“Not everything that can be faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
“I have a great relationship with the blacks. I’ve always had a great relationship with the blacks.”
Mariah’s eyes were wide as dinner plates.
She covered her mouth with her journal and pointed at the wipe board at the front of the room.
On it, I had written my question for the day. It’s how I usually begin class for my 8th grade students.
“Some movies and books like “To Kill a Mockingbird” describe what life was like in the South before the civil rights movement. To do so, they use the N-Word. Is it ever okay to us the N-Word? Why or why not? When might it be appropriate if at all? Why?”
I guess I’ve been teaching this for too long, because I didn’t expect Mariah’s reaction.
Not that was she alone. Several of my mostly impoverished and black students were looking around at each other in shock.
Kendra even said under her breath, “I don’t want to do this.”
We had just begun reading the novel yesterday. I thought it was time to address this issue before we were confronted with the word in the text.
In all of my classes that day, students had been interested in the query. But never had any of them reacted this way.
One student raised her hand and asked, “Which word are you talking about?”
I said, “I don’t want to say it, but it starts with an N and rhymes with trigger. Do you know what I’m getting at?”
They knew. Yet in removing doubt, I had only reinforced their outrage.
I thought maybe if they tried to write an answer first, it might help them organize their thoughts and maybe comprehend the point of the lesson. But they wouldn’t be directed back to the page.
Latrell was particularly upset. “It’s not always just words against black people,” he said. “How would you like it if we talked about words against white people?”
There were grumbles of agreement.
So there it was.
My white skin was the impediment. Here I was, a white man telling mostly black students to think about the appropriateness of the N-Word. I wasn’t trying to express an opinion of my own one way or the other. I wanted them to express their opinions.
But I had taken it for granted that asking them the question was appropriate in the first place.
I had forgotten that you can’t talk about racism with just anyone. It’s the same with sexual violence or abuse or a host of other topics that are deeply personal.
You need a relationship, the recognition of shared values and the promise of safety.
I assumed that I already had provided that for my students. In most classes that understanding seemed to be there. But for whatever reason, these students didn’t feel comfortable talking about this with me.
And I get it.
It’s the confluence of skin and history. No matter what I do, no matter what I say, I will always resemble the oppressor to some people. In the age of the Donald, it’s only gotten worse.
Building walls, casual misogyny, rushed deportations, religious intolerance – all are at the forefront of our modern social discourse now. These are matters not hidden under euphemisms or disguised as well-meaning public policy. They’re commands from on high, dictates coming from a mouth in a face that looks much like mine.
No wonder these kids didn’t want to talk about hate speech with me. I resemble the personification of hate speech.
I’ve been teaching “Mockingbird” for over a decade, but this was the first time in years that I paused not knowing what to do.
Should I force the issue and push forward? Should I give in and try to read the novel without the discussion? Should I put the book away altogether and find something else to teach?
I decided to get more information.
I asked the students to tell me how they felt. I asked them to explain what they were feeling.
Many were angry with me for even asking. They accused me of being racist. They tried to make me angry and blow up the lesson.
But I swallowed my pride and just let them talk.
After each statement, I repeated what I took them to be saying and asked if that was correct.
At first, many students didn’t even seem to be certain what they meant. When I repeated it to them, they shook their heads or said they weren’t sure.
Kendra spoke, “Mr. Singer, you tell me. Why are we talking about this? It don’t do nothing.”
I said, “Can we all agree that racism is a bad thing?”
But she deflected.
“Why’s it always got to be about black people? Other people experience racism,” she said.
And I agreed. I reminded them that we had just finished reading “The Diary of Anne Frank.” I asked why we had read it.
At first the loudest students said they didn’t know, but then Eva said it was to try to make sure nothing like the Holocaust ever happened again.
I nodded, and repeated my original question, “So can we all agree racism is bad? Raise your hand if you think racism is bad.”
They all raised their hands.
“Okay,” I said. “Then how do we stop it if we can’t talk about it?”
Kendra responded, “Mr. Singer, when we leave this class, none of this is going to matter. People are still going to be racist. Cops still gonna’ kill little black kids. People like you still gonna’ push people like me out.”
Others chimed in with similar comments.
I nodded, and said, “You’re right.”
That silenced them.
“You’re right, Kendra,” I said. “Maybe we can’t stop racism with what we say in here. Maybe no one can. But the hope is that if we talk about it, we’ll reduce it, we’ll cut it down to size. What do you think? Do you think we can take all the racism in the world and cut it down even by just a little bit?”
She didn’t say anything.
No one did. But hands were raised in the air. No one was shouting. No one seemed angry. Several students wanted to talk, and they were looking to me to organize the discussion.
So I let them talk.
All the time I had scheduled to write the journal fell through the hour glass and then some.
And when the discussion was petering out, I promised them that I would be available after class if anyone wanted to continue talking about it.
Then we picked up the book and continued reading.
I don’t know if it was the best class I’ve ever taught.
It was disturbing and uncomfortable.
I don’t see myself as anyone’s savior. But I’m there to help. I had hoped my students knew that.
But as a public school teacher, you learn not to take anything students do personally. They’re all going through a struggle you know little about.
I don’t want them to see me as an adversary. I want them to see me as a fellow traveler, as someone on their side.
But so much has changed in the last 100 days.
It’s a different world.
Racism and prejudice are no longer at the same remove. They never went away, but now they’re an unspoken presence coiled at our feet – constantly.
I have no answers. I ask questions and try to get my students to think about their own answers.
I just hope we’ll continue to have the courage to try.