Earlier this week I read a blog post by Tom Rademacher called Who’s Afraid of the Mediocre Middle (I am). I’m just going to thank Mr. Rad now for his post (Thank you!). If you haven’t read this very powerful and thought-provoking post, I suggest you do so before continuing on.
This post got me to thinking about an uncomfortable conversation that took place with me and another educator a few months ago. I was hanging out with a fellow teacher (we’ll call this person Teacher A), when another teacher we both knew, Teacher B, stopped by and started chatting with us.
Somehow the discussion took a very strange and disturbing turn, resulting in some racist remarks by Teacher B. To say the least, Teacher A and I were stunned silent for a moment. Teacher B must have read our disagreement to their remarks on our faces and started backpedaling a bit, but took another wrong turn when they tried to say someone in my family would probably agree with one of the remarks they had made (for the record, they wouldn’t have).
Again, wide-eyed silence, followed by a very obvious exit from the uncomfortableness hovering over us all by Teacher A. Teacher B made very awkward chitchat for a bit before finally leaving me wondering what the hell had just happened.
This very uncomfortable conversation has stayed with me. It bothers me greatly for several reasons. One, I’ve suspected this person believes in the remarks they made, but never would have thought they would have the gall to state them out loud.
The second reason I’ve been haunted by this conversation is because I didn’t speak up like I should have. I just tried to gently move it to neutral ground. I’ve talked about this incident with only two people. One listened quietly and said nothing, making me feel even more guilty (and deservedly so) about not having said something against what Teacher B had said. The other person I spoke about this with said, “It probably wouldn’t have done any good anyway if you had said something.”
Possibly, but what if I had said something?
I’m not confrontational by nature. However, that’s just not an acceptable excuse. I could have found a way to voice my disagreement over Teacher B’s racist remarks without being condescending or rude. And I should have.
I think the problem with these conversations is we have been made to feel like the only way to deal with these situations is either strongly worded shaming or saying nothing. Neither one is the most productive way to go to change people like Teacher B’s hearts and minds.
While it would have been nice to say, “f*** right off,” as Mr. Rad does in his blog post, it probably wouldn’t have done anything to change Teacher B’s mind about what they said. In fact, it probably would have made Teacher B dig in their heels and/or never want to listen to a word I say…on any topic…ever.
On the other hand, saying nothing is silent agreement. Sticking your head in the sand and hoping the bad words fade away doesn’t work. I just should have said something, plain and simple.
The third reason this conversation has bothered me was only brought to light for me after reading Mr. Rad’s post and one of the questions he poses:
What is the percentage of classrooms you wouldn’t feel comfortable putting your child in if your child was a black boy?
For me, that answer is at least Teacher B’s class. It’s frightening to think about how many other teachers think like Teacher B. Nearly half of the students I teach aren’t white. The idea of any of them (or any student, period) being in Teacher B’s class after hearing what they said is abhorrent. I would hate for Teacher B to slip and say something that could hurt one of my kids, or anyone for that matter (too late for that, I’m sure…another frightening thought). Or for Teacher B’s attitude to seem superior towards them. Children pick up on these things.
Hindsight being what it is, I wish I could go back and have said something. Something that would have maybe stuck with Teacher B. Something that would have them hopefully rethink their negative view on race. It bothers me terribly that I didn’t say anything meaningful and I can’t go back. A second chance at this would be nice, but I doubt that will happen. I hope it does, though.
One thing I do know, it’s not enough just to make sure we have enough warm bodies in the classroom.
I’ll leave you with this quote from Mr. Rad’s post:
What we’ve been doing is talking about a certain amount of allowable damage, an acceptable level of harm that we hope is less sometime, that we hope gets better. We hope that things, that people, get better. We push gently against a system that is pretty comfortable where it is. We hope for good enough.
I’m sick of good enough for now.