I’m finishing up my sixth year of teaching, and I know this may come as a shock to some, but… I’ve seen some racist things happen in the classroom *awkward white gasp*. There was the one time two of my students donned blackface during a video project on Of Mice and Men, or the time I caught wind of some white students using racial slurs on their Twitter accounts, and of course the time a group of five boys — four white boys and one boy of color — declared they were comfortable calling each other wiggas and n____ because the “tone they said it in wasn’t offensive.” If you need a non-teaching example, see any time white people sing-scream n____ at a hip-hop concert because we’re “post-racial” or something like that. You might be wondering if meaningful reflection and growth happened after these appalling events, and to find your answer I invite you to think about the following: How many white families do you know that are comfortable breaking down the overt and covert complexities of racism throughout the history of our nation? Now that you’ve located a single digit number (or zero), let’s move on.
When non-teacher friends hear these stories, their responses vary. Some melt into a puddle of profound disbelief. Others go, “Yep. This is America,” while others even take a breath to deny its truth because of course, we live in a post-racial society where implicit bias and institutionalized oppression would never, ever happen. I don’t know which response you’d give, but trust me, if you’ve taken even the tiniest smidge of time to absorb stories outside of your racial group, this is not a surprise particularly when students are growing up in a culture of white supremacy, while white adults systemically neglect to pursue truth and reconciliation regarding our history. We do not do a good enough job of teaching students in our education system about the reality of the history of race in America. The results ricochet off the walls of our classrooms, shatter their way out of our doors, and continue to fracture our communities physically, emotionally, and socially. We need some truth and reconciliation.
Returning to the examples above, the use of racial slurs with a non-offensive tone by the five boys received a tone deaf response. Out of the five families, four of them — three white, one of color — accepted the punishment and vowed to talk with their sons at home regarding their behavior, but vowing to talk to your kids is always a pretty ambiguous parenting statement. The majority of white families might read off their apolitical script: “Now, sweetie. You know that’s a bad word, right? Please don’t say it anymore.” Families of color are much more apt to share historical factors, personal stories, and modern reclamation as pieces of how this racial slur has become what it is today. The remaining white family did not understand why the boys were being punished. The list of responses given consisted of, but was not limited to: But they all agree it is fine. They’re his wiggas, his posse, it’s friendly. You don’t understand the tone the boys are using with the words. There’s no power imbalance here. The one boy is okay with it, so what’s the problem?
My fellow white people, if you do not know this yet, please know: You do not want to be that family. This family’s response runs parallel to the white father who stood idly by offering me nothing more than a shoulder shrug as his daughter screamed n____ at a Kendrick Lamar concert.
You don’t want to be that family, and you don’t want to spend time memorizing the dance choreography to Donald Glover’s “This Is America” because you think it’s cool. Obliviously imitating powerful black art is in the same vein as letting your children use racial slurs just because you aren’t comfortable — or are grossly ignorant on — discussing the vile side of American history and culture that the art is bringing to the forefront. This white dysconsciousness is potent fuel for the continuation of oppressive structures and actions playing out today.