26 September 2007

Yes, Virginia, People Do Still Say That Shit.

So here's what happened to my son in history class the other day. First off, preface this with the fact that my son is the only black student in all of his IB* classes -- a fact he noticed the first day of school.

(*IB is the International Baccalaureate program -- a worldwide honors program. The US is pretty new to it. The number of US schools offering it is limited, but growing. I chose this particular district specifically for IB, as it was the closest I could get to the education the kids had been getting in Hungary. Students of color are underrepresented in IB, African American kids in particular.)

Okay, so Male Offspring is taking Non-Western IB History this year. (the non-Western part is something, at least.) Last Thursday, the teacher is giving the lesson about how human life originated in Africa, the migration of the peoples, yada-yada. One young lady raises her hand and says it makes sense that life would've begun there, as it's

warmer there, and stuff can probably grow better than in a cold place.

OK, she's getting her reasoning skills on. She continues with,

Plus, black people have the really broad foreheads and noses. They look like monkeys, so it makes sense that they would've come first, since they're the ones closer to monkeys.

Oh, yes, she did.

And every child in that classroom turned to look at my son.

Because that's what happens when you are the only person of color in the classroom. At that moment, my son was not "Male Offspring", he was "the black kid in class".

My son could not tell me what the teacher said in response. He said he was shocked, everyone was staring at him. He said the teacher looked stunned and didn't really know what to do. She did say something to the girl, but he couldn't tell me what.

He said all he could hear was noise in his ears.


Now, I know there are a lot of folks living under the shiny illusion that this shit doesn't happen any more. People invariably respond with, "That's terrible! It's 2007!" Well, it happened in my kid's classroom last Thursday. If you're surprised by that, either your kid is white, or you don't live in this country.

I met with his teacher. Like you all didn't see that coming. A friend who works me in the parent group and who knows Male Offspring came with me.

We thought she was a student. No joke, people. This is her second year of teaching. She graduated from this very high school in 2001. She was like, soooo totally young! I had some assumptions and biases of my own, my first thought (besides "Holy shit, she's not a student?!) being "Oh, this little girl is not going to be able to handle this situation." I had to check myself, however, as we talked.

I had an idea about how to address what happened -- more about that in a minute -- but I wasn't sure how that was going to go. I can imagine if I were a teacher in her position, I might be nervous about meeting the parent. I might feel defensive or embarrassed. So I thought maybe she'd see any suggestions on my part as a judgement, as overstepping into her area.

She didn't.

I tried to get across how that felt for my son, the history behind that remark, the fact that he had no allies in that classroom who understood. Yes, other kids were shocked, thought it was wrong, but no one really understood. And no one spoke up.

I asked how she had initially responded to the young lady in question, and actually I think she did pretty well for being a new teacher caught off guard with such a loaded comment. Better than certain veteran teachers I know, that's for damn sure. Also, I should've said earlier that she did apologize to my son after class, and admitted to him that she hadn't quite known what to do.

I told her that SHE was my son's ally in that classroom, she has to be that for him, because every kid looked to her for direction on how that situation was going to go down. I told her I did not hold her accountable for what comes out of a student's mouth, but I do hold her accountable for addressing it. I fully expect her to have my son's back in that classroom.

I thought Miss Thang would get defensive or make excuses or gush about how she toootally understood. She didn't. Girl may be young, but she's sharp; I'll give her that. She looked me in the eye and said "Okay. That's my position, then." All right. She also said, "Obviously this student has missed some things we've been talking about in class. That says to me it's time to reteach."

It's time to reteach. Go on, girl.

I went into the meeting with 3 objectives:
1) I wanted the student to know her remark was inappropriate and hurtful, and I wanted her to get the correct information so she hopefully won't be spouting that shit again.
2) I wanted the other kids in the class to get the correct info, and to have an example of how to address comments like that.
3) Most important, I wanted my son to come away from this feeling empowered, not humiliated. I wanted him to know that he does not have to accept those statements, and I wanted his expectation to be that the adults in life will address that shit immediately.

Anyway, Miss Thang was on board with all of it, she wanted to learn how to be prepared for the next time. Which was a nice change. I told her my idea:

I wanted his class to see Race: the Power of an Illusion, a three-part PBS documentary.

Part I involves a high school science class in which the students do DNA swabs and blood pricks, then type their DNA. Before they get the results, they form hypotheses about whom they believe they'll be most closely linked to genetically.

Not surprisingly, they predict along racial/ethnic lines; the black kids believe they will be the closest, genetically speaking, to other black kids, the white kids predict they will be most like other Caucasian kids. Ditto for the Asian and Latino kids.

The results, of course, come back the opposite of what they'd thought: one African American young man finds he is genetically most similar to a blond, Russian classmate. A Caucasian student finds that in addition to having a 100% match with someone in the Balkans (which he expected, given his family history), he is also a 100% match for an African individual, which he did not expect. Another white student is most similar to an Asian girl in his class.

