Sunday, February 21, 2010

Yo Mista, That's Racist

At one point I liked to cite the fact that my high school was the most ethnically diverse in the district of five suburban high schools, that meant that the minority rate when I graduated was about sixteen percent. While I'd tried to prepare myself mentally and otherwise for working with an urban, minority population, I knew that it would be different actually doing it. I didn't know if I should address issues regarding race or how to address them in a classroom. Aside from a fear of being labeled as a racist white guy, I had the sneaking suspicion that my complete disconnect with urban African American and Latino culture would be a problem. What I found was that some of my students are not at all racist, some are, and some seem oblivious to what racism really is. Many will call things racist as well even if they are in no way so.

This year I've been dealing with a student who is a white-supremacist (he was giving a Nazi salute in the hallways at school earlier in the year). This is clearly inappropriate and really, really stupid in the South Bronx. Why in the world would you preach white supremacy in an area where .00001% of the residents are white? This kid isn't even white! Our union rep and I were talking it over and he said I should document it to be safe. During that conversation he mentioned that every class of students has a Nazi in it, even in the South Bronx. Last year I knew there was a kid upstairs (in 10-12 grade) who was drawing swastikas all over everything. That young man was an African American who was openly a white supremacist.

My students last year had a terrible problem with calling everything racist. Some did it just to mess with me and some truly believed that everything that addressed race was inherently racist. It drove me crazy. My fear of being accused of racism changed to irritation and then to boredom as I realized the students were either giving me grief just to get a rise out of me or because perhaps they didn't really understand what racism is.

By the end of the year when a student accused me of being racist I just agreed with them sarcastically and moved on. I'd already given the following sarcastic speech to all of my classes:

Yes, I am racist. I'm the most racist person you will ever meet. I moved all the way from Kansas to New York City, where it's all white people, to New York JUST so I could pick on black and Hispanic kids.

That generally got them quiet and then we moved on with whatever we were doing that day. This year there has been much less of the racism talk in class. It came out once and I tried to drop that little speech on the class and it was lost on them. One kid just said, "That's wrong," which showed me that my sarcasm probably wasn't terribly appropriate last year- it just got the people screaming to be quiet. A major transition from novice teacher to veteran teacher seems to be preventing those fires and reacting less to the crazy/screaming students. While putting out fires you tend to say some things that you certainly wouldn't otherwise that can be misinterpreted by your good students. I can't help but to think that social studies should be used to alleviate problems like this instead of test prep that leaves our students with next to no real knowledge of human history when they graduate. I can't help but to think that social studies should be used to alleviate problems like this instead of test prep that leaves our students with next to no real knowledge of human history when they graduate.

Racism still negatively impacts minorities in the United States. While things have greatly improved for minorities in the U.S. in the past hundred years, there are still things that can be done by everyone to address the problems we experience here. At times I'm not entirely sure what my role as an educator should be when addressing this issue. Cutting the sarcasm and promoting discussions on it as we work our way through the curriculum is what I plan to do this spring, but it was impossible during my first year to really address these issues. To me such serious topics need to be addressed through conversation and having any kind of class discussion was impossible in my room last year. I think by the end of this spring we may be in a place where those discussions can take place.

Today's Wine: Bruni Poggio d'Elsa Super Tuscan 2008. We had this out at Cavatappo, the spot in our neighborhood I've mentioned before. It was a cherry up front and a spicier finish. It was also very good and went well with the seafood risotto.


  1. I'd advise you to be very careful expressing ideas like that. While I certainly understand your intentions, a kid may not, or may simply claim not to, and the chancellor's reg will work against you if your principal decides to be an asshole about it. There are certainly enough principals capable of such things.

  2. Last year I was so bitter about classroom teaching that things like that would slip out now and then. You're completely right, of course. This kind of sarcasm should be left at the classroom door.