Two weeks ago, our country was taking baby steps in the direction of accepting Joe Biden as president-elect. Emotions and temperatures were flaring as caravans of Trump-paraphernalia-laden vehicles paraded up and down some of the busiest streets in our city. And my husband was having lunch at home while our younger son sat across the table from him attending his virtual Reading class. As Hubs ate and half-listened to the teacher, he heard words that have no place coming out of a teacher’s mouth in a fifth grade classroom: removing statues is taking away our history.
Allow me to provide some context I have since been granted: The lesson that day was about bias and how to evaluate news sources. There was relevant class conversation about historical figures, and a student asked how we can know today what people looked like many years ago. Statues are, of course, one way to know how people looked long ago.
To further elaborate, as I did when I spoke on the phone with the school’s principal that afternoon, I have only ever heard the phraseology about removing statues equating to taking away history from people who want to keep Confederate monuments where they are and are vehemently opposed to moving or destroying them. Thus, my husband, the white father of two biracial black boys and keenly aware of the insidious prevalence of the lost cause myth, immediately perked up his ears so as to track what else this teacher might say to her class that was indicative of a political viewpoint completely opposite to our own. He listened in not because her political viewpoint here is opposite from ours, but because as a student in her classroom, my child should have any knowledge of her political viewpoint at all.
During the course of the aforementioned principal conversation – held after she’d had a chance to visit with the teacher and review video of the lesson, I pressed past the question of context to the question of meaning. What had this teacher meant by what she said? The principal seemed to echo the teacher’s flimsy apology, reiterating that everyone makes mistakes. This, in fact, is why I provided the context of that phrase being used to defend keeping Confederate statues where they stand, which the principal responded to as if the information I provided was new to her.
The principal – no doubt seeking to protect one of her teachers – went on to state repeatedly just how upset this teacher was because of any harm caused by her comment. When I asked why the teacher was upset even while she persisted in not providing the explanation I asked for, the principal’s response was that the teacher felt like I was “looking for something to hang her with.” Over the next few minutes of the conversation, once I made clear that such a turn of phrase was unacceptable and that should the teacher and I have a face-to-face conference, I expected not to hear such language from her, the principal owned that the phrase she had used was her own, not the teacher’s. And she apologized.
I have given you a lot of information, so let us quickly recap:
My child’s teacher made an inappropriate, thinly veiled political, and culturally insensitive comment in an elementary school reading class.
Overhearing this, my husband, who heard the comment, looped me in.
After emailing the teacher and remaining unsatisfied with the response, I was able to speak by phone to the principal about the racially loaded remark in question. During this conversation, as I repeatedly asked for transparency and clarification of the remark, what I got instead was reiteration of how upset the teacher was (see Luvvie’s post) and an apology from the principal herself for using – get this – a culturally insensitive turn of phrase in the conversation about the teacher’s culturally insensitive turn of phrase during my child’s class.
Are you still with me?
In the midst of this fraught election season with unprecedented political happenings, this teacher brought her politics into my fifth grader’s classroom. And when I called her on it, she was sad and apologetic for saying it but offered no clarifying, apolitical context or meaning for her words.
The problem here is a multifaceted one, but let’s focus on just one facet. Underlying this entire exchange between my child’s classroom, the teacher, the principal, and me, is a level of white discomfort that sees itself as being equal to or more important than the emotional well-being and innocence of my child, as well as the professionalism I have every right to expect from my child’s teacher. The relational dynamics at play here, and the expectation that I would be content with a spineless apology and a repeated assertion of how bad the teacher felt, are inextricable from the history of race relations in this country.
Indeed, how have we arrived at the year 2020, and found ourselves confronted with a white woman who believes that when her employee’s feelings are hurt or her judgment questioned, it is in any way the analogous equivalent of a lynch mob seeking to hang a person from a tree?
This week’s suggested resource, therefore, is 13th, Ava DuVernay’s illuminating Netflix documentary that traces the evolution, not the abolition, of slavery in America.
13th unearths the cumulative impact of racial terror in America: enslavement, lynching, mass incarceration, redlining, housing covenants, and the present-day iterations and results of all of the above.
Watch it, take notes, and allow your understanding to be broadened, so that you do not find yourself in a position of equating temporary emotional discomfort with the domestic terroristic act of lynching. Watch so that you can begin to understand why I as a black mother was utterly unmoved by a teacher’s feckless political statement and subsequent tepid apology; why I remain thoroughly unsatisfied that I never received an explanation of what exactly she meant; why the situation and how it played out have left me wishing away the time my child will have to spend with this teacher; why I feel so insecure about her beliefs and how they may insert themselves into the way she implements curriculum and delivers instruction to my child and his class; why the principal’s comment makes me worry about the water cooler talk my child may overhear if he indeed were on that campus attending school; why I am genuinely concerned about the faculty culture of the school he attends.
Our words have meaning, y’all. It’s incumbent upon us to consider the words we choose to use. And to own our mistakes in as transparent a way as we can when we inevitably say the wrong thing.
To be transparent myself, I will share an anecdote: A few days ago, I was talking to a family member about doing what I said I’d do even though my teenage son wanted me to consider doing something else. But that isn’t what I said. Instead, I told this family member that I had “stuck to my guns.” As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I replayed them mentally and felt nauseated. Had I just used a violent, war-related phrase to refer to how I had made a decision and not backed down from it? One quick moment’s reflection showed me that this expression could be quickly and easily replaced with appropriate, precise language. I could easily have said that I stuck to my convictions or simply that I did what I said I would do, conveying the same meaning in a way that isn’t potentially problematic.
As you watch 13th and reflect on your own words and perceptions, I hope you will consider the following questions:
- What idioms do you use without really considering the meaning of their words?
- Have you ever conflated being asked to stop and think about your word choice with being physically attacked?
- When have you allowed people around you to use language that makes you uncomfortable without calling them out on it? Who benefits from such allowances?
- Have you slipped up and allowed your political views to seep into your workplace? How have others responded? If you are a leader in some capacity at your job, are the people around you truly able to express concern, offense, or harm caused by what you say, without fearing repercussion?
This is a heavy piece, I know. Not every aspect of unlearning racial bias work must be this deliberate and careful. But when such deliberation and care are required, we’d best take the time to do the work well. I’ll see you here again soon, so we can cultivate peace in our homes, families, and communities, one piece at a time.