There is much in the news today about sexism and racism, and some complain of a country that has gone too far in “wokeness,” or “cancellation culture.” This is not a new phenomenon. Here is my story:
Toward the end of the 1990s about the time I sold my consulting company, Howell Associates, I became a part-time lecturer at the University of Maryland School of Public Affairs where I lectured on developing seniors housing and on affordable housing finance. I loved the job and enjoyed the opportunity to share knowledge with students, most of whom were adults who were pursuing their continuing education.
Then about 10 years into the job I received a strange voicemail message from the director of the program I was teaching in. “Mr. Howell,” a woman’s voice stated sternly, “There in no place for racists or sexists at the University of Maryland. You are hereby dismissed from your teaching responsibilities and no longer welcomed on our campus.” Then the message ended.
I thought there must be some mistake. I immediately returned the call where I left a return voice message, saying, “I received your message. Could you please explain?”
The next day I received another voice mail message, which stated in an angry tone that I was a racist and a sexist because of the racist and sexist story I told in the class the day before.
For the life of me, I could not figure what she could be talking about, so I called back and got her answering device yet again and asked for more clarity. Back came a message that it was because of the terrible racist story I told about the Chinese and that I should call the students I had offended and apologize. She gave me the name and number of the student who was most offended.
Here is the story I told in class, which was true, when I was trying to explain one of the difficult and maddening issues associated with HUD financing:
I know that this may seem hard to understand and actually it does not make a whole lot of sense, but you do not have to be a rocket scientist to get the picture. This reminds me of an experience I had last week when I was with one of my clients—the Chinese American Retirement Communities Inc. I was at one of their board meetings and talking to the board about a similar issue in HUD financing. They were bunch of sharp 30 and 40 somethings and very attentive. Just after I made that comment about rocket scientists, they all looked briefly at each other and then at me. With a twinkle in her eye and a sheepish grin, a young woman replied, “Mr. Howell, actually we are rocket scientists. All of us. We work at NASA.”
That was it, the story that got me kicked out of teaching at the University of Maryland and issued a lifetime ban from ever returning to their campus.
Still curious, I decided to call the person, a woman, who was the most offended by my racists remarks, whose surname was American not Chinese. I apologized saying I was not intending to offend anyone, to which she replied she would not accept an apology. When I asked her why she thought the story was racist, she replied that it was discriminatory and prejudiced to suggest that all Chinese are smart enough to be rocket scientists. Okay, I responded, “I get it that I am racist, but why am I sexist?”
She snarled, “Because you said a young woman asked the question. You should have said a young person.”
Then she hung up.
For several months after that incident, I would break out into a cold sweat every time I got within a mile or two of the University of Maryland campus thinking I could be arrested and put in jail. A year passed and then another couple of years. Then I got a call from someone at the University of Maryland who said he was calling on behalf of the director, who had come to the conclusion that by now I must be rehabilitated enough to come back. He confessed they were desperate and could not find anyone to cover the subjects I was teaching. I gladly returned and taught another ten years happily before retiring.
Yes, for me. But not for others. The cancellation culture can easily get out of hand.