I called a kid racist today. Or, more specifically, I called a comment he made racist. My 7th grade class was making observations about an image I had projected onto the board. We were using similes and metaphors to describe images when he made the comment.
“Yea, whatever that stuff on the street is, it looks crusty. You know, like Imani’s weave.”
My mind ground to a halt. Nineteen pairs of eyes swiveled towards me, fixing me to the spot. A space of panic opened up inside of me. It was the neural equivalent of a DDoS attack. My brain flooded itself with demands for information. What just happened? How should I react? Was the kid being racist? How close is he with Imani? How is Imani reacting? How is the class reacting?
The classic “oohhHHHH!” that typically follows classroom roasting was conspicuously absent. Maybe kids sensed the existential unease their teacher was suddenly radiating. Maybe they recognized that the Rick had gone too far. Or, since it was the beginning of first period, maybe they were just too tired to get worked up. But whatever the reason for the silence, I was thankful. I needed those precious seconds of to try and work through my response.
Earlier that month I had been reading about the various repugnant ways that white society critiqued and attempted to control Black female bodies. With that fresh in my mind, I made the decision to publicly censure the boy. I took a deep breath into my lungs and steeled my diaphragm in order to try and keep my voice steady.
“Rick, that comment was racist and disrespectful to Imani. There is a history of white men making disparaging and racist remarks about the appearance of Black females. Please apologize and do not do it again.”
Within thirty seconds the class and I had moved on. During my first planning period I found my school’s diversity coordinator and told her what had happened. I knew I hadn’t handled the situation well and that I needed to debrief with the two students as soon as possible.
I contacted someone from the diversity office for advice on how to discuss what happened with Rick. She recommended speaking with Rick about how his comment was insensitive (instead of racist). She also told me that I didn’t need to go into any of the history about Black bodies and the white male gaze. “Tell Rick it’s insensitive to make fun of Black girls’ hair and that he needs to apologize,” she said.
Rick was already ahead of me. By the time I snagged him during lunch, he had already apologize to Imani over Snapchat, Instagram, and in person. When I asked him why he had made the comment, he told me that he was just trying to be funny. I told him it was insensitive and disrespectful to make fun of Black girls’ hair or appearance. His head bobbed up and down like a hyperactive jack in the box. Afterwards I spoke with Imani. She confirmed Rick’s multiple apologies and insisted that she was okay. “Eh, I’m used to it,” she said.
I knew I hadn’t handled the situation well. In my inadequacy to deal with microaggressions in the classroom, I had called a student out instead of calling him in. For anyone unfamiliar with the difference, this is a good place to start. I find myself consistently unprepared to discuss issues of race in the classroom. In Is Everyone Really Equal? An Introduction to Key Concepts in Social Justice Education authors Robin DiAngelo and Özlem Sensoy address this. They write that
Because Whites choose to live primarily segregated lives within a White dominated society, we receive little or no authentic information about racism and are thus unprepared to think about it critically. (p. 110).
I’m currently battling through my own infantile understanding of racism, intersectionality, and the role of schooling in perpetuating inequality. My ignorance is thick, and the amount I have to learn is staggering, but this is no excuse for inaction.
As a white educator speaking to other white educators, calling students in is a non-negotiable part of our work. Schools are primary sites of socialization for children. And since schools draw from dominant ideologies in order to recreate existing inequalities, it makes sense that microaggressions seem to ooze out of the pores of many students and teachers.
While some students have learned to limit insensitive comments and exaggerated accents when adults are around, many haven’t. And for those who have learned to keep such comments to a minimum when authority figures are present, I would offer that the threat of being publicly shamed is a more powerful motivator than an understanding of oppression and prejudice.
At my school, labeling something or someone as racist has become just as common as kids facetiously calling each other bullies. I’ve contributed to this climate with my own inaction. I’m guilty of using proximity or “the look” or other non-verbals to silence students who make prejudiced and insensitive comments instead of calling them in to discuss the situation. I need to talk to them about why they said it, what their intentions were, and why such comments are harmful. Every single time.
Let me make it clear that this post isn’t about Rick. It’s about my own struggles to snap out of my privileged complacency in order to begin the work of becoming an antiracist educator. For my fellow white educators who battle with feelings of guilt or embarrassment or confusion, let it go. These feelings keep us from throwing ourselves into this work.
 I’ve changed the names and identifying details to preserve the privacy of those involved.