Tsai (any/all) is a queer nonbinary artist and writer of color who teaches creative writing at William & Mary. They also teach in Goddard College's MFA Program in Interdisciplinary Arts and Regis University’s Mile High MFA Program in Creative Writing. Addie collaborated with Dominic Walsh Dance Theater on Victor Frankenstein and Camille Claudel, among others. They earned an MFA from Warren Wilson College and a Ph.D. in Dance from Texas Woman’s University. Addie is the author of Dear Twin and Unwieldy Creatures. She is the Fiction co-Editor and Editor of Features & Reviews at Anomaly, contributing writer at Spectrum South, and Founding Editor in Chief at the LGBTQIA+ fashion literary and arts magazine just femme & dandy.



Recent Posts

See All

Remote

Comments


bottom of page