On Race, Microaggression, and Teaching the Wrong Lesson

Like almost all white teachers who work in “urban” (which is EdSpeak for “mostly PoC and poor”) schools, I’ve been accused of racism for things like asking a kid who was being disruptive to stop and do his work.  Now, I don’t do that to only PoC, but when it is a PoC, sometimes they feel that I’m singling them out.

I’ve always scoffed at that accusation and made a joke about it.  But after today, I can’t do that.

See, Justina Ireland tweeted something today:

Now, I’ve heard this before, but I’ve always taken a bit of issue with it.  So I decided to ask:

Now, I’ll freely admit that question might be a little clueless, but hey–I’m speaking, and living, from my position of privilege.  And I’ve asked this question of others, and almost always got a reply that was utterly useless, consisting of just repeating what was originally said and expecting me to just accept it, with no attempt at explanation.  And while I know where that kind of response comes from, it’s not helpful. So I decided it was worth looking a little stupid if necessary to get a real answer, and I’ve grown to trust Justina’s commentary on this kind of thing as being pretty balanced.

Her reply was illuminating:

And I thought: Oh good!  Since that’s NOT what I do, I’m not being racist!  Keep in mind, you can say or do racist things and not be a racist person–in other words, and perhaps more clearly: You can think all people are equal and deserve equal treatment, but still say or do things that are racist, either because you never learned better, or because you just don’t think about it that way (but honestly, you should).

But then she said:

And that got me.  Because I have almost always said “Oh, don’t be ridiculous” and moved on.  And maybe sometimes that’s OK, because the kid isn’t being serious in their accusation.  But most of the time, I’d say I’m doing more harm than good with that response.  Because as soon as I tell the kid they’re being ridiculous, I’m telling them their concerns aren’t worth listening to, that they’ll get nowhere with me if they try to engage me on that level.  In other words, I’m acting like a racist.

What a lightning bolt.

I’ve known teachers I considered to be racist (not at my current site, but in the past).  And I’ve always been sure I was better than that.  Clearly, I wasn’t. In YEARS of inclusivity training, classroom management training, diversity training, it has never been explained to me in the right words to make me understand that.  But Justina got it to me in exactly the way I needed to see it.  And now I wonder at how much damage I may have caused in the past.  And I see why some kids just shut down and wouldn’t talk to me anymore.

So what does this mean?  It means that, this year, I need to work harder at not being That Guy.  I need to make sure I don’t just tell a kid they’re being silly, and ask them instead why they think that–maybe not at that moment, but before the day is out.  And I need to open my ears and my heart, and really listen.

I’ll fail, from time to time.  But I’ll keep trying.

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About Michael Johnston

Father of a third grader, high school English teacher, writer. Forty-three years old and feeling almost every bit of it on some days, and not a bit of it on others. Based in Sacramento, California, USA
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2 Responses to On Race, Microaggression, and Teaching the Wrong Lesson

  1. Ben Thomas says:

    While I agree with the insights from the woman that you quoted, I believe that approach will not work in a classroom setting. More often than not the student is not being serious in their racism accusations. Their aim is to either A.) get a reaction from you or B.) get a reaction from their classmates. In either case an open ended response such as “Why?” only opens the door for them to further distract the class with a silly response that, in a high school environment, is inevitable to occur. That approach could work, however, if you instead invite the student to approach you outside of class to further discuss the matter if they truly feel that they were wronged.

  2. Yeah, as in many things, the context will determine my response. If they’re clearly just messing with me, you know my usual way of dealing with that.

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