“Hey, Ms. L! Did you hear what he called me? He called me the n-word!” said one of my African-American boys about another African-American boy (who also happens to be his best friend). I stared at him. This was another game of lets make the white girl squeamish about race. “Oh,” I replied, not taking the bait, “he called you nice? No wonder you’re shocked.” It was his turn to stare. He tried to engage me again in the “n-word”, but after my “Really?!” look, he quieted down.
There’s a lot of discussion about creating “teachable” moments about race in the classroom, but in my classroom, it’s mostly joking about one’s own race. My students are very diverse and probably know more about other’s races than the average kid. It’s quite often that I’m the only white person in the room. It often seems to me that all my kids need is acknowledgement from me that I’m white. Once a student noticed my blue rose tattoo and immediately asked if I was a Crip to which I responded with a curtsey, “I’m just a little white girl from the suburbs.” Evidently, though, it’s not always clear. One student once pointed out how there were no white people in class, and some others pointed at me. What followed was a heated debate about what color I was, because according to some, I was not “white”. Years later, I’m still not sure how that discussion came about or why it was debated.
When I worked on my credential, one the classes I most anticipated was the one on the mullti-cultural classroom. This was information I needed! Unfortunately it was the worst class I ever had. The professor had our first meeting be a three hour discussion of multi-cultural awareness: do we do it or do we live it? I still don’t know what it means, and the question was so poorly worded with abysmal grammar, that I will never know. He asked me, “Who is the minority in your classroom?” He didn’t believe me when I said, “I am.” How could I be the minority? I’m white. He also didn’t believe my peer– a Japanese-American teaching at an affluent school with a predominantly white population. She was the minority in her classroom. All we learned in that class was how not to teach.
To make up for my noodle-salad up bringing, I went to the source. My first year was spent pumping my kids for information. We did projects about heritage and family. They brought in their traditional foods. One girl taught me island dances. They explained what quincineras and debuts are. We looked on the map to see where they were from. I shared my stories about growing up white (they’re amazed that I am only child and have only five cousins who do not even live in my state). They tell me about Fiji, Pakistan, India, Samoa, Vietnam, and Cambodia. I tell them about far off places like Michigan.
Learning how to deal with race had it’s tough moments. One class of freshmen went through a phase of saying that everything was “racist”. I was racist for asking them to open their books, turn in their homework, or answer a question. I really wanted to tell them that they were really racist: they didn’t do their homework because I was white. I didn’t say that, but it would have been nice for the shoe to be on the other foot, so they could see that racism wasn’t just something only white people do. Instead I tried to tell them that calling a non-racist person racist degraded any valid claims they had to real racism. It also didn’t honor the work of those who had worked tirelessly for equality, sometimes giving up their lives. Those crusaders didn’t make the strides they did so some kids could call the wind racist for blowing.
The real lesson about race is to not hide from it. I used to be afraid to acknowledge my students’ race– I felt like I might “out” someone. I was also afraid to share my stories, that I would have nothing to offer them, that my past was not relevant. However, To hide the fact or not acknowledge the fact that a student is black, Cambodian, Hmong, Russian, or whoever they are, is to deny them that part of their identity. Being open and honest about their experiences is one way that we find our similarities. I also have to be upfront about who I am, where I come from, and the experiences that shaped me into this little white girl at the front of the class.