Sunday, September 12, 2010

"Mister, that's racist!"

The school I teach in is incredibly diverse. Not diverse as in mostly Latino or Black, I have students from every continent in my classroom. Our school is attempting to become what is called a 90/90/90 school, meaning 90% "minority", 90% free reduced lunch, and 90% proficient on ACT and state tests. Right now we are 90/90/30. Long way to go.

Because of our immense diversity, it leads to an eclectic mixed group, who are very aware of racism and prejudice. Some of them have a heightened victim complex, which I try to combat with lessons on people power which I described in my last post. Everybody can claim the victim somewhere in their history. Even the English, with all that Mayflower religious persecution business. Because I teach history, racism is an undeniable driver in many actions of our nations past. The students always yell "Hey mister, that's racist" over some historical event or article. No duh!

The problem is that the students transfer that idea to their teachers and administration. "You're just moving me because I'm ______." It takes awhile to break through such blind idiocy, but the end is inevitable. I usually respond by "Yes, I am racist. I hate all people who are not me equally." After that the kids chuckle, and mock the accusatory outburst of the student calling me racist. Sometimes the students call something racist as a joke. Sometimes I mock them by doing the same. They enjoy the back and forth. What they don't understand though, is the effect of seriously calling somebody racist. It forces that person to be defensive. Its ridiculous, and a constant battle. This is so common in our school, that I named my trivia team at the local pub, "Hey mister, that's racist." One of our other teachers was at that trivia game. When rankings were called out, they knew immediately which team was ours.

There are only two times in my teaching career that I have been dumbfounded to the point of silence over a student comment. One of those happened this week at parent-teacher conferences. I was conferring with a Latina student and her parents. She was translating for me. Suddenly she asked me "Mister, why do we have to study this stuff if it is over 150 years ago, it doesn't matter?" When students ask me that in class, I take the time to explain the importance of understanding your history in order to understand the power of the individual. The necessity of progress, and to compare where we came from to now. The students are always very satisfied with the empowering message. When this student asked me at conferences, I had 30 seconds. I had to think of something quick. I was not satisfied with what I came up with. I said "So you understand you don't have to be content being ruled by backwards rich dudes anymore, you can make history."

Her response shocked me. She said, "I hate white dudes." I was shocked, but not dumbfounded yet. I looked at her with exasperation and confusion. I said "Hey, I'm a white dude." She responded with "You're not white, mister."

I was aghast. If there was such thing as a racist compliment, that was it. This was the attitude I battled from students. They all saw me as a white dude, till I became "honorably" not White. It was like the day the students asked me who I voted for, and one student said "He voted for McCain because he's white." I didn't, and I became "honorably" non-White to them. In their minds, White means the enemy, the oppressor, a person to be reviled. Additionally shocking was how cavalierly it rolled off her tongue.

Am I a victim? Hell no. I understand what she meant. She knows that Whites have had a traditional advantage in this country. Students just need to understand that its not all Whites, not even most Whites actively participated in injustices in our history, although benefiting by association. There is a rich, long history of multi-racial movements fighting against those in power. Now I have to figure out a way to combat her misperception. The only way I can think of now is to increase the amount of time I spend on the multi-racial aspect of our equal rights struggles.


  1. Great post, T. I enjoyed it in a totally "not White" way.

  2. When you say in a not white way, that makes it even more white. Duh!