Anatomy of a Racial Incident at UVa

Jeffrey Leopold

by James A. Bacon

Jeffrey Leopold, a University of Virginia assistant professor, was assigned this fall to teach “COMM 1800 — Foundations of Commerce,” a prerequisite for students entering the McIntire School of Commerce. On October 22 he lectured the class on the topic of globalism. His purpose was to explain the necessity of adopting a “global mindset,” which among other things, required appreciating cultural differences.

Leopold kicked off his lecture, as he commonly did, by telling a joke. For this particular class, he told one that played on stereotypes of peoples around the world. It went like this:

The United Nations conducted a survey worldwide. The only question asked was: “Would you please give us your honest opinion about solutions to the food shortage in the rest of the world?” The survey was a complete failure…

In Africa they did not know what “food” meant.

In China they did not know what “honest” meant.

In Europe they did not know what “shortage” meant.

In Russia they did not know what “opinion” meant.

In the Middle East they did not know what “solution” meant.

In South America they did not know what “please” meant.

And in the USA they did not know what “the rest of the world” meant.

According to a first-year student who contacted Bacon’s Rebellion, Leopold used the joke as a jumping off point “to explain why we need to break down stereotypes such as these” and “told personal stories of times he realized he made false stereotypes about foreign countries.” Leopold went on to finish the lecture without incident.

But it wasn’t long before someone took umbrage at the quip about Africa. In a class discussion group, held via Zoom, someone said, “Hey, that’s offensive,” or something to that effect. No one one else responded, though, and the first-year student didn’t hear anything else until Oct. 28 when he checked his Instagram account and found that social media had erupted. The Organization of African Students had issued the following statement:

In light of the recent events that occurred in a Comm 1800 class, where professor Leopold Jeffery made a demeaning and insensitive remark, “Africans didn’t know what food meant” and attempted to disguise such a statement as humor, the Organization of African Students would like to call for action and hold professors accountable. There have been multiple instances where faculty members and staff have made ignorant, and inherently racist statements, where the N-word was utilized and minority groups ridiculed and that is unacceptable. We call on the University to increase the standards of the yearly diversity and bias trainings for all of those teaching and assisting courses.

OAS statement

Despite the fact that it reversed “Jeffrey” and “Leopold” in his name, provided no context for Africans-don’t-know-what-food-is punchline, and failed even to explain exactly how the joke was offensive, the OAS statement struck a chord. It recorded at least 237 “likes” on the first day.

Leopold apologized to the class and, on or about Oct. 30, released a public statement.

I am honored to teach Foundations of Commerce at McIntire, having done so since the spring of 2017. On Thursday, October 22th in my class, I made statements that were both insensitive and offensive. I sincerely regret doing so and I am deeply sorry for my actions and my words.

I care deeply about all of my students and the UVA community at-large and I will never forget this judgment error. Over the past several days, and with counsel from McIntire leadership, I have reflected on my actions. I know that what I said was wrong and I appreciate even more so the great importance and impact of what I say in and out of the classroom. It is clear that I should have been more thoughtful with my comments and I apologize.

I tremendously value the opportunity to spend my time, energy and passion helping the brilliant students at this University fulfill their potential. I have a deep interest and willingness to continue to learn and become a better professor and educator. I hope, in turn, that those whom I have hurt can help me continue to broaden my perspective so that I can do a better job, with greater sensitivity and awareness going forward.

That story was covered by WDBJ and WVIR television stations and made it into Inside Higher Ed, the higher-ed trade publication, and even Bacon’s Rebellion. All the stories (including mine) provided the quote, “Africans didn’t know what food meant” without any context, leaving readers (including myself) baffled about how it possibly could been construed as funny in any way. The news coverage emphasized Leopold’s apology but also quoted from the OAS statement.

Student Council picks up the cudgel

Despite Leopold’s attempt at damage control, the controversy was far from over. On. Nov. 2, the University of Virginia Student Council discussed a resolution “Denouncing Repeated Instances of Racist Statements by Professors at the University,” which mentioned Leopold by name.

By way of background, the council is as demographically diverse as the United Nations. By my quick count based on council website, there are  slots for 38 student representatives. While 60% of students at UVa are white, ethnic minorities predominate in the council. Representatives include East Asians, South Asians, Hispanics, Africans, and African Americans. See for yourself here.

