“I just remember my very, very first hunch was, she’s mistaking me for another black student in the class,” Tristen Dossett, Fordham College at Lincoln Center (FCLC) ’17 said. He received an email on Oct. 23 from adjunct theatre professor Heide Jonassen after asking for an extension on midterm questions. A screenshot of the email and his typed response to Jonassen has since gone viral on Facebook and Twitter because many interpreted the professor’s words as racist.
The last-minute request for time was met with an informally worded response from Jonassen, according to the post, which was circulated from the Facebook account of Peyton Berry, FCLC ’17. Jonassen tells Dossett, a young black man, “Do not do this narrative.”
“It is really disappointing to see you fall into a stereotype narrative the dominant society expects….your lateness, non attendance..now this,” Jonassen continues. She adds, “you had the questions all semester… I kept suggesting you work on them early,” and inquires why he is so busy, before granting him an extension until the evening of that day.
Berry asked to post the professor’s email and Dossett’s response on their Facebook account after they saw the message. “Tristen’s my best friend and I felt for him immediately,” they said.
“As a student of color, as the vice president of the [FCLC Black Student Alliance], as a social justice leader, this is something I care a lot about,” they added.
In a letter on the post, Dossett responds, “This remark made me feel invalidated and useless. I believe that it is extremely inappropriate for a white professor to tell a black student that they are becoming a stereotype.”
He also refutes her argument. “I have missed three classes, emailing about my case each time, one of which was a medical emergency. The latest I have ever been is five minutes (I am a commuter).” According to school policy, each student is typically allowed two unexcused absences and two excused absences per course per semester.
In a later interview, Dossett said that he decided to make the exchange public after rereading the email several times. “The thing about being a black student is, typically you have to start proving yourself as a person, as a student, from day one,” he said. “There’s this trope of the black man being lazy or inattentive which essentially is the stereotype she’s referring to.”
“My first basic impression was like, wow, this teacher has zero place to make this comment about me, and genuinely doesn’t understand who I am as a person or as a student,” Dossett added. He is taking one of Jonassen’s classes for the first time this semester.
On Oct. 24 Jonassen sent Dossett another message in response to the publicity. “I am very sorry that you took offense to what was meant to be a true expression of concern,” she says. “I wish you had also responded to me personally…rather than spreading it in facebook and making a complaint. I realize that I made a mistake in a presumption of a relationship…and also that you do not really know anything about my history or my own identity as well as my core intents.”
Jonassen apologized for presuming and misspeaking, writing, “I felt you were not stepping up to the plate in a way you are capable of doing..and personally feel not holding everyone to the same high standards is disrespectful to someone’s capabilities..lowered expectations for people to me is the worst kind of bigotry.”
Dossett said that the response was “almost worse” than the original email. “The biggest problem was that she believed that what went wrong was how I apprehended what she said, not that what she did was wrong,” he said.
“I think she was apologizing because she knew she had to,” Berry said. “This was becoming bigger than she had realized.”
In an email, Jonassen said, “As painful and humbling as this has been, I am actually glad for the core issue to be aired as I think that it is always good to double check all assumptions of intent, from all directions. I mostly regret that unintended pain was caused to a student whose potential I was trying to galvanize, though in an utterly inappropriate way.”
After Dossett had emailed administrators to make a formal complaint against Jonassen, he opened a Title IX case and a no-contact order was issued against her.
Senior Director of Communications Bob Howe said in an email statement that “The incident is still under investigation. Given that, we can’t really comment on it.”
To date of print, the Facebook post has garnered 48 shares, 625 reactions and 115 comments both in support of Dossett’s case and in criticism of his decision to make the email public. The Atlanta Black Star and The Washington Times have both reported on it.
Dossett awaits the provost’s decision on his case, but he wants the school and community to see this as a learning experience, and improve diversity education on campus. “To see someone in a certain light because of their race, you have that perception for the rest of your life,” he said. “It would make me so happy if someone was like, ‘wow, I totally get why this is wrong now, and I can now see people with a whole new light.’”