The Student Activist Who Exposed Her 'Progressive' Professor's Racist Views
Kayla Parker wrote a viral essay about her experience with a professor who included a racist question on a history test. In the aftermath, she's ignited a national conversation on what it means to be an ally.
Photo courtesy of Kayla Parker
You Know Who Rules? is Broadly's December interview series highlighting women and non-binary people who accomplished incredible things during the dumpster fire of a year that was 2017.
University of Tennessee, Knoxville graduate Kayla Parker has had quite a year. From exposing performative allyship to founding a support group dedicated to breaking students' silence on sexual assault, Parker has vowed to use her frustration from Trump's election to speak out against injustice.
Parker first gained national attention this year when she wrote a viral article detailing what happened when she called out her seemingly progressive professor's racist quiz question that argued "most slave families were kept intact with wife and husband present." After the professor's social media posts berating and threatening Parker were exposed, she was fired by the university.
Parker has since graduated with a degree in sociology and a minor in entrepreneurship, with future plans to start her own business. Broadly spoke with Parker about how to detect fake allies and her hopes for 2018.
BROADLY: How would you describe your past year?
KAYLA PARKER: Challenging and hard, but rewarding. I went through a lot, mainly being victimized as a black woman. It sucked. What I hated most was people telling me "It’s going to make me stronger"—don’t diminish what I’m going through right now and how it’s affecting me. I had a lot of stressors just dealing with my identity. Most students just have to deal with struggling in classes, while I was getting hit at every angle with so many obstacles fighting systemic injustices. However, at the end of the day, so many doors opened up to me because of it. I got to take a Graduate level Global Racism class; I’m currently talking to the Southern Poverty Law Center to fight white supremacy groups. It was difficult, but I got a lot out of it.
It seems like you discovered a lot about faux allyship.
What I realized is the people who self-identify as allies are the most problematic ones. They think they’ve done all the work, they’ve done all what it takes to be an ally, so now they’re going to take the label ally and not do any work; they think they don’t need to work on themselves or prove that they’re an ally. My professor took every critique about the quiz question and saw it as some sort of personal attack. I don’t care how many Black Lives Matter marches you’ve been to or what you post on your Facebook. That’s cool. That’s good. Do it. You can be an ally so easily on Facebook, but if you’re not fighting than not much is really being done.
You have a large following on social media; how does social media play into faux allyship?
It’s so easy to be an ally on social media. I had several friends that called themselves allies and would tell me on Facebook that they were supporting me, but then I would be in a situation where blatant racism would be happening and they would be silent. I use social media as a platform because I have a large audience. When I originally started questioning my professor about this quiz question, I was just keeping record because I saw it escalating. All I asked was if I was out out of line challenging this quiz question and my professor, and people told me I wasn’t. I didn’t even call her by name; I was just asking for opinions. I was super transparent, and from that, I gained an audience. While I’m totally fine with taking on these battles by myself and fighting injustices, it is disheartening that no one else is stepping up.
You went to a predominantly white high school. Did you feel like your college experience awakened your awareness to microaggressions?
It forced me to. I was always aware [of] what microaggressions were. Getting called "oreo" and stuff like that, I just let that slide; it didn’t feel safe to speak out against that. In high school, I was getting microaggressions all the time, but after this election I decided I was not going to let these microaggressions slide. This hatred has been building. Calling me an oreo seems super minor, but I’ll have a fit over it. How come speaking intelligently and being proper is a "white" thing? Why can’t it be a human quality? Let’s go back and look at this. It’s a compliment to me but an insult to all of my people. I shut all of that down because that’s why we’re here and why we’re in such a racially tense climate right now.
What do you think are your biggest accomplishments from this past year?
The White Privilege Podcast covering my experience with my sociology professor was a huge accomplishment, mainly because they went into a huge dialogue about allies. Hearing my experience used in that way was all I wanted. My professor isn’t an anomaly; this is a common theme I’m seeing every day. To hear them not only talk about my situation, but frame it in a holistic way so that those listening can learn as white allies was exactly what I dreamed of. I want people to talk about my experience in a way that will teach and benefit other people. Why would I have gone through all of that just to have a story written? I want change to be made. I want students to speak up when their professors are wildin. I want people to stop changing my history.