To get an idea of the political tenor of the council, consider an issue taken up before the discussion of the Leopold matter: a resolution in support of Nigerian Students. SARS (the Special Anti-Robbery Squad) is a special branch of the Nigerian police force that has become controversial for extrajudicial torture and killings. Protests against its abuses have gone international. The resolution before Student Council was designed to draw attention to the movement opposing the human rights abuses, but it also included this statement:

The Student Council Representative Body joins [the Organization of African Students] in calling for an expanded and renovated [Office of African-American Affairs], more funding for Black spaces at the University, and the creation of an outdoor gathering space for Black students due to COVID-19.

Zyahna Bryant

Second-year student Zyahna Bryant quickly established herself as the most forceful presence in the discussion. She expressed support or the anti-SARS movement as follows (based on a rough transcript I made from the Student Council video): “Hundreds have been killed. It is imperative that we call this injustice for exactly what it is, injustice and the product of imperialism, colonialism, and deeply rooted systematic white supremacy. [People] continue to benefit from the pain and suffering of black people.”

She gave no evidence to show how “systematic white supremacy” might be responsible for human rights abuses in a country which won its independence sixty years ago. She just took it as a given. And no one called her on it.

Kyle Woodson

However, Kyle Woodson, a first-year African-American representative, focused on a different matter. He did not see the connection between the anti-SARS movement and a demand for more space for black students at UVa. Indeed, he expressed concern that the resolution “contributes to the balkanization of the student body by promoting the self-segregation of different identity groups at the university.” The Council, he said, “should not be actively pursuing division of the study body we have the honor of representing. … Instead of promoting diversity and inclusion, this resolution will do the opposite, promoting diversity and exclusion.”

Bryant was dismissive. “Your remark about self-segregating is absurd,” she said. “The term has been used by white people to describe black people using spaces to discuss their issues. I’m assuming you’ve never been to OAAA. I would like to advocate we keep the funding of OAAA in this resolution. White supremacy and racism is a multi-faceted issue.”

After several council members expressed support for Bryant, Woodson backed off. His proposed amendment failed, and the resolution passed.

When the conversation turned to the resolution denouncing professors making racist statements, The Student Council made only a minimal effort to establish a body of facts beyond what was contained in the resolution itself:

On October 29, 2020, the Organization for African Students (OAS) issued a statement about a remark in a COMM 1800 class where Professor Jeffrey Leopold made a demeaning and insensitive remark about Africans. He further perpetuated a series of stereotypes about a variety of ethnicities and geographical locations including Chinese, Middle Eastern, and South American stereotypes.

No context was provided, either of the joke itself or Leopold’s intention in using it as a way to get beyond stereotypes.

Nma Okafor

Nma Okafor, president of the Organization for African Students provided a little additional background. She quoted a participant in Leopold’s class.

We were all confused why a COMM 180 professor was speaking about African food. It just didn’t correlate. … After the class was over, she had a chance to take it in, and let us know what was happening. And she said that the COMM professor was making a quote-unquote joke about something that he had heard and was refuting. … Not only did he make a racist and unprofessional comment about African countries, he also made it about Asian countries.

One or two black students in a class with 60 white students…. it makes people genuinely uncomfortable. Students are afraid to speak up. [They] don’t know if they’ll be backed up by other students, if they will get docked points. …

We received an email from the Provost’s office who wanted to open a dialogue for letting us know about the training that they’re doing. [There is] lots of dialogue, not a lot of action. We want to see what this racial bias training looks like. What do they learn? Is there any correlation with minority students feeling safer in the classroom.

The resolution before the Council stated that the existing system for reporting bias, “Just Report It, UVA,” provided variable results and did not guarantee consequences. The resolution also called for raising the standards of bias training and implementing a “strike system” to ensure that “there are consequences and accountability” for professors who make racist statements.

Zyahna Bryant then spoke in favor of the resolution.

