Racism and America’s Classrooms

It seems like every time we turn around America is eating itself. In Tennessee people are burning Harry Potter and Katniss Everdeen (books) at the stake because reading about them supposedly evokes The Devil (cue Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain”). In cities across The South former President Donald Trump is pretending he’s still President and (in a case of extreme irony) claiming to be a victim of massive, systemic fraud. As the COVID-19 pandemic cools a bit people are fighting over whether or not they should get vaccinated, and even whether to get a human vaccine (Moderna or Pfrizer) or a horse de-wormer (Ivermectin). They’re upset about inflationary prices, but still buying plenty of the items which have been jacked up because corporations have figured out yet another way to profit from the stupidity of the masses. Oh! And some are even paying attention to the efforts of both Russia (on Ukraine’s border) and China (in the South China Sea) to push for World War 3.

Yep! It’s kind of a mess.

As a teacher (college and high school), I tend to pay a lot of attention to issues facing education, and this week one issue in particular struck close to home. My best friend, whom we will call Harry Potter, is married to a devoted teacher, we will call her Hermione Granger, of more than 20 years. Hermione is one of those overachievers who spends every waking moment either grading papers or lesson planning. She has a deep love of teaching and an even deeper commitment to her students. She doesn’t have a racist or classist bone in her body, and would never intentionally do or say anything to undermine her students, either personally or educationally. One day last week, however, she playfully told one unruly class that they were “acting like a bunch of monkeys” …. (cue Mussorgsky again) … and all hell has broken loose.

You see, one of the Black girls in what is a very racially mixed classroom decided that the term “monkey,” while directed at the entire class, was actually referring to her skin color, making Hermione a blatant racist, and reported her as such to the principal. Hermione is now under investigation and has been placed on administrative leave. Yes, this career educator of a core class which will undergo the Annual Standardized Scrutiny (A.S.S.) in mere weeks has now been taken out of action for the foreseeable future in a district which can’t get substitutes because some middle school kid got her feelings hurt.

Ummmm OK.

Now, full disclosure, I have been told that I don’t have a relevant point of view on this issue because I am a beneficiary of White Privilege. I am a white, heterosexual male who grew up in what by all accounts was a middle class neighborhood in a suburb of Houston. I don’t have to worry about getting shot when I’m out walking my dog, no one gives me a suspicious look when I’m shopping and on those rare occasions when I have an official encounter with a police officer I never get shot. Does that define White Privilege? If so, then ok. I grew up as the minority in a school system that was predominantly Black, most of my friends were Black, those who were White were mostly Jewish, and most of us lived in the same neighborhood. My parents had friends who were white, black, gay, straight, Jewish, Christian and pretty much a mix of every subculture that exists. My favorite show was (and is) Star Trek, where the first on-screen bi-racial kiss happened (granted, before I was born), and there were all kinds of people of color and different species all behaving as equals. I was raised to understand that people come from different backgrounds and had different skin tones and all were fine. That was my experience, not lessons my parents specifically and overtly taught me.

I have also seen kids behave like monkeys, and my parents will tell you that when we had a big family reunion my cousins and I often behaved like monkeys. It had nothing to do with our skin color and everything to do with our youthful exuberance. I’m pretty sure my parents weren’t evoking outdated racist dogma when they called us monkeys, any more than Hermione was singling out one Black student when she jovially told her entire class they were behaving like monkeys.

I just kept thinking on thing when Harry Potter was sharing the news of this incident with me: Since when did we become so fucking fragile and afraid of our damned shadows?!?

I’m not suggesting that racism isn’t a thing any more. Racism is just another form of ignorance, and if there’s one thing the Washington DC riot of January 6th, 2021 taught us it’s that ignorance is still very much alive in America. As I write this states across the South are busily writing up creative ways to make it harder for people of color, and especially poor people of color, to vote. We even see angry parents across the country turning school board meetings into circuses (is that racist??) as they protest the teaching of Critical Race Theory, which is not taught in K-12 schools, in K-12 schools. Read that again. They are protesting something that isn’t even a thing. CRT is essentially a collegiate study about the racial injustice which pervades America’s criminal justice system, and while I do think this is something we should be upset about and something we should change, we can’t possibly deny it is true. Is it a concept we are likely to see being taught to third graders? Of course not. It’s far too complicated. It would be like trying to teach quantum mechanics. Good luck with that!

You know what we can teach our children? How about teaching them not to fear words. How about teaching them that skin color doesn’t make you better or worse than anyone else – something we teach far more by our attitudes and actions than by any prescribed lesson. How about, when a kid says a teacher called her a monkey, you address the fact that the kid was standing on a chair throwing wads of paper at a trash can instead of working on her assignment? How about giving all students real consequences for negative behaviors so that they might learn how to behave in civilized society?

I don’t know about you, but I’m sick and tired of everything automatically being about race instead of about behaviors. I know we have race issues, I applaud President Biden for preparing to appoint the first Black woman to the Supreme Court, and I know we have a lot more work to do. That being said, teachers have enough on their plates without being harassed over silly things. In this case, the principal should have first addressed the behavior of the student in question and then, in private, perhaps counseled Hermione that she might rethink her choice of words. Now, back to class and back to A.S.S. prep, please.

Come on, America. We have to be better than this.

-B

2 thoughts on “Racism and America’s Classrooms”

  1. When did this start and why?
    When I was five (1955) my grandmother called me “a little monkey” because I was horsing around (acting out, misbehaving). My favorite children’s book was “Curious George” about a little brown monkey who was always getting into trouble, well, because he was curious – as was/am I. (The book might be on “The List” now.) Sometime in the 70’s I recall Howard Cosell got in hot water for calling a black athlete a “monkey” on a MNF broadcast. However, in the 90’s there was a child development movement to teach children “resilience”. And well, now we’re here.
    The girl who told on your friend got that notion somewhere.

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  2. I really don’t know. There is obviously a great deal of paranoia involved…the principal doesn’t want to risk being accused of being a racist by not disciplining Hermione. It’s almost like we are back in the era of Joseph McCarthy and the Red Scare or the age of “witches” in Salem, Massachusetts. The mere accusation got you imprisoned or burned at the stake. “Monkey” doesn’t have racist connotations for rational people, I don’t believe. Are we so afraid of being labeled something we’re not – or being “canceled” – that we run screaming from even the slightest confrontation? How absurd!

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