I am not blind to racism and have been called a racist by more than one overwrought parent and a few kids. Most middle school teachers who teach in a highely diverse population will have heard that statement at least once. I was accused of racism typically not because of my actions but most often because of my choice of words. For one thing, long before it was politically incorrect, I was calling boys of all persuasions, “boy,” and it took me a little time to get over it(it still slips out occasionally).
Did I grow up in a racist society? Certainly, very few people my age didn’t. Was it pernicious. violent, active racism when and where I grew up? I don’t remember people making virulent racist comments or doing violence against others because of their race but I am also aware that there was and still is discrimination against minorities of all types when I was a child and often times my use of words through college would be terribly politically incorrect now.
Have I made in the past and possibly even in the present what would could be defined as racists comments, or had racist thoughts, laughed at a racially tinged joke, or fallen prey to racial stereotyping. Yup, guilty on all counts. So by the modern definition of racism, as I understand it, others would say I am undoubtedly a racist.
Do I at times over-compensate and excuse some behaviors of minority parents and students because of my perceptions and fears of my own racism? Probably yes, and I have often wondered if that admission itself is one more proof that I am a racist?
The idea that anyone who has a racist thought or has either inadvertently or overtly made a racist comment is a bad person unworthy of trust or that they can’t overcome those racially tinged thoughts through honesty and fairness is just plain wrong. And I believe that this over sensitivity to words instead of historical context or meaning has to stop or we will never get anywhere further with this problem than we are right now.
In the 70’s when we were going through one of the vocabulary shifts of what to call students of African descent. I had an interesting classroom experience. We had gone away from negro to the Black Panther inspired black and were in the process of switching to African-American when I then and still do occasionally when I speak without thinking use the term black when referring to such a student in my classroom rather than the currently preferred “African-American.”
The use of the term “Black” in referring to race in my classroom drew an immediate response from a smart and outspoken African-American girl about my racist comment. Incidentally I ran a pretty open classroom and I encouraged kids to reasonably criticize me (and still do). One of my key foundational teachings and thoughts has always been that if I can’t defend it I will stop doing it, the kids knew that and at times very creatively used it against me. I have no problem with student criticism if it is done properly and logically. I had a lesson on what happens when you back people into corners that I taught every year the last 15 years I taught, On this day she had used the proper voice, tone, body language and phrasing that I try to teach all my students to try first when they need to question a person of authority. But this time I didn’t have to answer her criticism because another African-American student immediately took her on. I remember it quite clearly not because of his eloquence but because of the simplicity of his analysis when he said, “he didn’t mean nuthin by it, leave it be.” I can’t help but believe that our world would be a better place if this simple idea were followed by everyone. That we would be better off if we once again believed that”actions speak louder than words ” and “if no offense was intended there is no offense to be taken?”
Under the current system we appear to believe that, “Sticks and Stones can break my bones but words will
never ALWAYS hurt me!” I write and read a lot, I know and appreciate the power of words to inspire or to hurt but more important to me is the actions, thoughts, or intent behind the words not the combination of sounds or letters of which they are made. I understand that certain words have become so hot that anyone using them is asking for a knee jerk reaction and is almost always rewarded for their efforts and thus I out of respect for others avoid using those words but I bridle at the fact that Mark Twain can’t be read anymore in classroom because of his use of the common vernacular of the time. Or that other classical writings are being altered because of “forbidden” words in their text.
To believe that an obsession with certain words is more important than our actions is to think in a superficial manner that is rarely a road to understanding and peace but often the road to willful misunderstanding and conflict.
This writing has been sitting on my desktop for over two months as I hesitated to publish it So powerfully does the specter of perceived racism control my actions. Should it be so, I don’t know, but it is our current reality.