I’m not going to give you a long statement on the historical background of racism and the use of racial slurs and euphemisms to demean, taunt and harass black people. That would be a waste of time and an exhausting amount of labor for me, a black woman attending a university in the South, in an area that was once the capital of the Confederacy, and was recently the rallying point for torch-bearing Nazis and white supremacists just a few years ago in 2017. Frankly, it is your responsibility to educate yourselves on where you go to school.

Last spring I took a class where I was one of three black students in the class. Once my professor recited the N-word. Not one time but twice in the span of 30 seconds. I found myself angry and annoyed that we haven’t progressed past this point as a university that claims to be so innovative and accepting on the issues that matter. It is a sobering reality to reckon with when you are black and first-generation. No, the university has not progressed past this point, and professors are still subjecting students to the violence of their words. Racism is real. To me it goes under the file of water is wet. I am appealing to you to be firm in your beliefs in terms of what it means to be anti-racist. Either you find yourself on the side of being complicit, or against racism and white supremacy. The professor who made the most recent remarks about Africans not knowing what food meant was absolutely wrong and inappropriate, and there is no excuse for his behavior. He has since publicly apologized. There is no question of whether or not this happened. It has been admitted publicly, and I refuse to go back and forth about whether or not it happened. Moving forward, we need measures in place to make sure this doesn’t happen again.

Nick Cabrera

Once again a first-year student stepped forward to raise concerns. Nick Cabrera, a first-generation student of Puerto Rican ethnicity, questioned whether the joke could be termed “racist.” Leopold, he said, “read a well-known joke using the U.N., the United Nations reference. … I found approximately ten [web]sites with the same well-known joke. While this might not be a joke at all, we must ask ourselves, how is this racist?”

Cabrera also asked questions about the “strike” provision of the resolution. He politely asked Bryant to describe how it would work.

Other council members jumped in to defend the resolution. One African-American said he “found it really strange” that there was “such an intense statement in opposition.” Another member, white, said Leopold’s statement “is clearly racist. While we have a video this time, there are countless stories from minority students. Since they aren’t on video, it is difficult to get the attention they deserve. We need to recognize this is a systemic issue.”

Bryant showed no inclination to debate the issue. “I’m never going to go back and forth with a non-black person about what is racist and what is not,” she said.

It is very concerning that we have non-black people giving themselves agency to decide what is and what is not racist. If you have two black co-sponsors telling you that this is racist or you have a black student coming forward and saying that they feel this is racist, and they were therefore intimidated, that just needs to be that. … There doesn’t need to be any opposition to this. We know what it is. We know what UVA is. We know that … hundreds of people were enslaved to build this university. We know that professors say the N-word all the time. We know that students say the N-word all the time. We know there hasn’t  been a black female student council president since 2003. … What I’m not going to do is sit here and play games.

Neha Rana, council member of South Asian ethnicity, joined in to say, “I don’t think it’s appropriate for non-black people like me to determine what is racist or not.” She had taken Leopold’s class, she added, and “he insinuated I would be better off in STEM because I am an Asian-American student.”

Jason Evans, also African-American, spoke as follows: “I would suggest that those who are not of African descent would listen to the voice of us who are… When black folks say shit is racist, believe them the first time. Anti-blackness is global. I would suggest you do your work to understand the systemic nature of racism and anti-blackness.”

Cabrera spoke again in defense of Leopold. “It’s almost as if we’re transitioning into a climate of limited free speech. Jeffery Leopold did not say anything specifically about black Americans. He spoke about almost every continent.” Then Cabrera asked again how the strike provision would work.

Bryant proceeded to draw a distinction between free speech and hate speech.

Let’s start with hate speech. … We have white people trying to be the experts on things that don’t effect them. I’m sick and tired of people … hiding that they are Trump supporters to get elected. … We have too many men who want to mansplain, and we have too many people who don’t have lived experiences inserting themselves into conversations that have nothing to do with them. All you’re being asked to do is vote in support of [this legislation] in solidarity with black students. If you can’t do that, you don’t need to be a student leader. If you can’t talk about racism in a way that’s real and true, you don’t need to be a student leader. OK? We said it was racist because it’s racist. It’s 2020. There are a plethora of classes [on racism] you can take at this university. … If you want to be educated on that, don’t ask black women to do it. Take a class.

