There's No Room for Carelessness When Teaching About Racism -- Here's Why

Classroom

It's no secret that racial tension in America is finally getting the attention that it deserves in the media. And, of course, that's likely to evoke some much-need conversations in classrooms everywhere. However, with it being such a sensitive issue, I think we really could have done without the classroom lecture from an Oklahoma teacher who pushed the notion that "to be white is to be racist." 

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While one student at Norman North High School told the local news station KFOR that the discussion was intended to "heal the racial divide," it seems like the lecture, which was part of a high school–level philosophy class, went completely off course.

According to the student who reported it, the teacher started by showing a video of a man "whiting out" countries all over a globe as an example of what white people did to America. He followed it up with a discussion about the inherent racism in America today, during which he made the rather questionable remarks.

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The student recorded the incident on her phone and showed her parents after she took offense to the lesson plan (which was apparently adapted from a college lecture the teacher had recently attended). They decided to say something so this issue can be properly resolved and so it doesn't happen again. 

She also made a damn good point when talking to the news station:

You start telling someone something over and over again that's an opinion, and they start taking it as fact. So, I wanted him to apologize and make it obvious and apparent to everyone that was his opinion.

In the student's recording you can hear the teacher say, "Am I racist? And I say 'Yeah.' I don't want to be. It's not like I choose to be racist, but do I do things because of the way I was raised?"

What the entire f*ck, sir? This statement is not OK, even if it's not meant the way that it seems. 

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Student protesters standing by their teacher have suggested that the lesson was taken out of context. Now, here's the thing: After watching the full-length video that was shown in the class -- and seeing that it was a snarky and smart approach to teaching imperialism (er, in 2016, gentrification?) for an older audience -- I agree. What we heard from the teacher was probably totally out of context.

 

But, and this is a big but, the statement he made after the video was construed as an accusation. It assumed that his white students were raised to be racist. It assumed that one person's thoughts and experiences were the same as another's. As a teacher (and as an adult) you have to be conscious of the fact that each word you speak holds weight with children. It means something to them -- no matter what your intentions are.

And that was proved instantly when this student admitted to feeling picked on during this lesson and ultimately felt uncomfortable with it. Teachers need to be careful that their words (especially about a subject this serious) are not left open to interpretation.

Other kids were able to dissect the video's meaning and really mull it (and the teacher's comments) over without taking offense. Neither student is wrong -- they just interpreted the lecture differently. But when it comes to an issue as sensitive as racism, there should be no room for interpretation. 

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But even the Norman Public Schools superintendent Joe Siano found no intentional malice. He said in his statement:

Racism is an important topic that we discuss in our schools. While discussing a variety of philosophical perspectives on culture, race and ethics, a teacher was attempting to convey to students in an elective philosophy course a perspective that had been shared at a university lecture he had attended. We regret that the discussion was poorly handled. When the district was notified of this concern it was immediately addressed. We are committed to ensuring inclusiveness in our schools.

Regardless of whether we're hearing the full story or not, I think the most important takeaway is that with sensitive topics, it's crucial to have an open and honest dialogue with children. Absolutely!

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However, it's also important to remember that children are impressionable -- so you can't always have a college-level discussion and think that it will be received the same across the board. 

Not unless you're fully prepared for the backlash, that is. 

 

Images via maroke/iStock.com

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