A response to professor Marissel Hernández-Romero’s email

By NATASHA NGAIZA

On Sunday evening of June 28, the entire Middlebury College community faculty, staff, current students, alumni, retirees and more received an email from Professor Marissel Hernández-Romero. In it, she details her experiences with racism at the college. She goes on to name specific incidents and people, and ends her letter by encouraging, “all BPoC staying, students, staff and faculty to share their stories without fear and held [sic] the institution accountable for their systemic racism”. It is with those words of encouragement that I am inspired to write this op-ed. 

As one of the few Black female faculty at Middlebury College, I’m keenly aware of how White supremacy works in academia and how it has been a contributing factor in the current exodus of Black female faculty and staff. It saddens me to see so many of my friends and incredible scholars leave because of ongoing incidents that left them feeling unsupported, demeaned, silenced and more. It has been infuriating and exhausting to hear their stories or even see these incidents play out in front of me. I have participated in the ongoing work that has been taking place over the last few weeks to address and tackle these issues, and eagerly await the changes that must come.

And, I  choose to remain at Middlebury, following my track towards tenure, with plans to continue raising my three daughters here. 

Why?

  1. The students. Since the Charles Murray protests, I have been in awe of how successfully our students have been able to articulate their concerns, voice their demands and organize to fight against systemic racism. They regularly inspire me to be a more curious, more thorough scholar and filmmaker. If I ever feel like giving up, their presence encourages me to keep fighting for a more inclusive, equitable future.
  2. The department of Film and Media Culture. It has been so affirming to work in a department that has always been welcoming, unconditionally supportive and actively engaged in being more inclusive in their curriculum and classrooms. I am grateful to be surrounded by such colleagues and excited to continue working with them.
  3. Last but not least, the presence and work of specific professors. These are people who have been consistent in their emotional and professional support from the first day I arrived here with my husband, Professor David Miranda Hardy, and our children in early 2015. They have opened their homes and hearts, giving us and other BIPOC faculty a safe space to land, to feel like we’re “home”.  These are faculty that are constantly calling out racism wherever it is, from speaking out against Charles Murray and other public and private racist incidents to using their curriculum to showcase work by BIPOC creators and scholars. Without these faculty, I’m not sure I would still be here. 

The faculty I’m talking about are Professor Enrique Garcia (and his wife, Professor Nikolina Dobreva), Professor Marcos Rohena-Madrazo and Professor Patricia Saldarriaga. In the five and a half years that I have been at Middlebury, raising our three Black (biracial) children, navigating what it means to fight anti-Black racism as faculty and parents in a predominantly White state, I am so grateful that they (along with many other faculty and staff I met mainly through the Department of Luso-Hispanic Studies) are here too. They have been an anchor for so many BIPOC faculty. And not just because they cook amazing pernil and provide a space for us to complain about the various micro and macro aggressions we experience but because they’re also doing the work to fight racism in their classrooms and beyond. 

In her email denouncing institutional racism, Professor Marissel Hernández-Romero names specific incidents with these colleagues and my husband to imply that they are part of the institutional racism here at Middlebury. 

I strongly denounce that implication. In doing so, I know I risk being accused of negating Professor Hernández-Romero’s experiences or further silencing her. I risk being told, “well that’s your experience, not hers.” But I will continue. Because yes, I am speaking from my own experience. My years and years of close, regular, daily experience with these people have made me a Black female professor teaching at Middlebury feel unconditionally and vitally supported.  

I am especially compelled to speak out against her claims because there are now calls to devote time and resources to investigating these faculty of color. If Professor Hernández-Romero has the right to share her personal perspective a perspective that has long-lasting implications, a perspective that has already caused a lot of stress, confusion and heartache then I, too, have the right to share mine.  

I first heard of Professor Hernández-Romero through Enrique Garcia and Marcos Rohena-Madrazo. They were raving about an amazing candidate in their departmental search for a visiting professor. They were excited about what she would be able to bring to the department as a woman of color, a Black woman. As faculty whose scholarship contributed to de-centering Europe/Spain as the epicenter of intellectual contributions to their field (led by the hard work of Patricia Saldarriaga), Professors Garcia and Rohena-Madrazo have offered many classes that center BIPOC voices and were thoroughly invested in giving a platform to non-white scholars. 

I later heard more about Professor Hernández-Romero through my husband, Professor Miranda Hardy. Since he was an active voice in the fight against Charles Murray at the time, Professor Hernández-Romero turned to my husband for support whenever she experienced racism. 

As someone who had proven himself to be an anti-racist, as the husband of a Black woman and the father to three Black-identifying children, he felt personally affected by her stories about her incidents of racism in the town of Middlebury. And he didn’t just sit with them, he organized to have her stories heard, taken seriously. Perhaps this is why she continued to seek his advice and support whenever she encountered racism.  

I name these incidents to counter the implication that they are part of the problem of systemic racism at Middlebury. Over the years, I have seen time and time again only the opposite. From the classroom to personal interactions, they have shown up in ways that have had a significantly positive impact on the lived experiences of me and many BIPOC faculty, staff and students here at Middlebury. 

Finally, I must address Professor Hernández-Romero’s claim that the faculty she specifically names in her email are “White-passing”. Perhaps this is an attempt to give more credence to her claims. Perhaps it is just her personal perspective. But by sharing this perspective in her community-wide email, she negates the lived experiences of these people of color. They have all experienced racism here at Middlebury and beyond, precisely because of the way they look. To deny this identity is to deny these experiences, and it is simply wrong. 

Although Professor Hernández-Romero purports to be denouncing institutional racism at Middlebury, her email mainly targets individual professors of color who are actively fighting it (all while fielding various micro and macro aggressions in their own personal lives). She has now garnered the attention and support of students who are eager to hold the college accountable for the very real institutional racism that exists, but now it is at the expense of the professors of color that will continue to work here. It is peculiar to say the least, that someone supposedly invested in fighting institutional racism would exit this community with individualized accusations against the very people who are fighting to make this place more inclusive. These serious accusations of racism against people of color at Middlebury cannot exist without scrutiny simply because they are coming from a Black woman.  

I end this letter with a heavy heart but empowered with the hope that my voice will also be heard. Because I won’t be silenced either. And I will continue to use my voice to fight structural racism and highlight the voices of people who do the same. 

In solidarity,
Natasha Ngaiza

Natasha Ngaiza is an Assistant Professor of Film and Media Culture at Middlebury.