She then briefly addressed the question about the three-strike proposal. As she saw it, the university administration would keep a tally of how often professors make racist statements. “Three strikes and you’re out.”

Cabrera didn’t back down. “I am hurt by your statements personally. You should keep my political beliefs out of this. I am a first-generation Puerto Rican American. We’re in a community where we should be able to talk about this face to face. The heat you came at me with just now was kind of unsettling.” Cabrera acknowledged that “racism is present” in the university and that it is unacceptable to make racist statements, but he wasn’t comfortable with the strike system. Everyone, he said, is entitled to due process.

“Please don’t patronize me,” Bryant shot back. “Please do not gaslight me. … I don’t know a damn thing about you. You don’t know a damn thing about me.”

Gabriela Hernandez piled on. Addressing Cabrera, she said: “As a Latinx student, I am not understanding that you’re not understanding that there are multiple black people that were offended.”

Jason Evans

Evans, a graduate student representative, then leaped in to expand the scope of the debate.

Let me be frank. Some of us don’t get the message that was previously conveyed by my colleagues of African descent, people who understand and decisively take an anti-racist posture. We as a body take an anti-racist posture. … Tenured professors have power. They cannot be fired unless they violate egregious laws. White men and women say racist shit and do not get fired. African Americans have no resource if they are subject to the power of a tenured professor. Jeffrey Leopold was not tenured, but most of the professors are tenured. I’m sure a lot of them are racist. They cannot be fired. So what, as students, African-American, African diaspora, where can we go to express grievance to hold these powerful men and women accountable for what they say? Saying is an action. You call me a nigger. You call me a June bug. You talk about my lack of intelligence. That is racist. It is designed and intended to devalue my humanity as a member of the African community. Point blank fucking period. …. I am mad, not because you disagree, Cabrera, I am mad because you use language that was simply gaslighting. And disrespectful. … This resolution is to protect our students from being victims or racist remarks, and actions, and other forms of micro-aggressions by people in power. Professors are people in power. They cannot be fired for the shit they can say to us. … [As members of the student council] we don’t speak for the professors. We speak for the students. Fuck those professors. They’ve got the power, they’ve got a job, and they’ve got tenure. … Words are violence. … We’ve got to make a stand, and I’m going to make my stand tonight.

After a couple more brief comments, the Student Council voted. The resolution passed.

Continued fallout

The situation seemed to settle down, and Leopold continued teaching his class. Then rumors started spreading Tuesday that he had been suspended and the discussion leaders were being terminated. Comments on the COMM 180 chat board exploded. Dozens of students argued that the suspension was unfair. Others, according to the first-year student who contacted Bacon’s Rebellion, argued “that the joke was racist and anyone who disagreed was racist. They commandeered the group chat and basically tried to cancel anyone who disagreed with them.”

As one student, Gabrielle Johnson, informed the others, Leopold’s defenders had better be careful. “Names were given to the professor and the dean. … The university, given its history, does not make light of these situations and as first years coming in, it is important that you know. The dean has shared with us that these views are not representative of the comm school. Many of the comments that have been shared (and documented) are in direct opposition to common school values.”

Despite the implied threats, students and friends of Leopold rallied to his defense in an online petition at “We must fight to help Professor Leopold and the discussion leaders retain their jobs and get the school to revoke their termination,” the petition reads. “He made a simple joke (which was bashing stereotypes) and apologized profusely. They do not deserve this. Professor Leopold is an amazing professor and his discussion leaders are incredible.”

Dozens of comments left no doubt that Leopold was a popular professor. Anyone can make a mistake, many said. He apologized and he should be reinstated.

As of Monday afternoon 1,123 people had signed the petition.

“Professor Leopold continues to be employed by the McIntire School and taught this semester’s course to completion,” said a McIntire School spokesperson in response to Bacon’s Rebellion. “Historically, COMM 1800 has featured a variety of speakers from across the academic areas of the McIntire School and various business sectors. In the spring of 2021, we are formalizing the role of our discipline-specific faculty by assembling an interdisciplinary group of world-class faculty to team-teach the course. Professor Leopold will continue to be a part of COMM 1800 and we look forward to the fresh roll out in the spring.”

This article was republished with permission from Bacon’s Rebellion.

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