Last week, Stephanie McKellop, a graduate student and teaching assistant at the University of Pennsylvania who uses they/them pronouns, caused outrage when they tweeted, “I will always call on my Black women students first. Other POC get second tier priority. WW come next. And, if I have to, white men.” Although it is worth noting that the course McKellop teaches is one called “Sinner, Sex and Slaves: Race and Sex in Early America,” conservative media had a field day following their tweets. The Daily Wire mocked them as a “woke” instructor who won’t call on white males, and said that their practices are a “blatant exercise in race and sex-based discrimination.”
McKellop’s stance might seem extreme, but it’s not entirely unheard of in academia. This practice, where instructors prioritize the voices of students from marginalized backgrounds, is known as progressive stacking. Jessie Daniels, a professor of sociology at Hunter College in New York, told Inside HigherEd that she has observed the practice at various colleges since the 1990s. The practice has also been used outside of the classroom by the Occupy Durham movement. Proponents of the practice argue that calling on Black students or women before white men is necessary because otherwise an instructor’s implicit biases might leave certain students under or overrepresented. But is the solution to implicit biases—the science behind which is questionable at best—to engage in explicit discrimination? Of course not.
Progressive stacking, in an effort to combat racism, consciously and deliberately engages in it. Racial discrimination in any form shouldn’t be tolerated in higher education. Because McKellop conducted their class in a discriminatory manner, they should be fired. Any professor who engages in explicit discrimination should be terminated—there is no room for warnings or gray areas—and a message needs to be sent. That being said, so far, the university has not removed them from their position.
Instructors like them who engage in this progressive stacking need to realize that there’s actually nothing progressive about it. Daniels admitted that she also uses progressive stacking. She said that progressive stacking is a “good strategy” as “a way of dealing with discrimination.” But Daniels—and others like her—are missing the point.
Colleges and universities should be equal places for opportunity and learning for all students, regardless of their race, gender, socioeconomic class or sexuality. In fact, at public universities, the guarantee of equal treatment is enshrined in our constitution, whose equal protection clause guarantees equal treatment by state governments to all people.
Instructors have no right to pick and choose students to call on based on race, sex or anything except their academic ability. Women and people of color are just as capable of contributing in a classroom setting as their white, male counterparts; to claim that they need special coaxing or treatment is to imply that they aren’t. Furthermore, why would McKellop prioritize “Black women” over “Other POC [people of color]”? Their job is to educate students, not divide them up into identity baskets or rank them based on their privilege.
Let me be clear: I’m not saying that this practice is pervasive or even common in our system of higher education. However, at the same time, it’s recently gained exposure and may could be giving the practice undue legitimacy—and that’s a problem.
Alternate options exist that can ensure all students have equal opportunities to speak in the classroom. Professors could call on students randomly or require that each student speak an equal number of times in each session.
Some professors use the “inventory method.” Under this practice, every student is required to prepare a written response during class, which each student reads aloud during a group conversation. There’s no controversy, no playing favorites, no opportunities for discrimination or inequality. If they’re actually serious about addressing inequality, and not just promoting their radical agenda, the far-left should refocus their efforts on these types of programs.
There’s no available data on whether progressive stacking is used here at UMass, but as in the case of UPenn before McKellop’s Twitter confession, it’s sometimes not done overtly. Hopefully, professors here do not engage in social-justice-fueled discrimination.
Fringe members of the social justice movement like Stephanie McKellop actually set racial equality back. There are real racial inequalities that remain in our society and on our college campuses, but progressive movements should focus on balancing the scales, not tilting them in the other direction. By allowing the fringe left to engage in progressive stacking, they discredit the cause they’re trying to promote, and provide right-wing media with ample clickbait that makes leftists look bad.
Brad Polumbo is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected] or found on twitter @Brad_Polumbo.