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Caitlin Cherry Disagrees With VCU Investigation Finding Into Alleged Racial Profiling

It has been seven months since VCU arts professor Javier Tapia asked a security guard to check on a black woman sitting in a lounge eating her breakfast and responding to emails.

That woman was his colleague: Caitlin Cherry.

Cherry came to VCU in October 2018 from Brooklyn, New York. She took a position as a visiting professor in the painting and printmaking department teaching a graduate level critical theory seminar course and conducting studio visits.

After the incident, VCU placed Tapia on paid administrative leave and conducted an investigation to review if Tapia acted in a discriminatory manner towards Cherry. The investigation did not find that Tapia discriminated against Cherry or other faculty or students in the past.

VCU officials, such as President Michael Rao, are now being sued by Tapia for allegedly violating his Due Process and First Amendment rights. Tapia is seeking reinstatement as a tenured professor, court costs and $1 million in damages.

Since October, VCU’s arts department has been in disarray with students advocating on behalf of Cherry, outraged at not only what they feel is a lack of action from the administration, but at the lack of diversity within the school of the arts.

The response from students has increased as Tapia is currently listed as teaching two classes this fall. After a series of sit-ins, students met with school leaders like VCU President Michael Rao and Arts Dean Shawn Brixey at the end of the spring semester.

WCVE News Intern Brianna Scott sat down with Cherry to hear her thoughts on what has transpired since the incident. This interview was edited for length and clarity.

What happened that morning back in October?

That Thursday morning before I was scheduled to do graduate studio visits at about 8:30, I was there working in that room, using it as a lounge. At that point, I'm on my laptop, sort of sitting almost like at the head of a conference type of table where I usually sit when I'm teaching my seminar. An older gentleman walks into the room and he sees me, he glances at me and he kind of has this moment. He doesn't say anything to me. He walked out of the room and then maybe five minutes later a security guard entered the room and asked me for my identification.

And I asked, “Who asked you to come question me?” I had a suspicion that it was the previous person who just came into the room. I handed over my identification and I revealed that I was a faculty member and I'm allowed to access. So what happened after that was -- I just kind of slowly felt like, I felt like this wasn't right.

What were you feeling right after the interaction with the security guard?

It made me feel like I didn't belong in a room that I had been given access to very clearly. Given what has happened to black people when security gets called on them -- it really made me feel like this had all happened because of my race and also my gender and that [Tapia] could not imagine somebody who looks like me in the position that I was at the time as a visiting professor.

What was it like working in the same building as someone who you had never interacted with before and then had this incident occur with?

Later that day, I actually had to use the restroom and I looked down the hallway and I remember seeing him in the middle of the hallway talking to his students. And then I had kind of bolted back into the adjunct lounge slash classroom because I, I didn't want to have to encounter him again. There was kind of this really angry moment that I had when trying to identify him in the first place. But I think that second time I saw him, I was kind of fearful.

What was the University’s initial response when you filed your complaint?

I had emailed the chair and I just received a quick email that said, “I'm sorry this happened to you, I will look into it.” So there was kind of subsequent emails that were sent up to the department. I decided at that time to go ahead and, even though I had already emailed Equity and Access, tell them my full story and go ahead with the opening the investigation on that incident.

The results of the investigation were that he did not act in a discriminatory manner. What did you think about the findings?

According to Equity and Access, they found that this particular incident does not rise to VCU’s standard of racial discrimination. I didn't agree with VCU Equity’s findings. It was really frustrating because to have been interviewed by Equity and Access felt like a process of almost being put through a police investigation and being interviewed to that level of detail. Like how dark was the room, they went to the room to see how dark it was because that could maybe mean that he wasn't able to identify even my race.

Has Javier Tapia spoken to you since the incident or issued an apology for what transpired?

No, he hasn’t. There was a moment, honestly, maybe within the first 48 hours after the incident where after he knew who I was, had he gone back to try to reach out to me to apologize, I think that I maybe would have treated it differently. This was like a catastrophic mistake, really insulting to somebody who once you found out is a colleague, you didn't want to apologize. And it also brings up some questions of what has been the racial makeup of your department and gender makeup of your department to where you could not see me in any way as your colleague.

Has this been one of the least or more diverse departments you’ve worked in as a professor?

The student body is definitely one of the more diverse schools that I've ever worked at.

Which is part of the reason why I think I still want to be here. But the faculty makeup is honestly on par with a lot of other schools that I've taught at and probably in some instances a lot worse.

Can you tell me what it’s like to be sometimes not just the only black person, but the only black woman teaching in these environments?

You never feel like you belong. You start questioning things, it makes you feel like you're kind of here to clean up things that they can't do as a white faculty. When there are students who need to talk about specific things, they look to you because they feel like you can identify.

Do you feel supported by your department and higher administration?

That's a really difficult question. I feel supported by individual people.

What do you think the university could be doing or could have done when the situation first arose?

I think that what immediately happened within the department was right. There was a department email sent out really fast. But then as it got up to upper-level administration, communication slowed down and people started sending emails that were very vague, so vague about my incident that you couldn't tell that it was about my incident or you couldn't tell at all what it was even about. I wish that the university had been more direct about what they were responding to when they were sending out these emails.

What is your reaction to the student support?

I think it's great. It's long overdue and even though the student body obviously changes every year and things that have happened in the past may not necessarily affect the current classes of students, they're really fighting for a better community. Even if it's something that ends up happening when they're gone.

How did you feel when Tapia filed the lawsuit and now there’s a possibility of him returning?

When I was told I had no reaction. There was a phone call and I think I was trying to contain some emotions at that particular moment. But afterwards, I shed some tears to be honest because it really seemed out of nowhere. This was something that I wasn't expecting to happen so soon.

What would you say is your biggest concern about him returning to campus?

My biggest concern is for the students. It represents that the university is not listening to students' demands. Some people are going to be incredibly uncomfortable with being on the third floor and that means that their academic progress is hindered. And that's the last thing that I think, well the university, wants.

What do you want to immediately see from the university?

My request would be that they should look into our Dean's office to make sure that they are actually opening searches for new tenure track positions in our department, in painting and printmaking. And I think they also should probably just look across all other departments because I've heard some things have fallen through and that's really an issue with the Dean's office.

I'm just one person. I want to stand behind my students, not in front of them. They have demands. It doesn't have to be me that's here hired as a tenure track professor. They just want to make sure that their faculty diversity is to the level of the student population.


VPM News is the staff byline for articles and podcasts written and produced by multiple reporters and editors.
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