Awkward Email Invites Important Conversation

It’s mid-September – classes have started at Texas colleges and universities, and the first round of tests is looming. In one Texas Christian University classroom last week, the conversation wasn’t about an exam but about an email sent by Dr. Santiago Piñòn.

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The Latino professor of “Understanding Religion: Society and Culture” sent this email to 12 students on Wednesday, September 11: “At the beginning of the semester I usually like to invite all my students of color to get together and discuss the challenges they may face during the semester. However, the time slipped by and I didn’t get a chance. So, I would like to ask if you are interested in a get together on Monday afternoon? We can also discuss the exam that is coming up, if you want. I don’t mind if this would turn out to be a study session for my STUDENTS OF COLOR ONLY [emphasis his].”

Reactions varied among students – Freshman Daniel Casteñada felt the email was sent with only good intentions, and he appreciated the additional support offered to students of color at a predominantly white institution. Student Aurelio Rangel says he doesn’t take offense to Dr. Piñòn’s email but could understand why others may feel excluded. Another student, Allyson Guzman, was a little uncomfortable with the message; wondering if Dr. Piñòn went by pictures or last names, Guzman says she identifies as Caucasian “because that’s what I am.”

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Dr. Piñòn released a statement to WFAA News 8 on Friday afternoon saying, “The intent of the email was misunderstood. I should have been more clear in that any study group is open to all students. My goal is to participate in and contribute to the TCU mission by being available to all students so they are successful in the classroom and beyond…I do like to offer myself as a resource to students (particularly those of color) who may face challenges and become discouraged; goal is to encourage and offer support, so I am troubled to think some students may have thought they were being excluded from a study session because that was not at all the intention.”

The afternoon before releasing that statement, Dr. Piñòn sent an email to his entire “Understanding Religion” course, reminding students that they were free to email, call, or stop by his office to talk about the exam.

religiondiversepracticeDr. Piñòn’s email and the subsequent chatter raises many questions about race and higher education, and the danger of our reliance on email (words can be interpreted in a variety of ways, demonstrated by the different students reactions to Dr. Piñòn’s email). What I think is interesting is that this all occurred in a course titled, “Understanding Religion: Society and Culture.” When I consider that, all I can think is A) how much I would love to take the class and B) what a great opportunity to talk about cultural, ethnic, and societal differences among the class. Take that email and the many ways it was read, and have a class period talking in broader terms about the cultural, societal, and ethnic differences at TCU, in higher education, and in the United States. It’s a perfect learning moment, y’all!

I would be interested to find out if other professors reach out to groups of minority students (and not just racial or ethnic minorities, but religious, socioeconomic, and other minority groups as well). Does this happen at other colleges and universities? Would people react differently if it was a white professor reaching out to white students in a predominantly African American or Hispanic setting? How about an atheist professor reaching out to non-religious students in the midst of Christians, Jews, or Muslims? Maybe this is a chance for all of us to think about how our cultural and social backgrounds color our interpretations, and how we navigate those differences in higher education and beyond.

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