Let me start by saying that I rarely ever believe stories teachers share about conversations with students. The one I’m going to share here happened a couple weeks ago and took me completely off guard. I have removed the names and specific details but did get permission from the student to share this. Believe it or don’t but it is something I think all of my readers should hear.
The week before Thanksgiving break we started my favorite project – the National History Day project. I had introduced the annual theme (Debates and Diplomacy) and had introduced the various project categories. The real power of the project though is the freedom students have to study a topic of their choice. There is nearly always some personal connection or passionate interest that drives the student research. The most overwhelming topic choices typically fall in what I would call the Civil Rights movement. My 11th graders are overwhelmingly interested in topics from African American, Native American, Hispanic and Latino American, LGBTQ+ and a variety of other movements. What always makes me excited though is that they almost always want to learn something they think is going to be edgy. They don’t jump to MLK for example – that’s a “teacher” topic. No, they want to learn about the Black Panthers. They want to learn about Mendez v Westminster, Reagan immigration Amnesty, the Alcatraz Occuption, or the Stonewall Riots. Anyways, after introducing the theme and categories I asked students to start narrowing down a topic and to do some light research (wikipedia, thank you very much).
While the students were talking I was rolling from small group to group in my office chair to chat and give suggestions. I secretly love encouraging these revolutionary researchers. As I rolled up to one group I noticed a tension in the air. It is relevant to the story to know that this group consisted of three teenage African American girls. I consider myself honored that they trusted me enough to share this particular story.
I don’t really remember how the conversation started but we started talking about To Kill a Mockingbird. I think the group was interested in Mass Incarceration as a topic and had been talking about the court scene in the book. All of a sudden one of the girls turned to me and just blasted me with traumatic experience with sustained microaggression and confirmed all of my instincts in the need for culturally responsive teaching even in our fairly progressive school.
According to her story, in a previous course, a teacher was leading a unit on To Kill A Mockingbird. It sounded like a pretty standard ELA unit though I know the book has been going through a reexamination recently. The student told me though that the teacher read the book (either sections or the whole text – I wasn’t sure). The shocking problem was that the teacher chose to read the N word out loud. Yeah, that one.
The rage that was in the eyes and voice of this student as they told me this simple fact was palpable. They were angry. The student told me that from that moment they were done with that teacher. The student would do what was necessary to get a decent grade but the learning was over. The relationship was broken. Apparently, the teacher had given a warning that they were going to read the word aloud. It did not alleviate the harm caused by the word.
It is also relevant to the story that the teacher was white. This shouldn’t be surprising. In South Carolina, about 80% of teachers are white.
As I listened, the other two students at the table were nodding in agreement. They, too, were turned off by this choice.
And make no mistake, this was a choice. The fact that a trigger warning was given suggests the teacher knew the word would be problematic. As a white teacher it can seem so easy to justify these decisions in the moment or to not think it’s a big deal. I can hear the argument that this is the word in great literature. It is tempting to say it was the vernacular language of the time. I’ve heard folks of particular ages and persuasions say that kids are just sensitive these days or they hear worse in the movies. These justifications are weak and problematic. That word has a history that me and my fellow white teachers cannot possibly feel. It is bathed in blood and rape and oppression. As a white male in America there isn’t really a word that has that same historical memory.
When I was younger, growing up in a universally white and rural town, I probably would have made the same mistake. I was ignorant and have had to learn a lot.
As the teacher so nonchalantly uttered such a loaded and painful word – as the student said “that word with the hard ‘er'” – the historic memory of that phrase was a slap into the face of those children. What was likely meant to be a lesson on the problems of Jim Crow era racism became a reminder that racism and bigotry are not so far removed. It was a subtle message, even if unintended, to those young Black students that some people still want them in a second class status. This language is harmful to the white students as well. Using that language perpetuates stereotypes and racism. The white students also need to know the brutal history of racist words and symbols to understand how they wound people and damage the very fabric of the community they are part of.
This is why you will not see Confederate flags in my classroom. It is why I very carefully consider simulation activities to avoid student’s role-playing oppressed and oppressors. It is why I have changes some of the language used in my class – for example, enslaved people rather than just slaves. As a white male teacher it is easy to get frustrated or tired of having to constantly think about this “stuff”. It would be easy to just shrug it off and call folks “snowflakes”. But that is the problem. That is my privilege. Students of color, women, members of the LBGTQ+ community – they don’t have the privilege of not thinking about oppressive language.
It was obvious that this student still hates that English class; that she is nauseated to have been forced to sit through the reading. That’s the impact of microaggressions. They remind the person, sometimes even from a well intentioned deliverer, that someone is an ‘other’s and are not welcome. One of the other students at the table replied that “teachers are always talking about demanding respect… they don’t respect us.”