The film goes on to talk about race being a social construct, and the history behind that. It talks about the two migrations of people -- the first dying out, the second being modern humans. ALL of us. It covers how we all came about on the same timeline, that there are no separate species of humans, no lines from an earlier time, no group that is more/less advanced, and how any visual differences are a result of geographic adaptations after migration, not from genetic coding.

In other words, none of us are closer to monkeys than any of the rest of us.

Basically, it breaks it down in scientific terms that race has no biological basis; no gene, or group of genes, is common to a particular race. Race cannot be identified genetically. I was surprised to learn that there is twice the genetic variation between two penguins -- which, to my eye, look identical -- as there is between any two humans.

But ... past science did make a false connection between genes and race and intelligence, past science was used to purposefully construct the social aspects of race. In fact, the film covers how the Nazis actually had used US racial research to form their bullshit theories.

We all know how that turned out.

Here's the thing:

If a particular group of people can be shown, according to "scientific evidence", to be savage, to be less intelligent, less capable of self-governance -- closer to animals than your own group -- how much easier to justify taking their land and confining them to reservations? How much easier to rationalize enslaving those who are less than human? How much easier to convince ourselves that beating, lynching those who are "closer to monkeys" is necessary to keep them in line? That selling them as property is okay? How much easier is it to send those who are "inferior" to concentration camps? How much easier to justify Jim Crow laws, miscegenation laws, if some folks are shown to be closer to animals than others?

Pretty damned easy, according to history.

So the monkey comment, besides being incorrect and ignorant, has a whole shitload of history attached to it, even still, today. If you think the monkey comment was no big deal, that particular bit of history most likely does not apply to you and yours.

My son will remember that little girl opening her mouth and ignorance falling out, he will remember every eye in that room turning to him. He'll remember hearing nothing but white noise roaring in his ears while the teacher struggled to address it, struggled to find something to say to this girl.

Something that wouldn't humiliate her too much.

He will remember that time in 9th grade history class when his classmate said black people look like monkeys. He'll remember how that felt. And he will be fully aware of the history behind that belief, enabling it to still be voiced in 2007.  He will also remember he has a voice.

Afterward: (ha, look at me trying to play author and shit.)Miss Thang showed the film to all her classes. She had the kids write their ideas of race before the film. Afterwards they wrote how the film did or did not affect their views. She said it went well, that she was encouraged by some of the kids' papers.

She said she'd like to incorporate that film into her classes every year. She's going to bring it up to the science teachers, and try to put something together with them for later in the year.

And for the record, no, that is not the usual response.

I was impressed with Miss Thang, and yes, I checked myself on my own assumptions that I'd formed upon seeing her bouncy blonde ponytail and wide-eyed. perky smile. I learned a lesson too.

So, my son will not forget this experience, it will leave its mark; but he will also remember that the adults in his life dealt with that shit, and he'll be more prepared next time. He'll remember that his class learned that shit is not okay and not correct. And hopefully, he'll remember that a little change was made in his school as a result of addressing that ignorant remark.


  1. Dude... so many of your blogs make me want to talk to you for an hour about my personal experience. You wouldn't be surprised but you would be entertained for sure... maybe a bit pissed. I love the scenario of the whole class turning to look at one student, thus making what could be passed off as foolishness into a personal thing against someone. OH! Don't get me started.

  2. Nagyszeru vagy.

    I'm so glad the film showing went well. I'd like to know what the girl's paper said.

  3. WM: Thanks -- means more coming from you (or your sibs) than anyone. Oh, your brother did say, the other night at dinner with me and your aunt -- we were talking about him being a hero with touchdowns, after the game, and he said, "You were everybody's hero in history class," (wow!) Of course, then he tried to play it off, after I had to kiss him, by saying "you know, because we got out of the regular lesson, and stuff," but he looked pleased that I was pleased. Hey, you take what you can get!

    Yes, me too -- I asked the teacher if she'd feel comfortable sharing what the girl had to say, but didn't hear back. I still have to pick up the tapes, so maybe then, but I realize there is confidentiality and all that.

  4. I'm stunned but not surprised. Here in "liberal" Portland the word "worker" is synonymous with Mexican. I go ballistic every time I hear someone suggest I "hire a Mexican" when I need some yard work done or some other menial tasks I've neglected around the house.

    I admire you're self-control with Miss Thang and am thrilled she turned out to be an ally. And as you've said, although this shouldn't have happened, it's best that your son is at an age and understanding that allowed him to deal with it appropriately.

    You da’ Mom!

  5. KA: Welcome to the asylum as well! Yeah, there are all kinds of 'isms out there. Unfortunately if your kid doesn't fit easily into the mainstream, the going ain't easy.


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