I’ve understood the new system for a number of years now, but I’ve never experienced it so directly. It might have been demoralizing, except for a few kind words of support from a person I’d never spoken to before.
Yesterday, I taught a lesson to a group of middle school students involving the use of juxtaposition in a poem we read. “Juxtaposition” is a literary technique whereby an author places words, phrases or ideas side by side in the text to create a strong comparison or contrast. When used for contrast, the effect is like that of a literary foil, which is a dull or evil character placed next to a hero to accentuate the noble qualities of the latter, much like the black velvet cushions jewelers place under gemstones to accentuate the sparkle.
I’ve included the poem here, along with email communications about what occurred. I’ve changed names and designations to observe the privacy of all involved.
Once riding in old Baltimore,
Heart-filled, head-filled with glee,
I saw a Baltimorean
Keep looking straight at me.
Now I was eight and very small,
And he was no whit bigger,
And so I smiled, but he poked out
His tongue, and called me, “Nigger.”
I saw the whole of Baltimore
From May until December;
Of all the things that happened there
That’s all I remember.
[Communication with teacher of record]
Dear Ms. Radford,
The class did the Graphic Organizer for “Incident” and we discussed the gist. When we read the poem and discussed it, I asked someone to start us off by naming something that didn’t fit in one of the stanzas. Charles raised his hand and said, “the part where the author says, ‘he poked out his tongue and called me, “Nigger.”’” I agreed, and asked what this slur was placed next to in order to create the effect. The class was silent, so I told them the slur was laid next to the author’s act of smiling at a stranger. This juxtaposition highlighted the stranger’s cruelty. While we were discussing this, I spoke the word “nigger” several times. Theo complained that I was using “the ‘n’ word.” I informed him that we were reading a poem about a person’s experience, that the use of the word was meant to show the ugliness of racism, that I had been asked by you to read and discuss this poem with them. He continued objecting and was joined by several of his classmates. By the end of class, I was pretty much being tarred and feathered. Julia (the school’s security guard) came at the end of class after I called the office. She explained to the kids that that we were reading and discussing a poem, and that if they were offended, it was their own private business. I am mystified. I so wanted to have a fruitful discussion about the masterful way the author of the poem juxtaposed a kind smile next to a racial slur, showing with such clarity the ugliness of racism. I hope you can help them understand that I meant well and that I wish I had handled it better. I was hurt and angry at their treatment. At the same time, they’re kids. Which of us hasn’t been overpowered by misplaced emotions?
[Security personnel’s communication with teacher of record]
First Welcome back! I missed you. I hope you had a great time.
I wanted to let you know I have been called to you class multiple times while you’ve been gone this week. Today during 1st period I was called to go to the class. When I got there the students were in an uproar. The teacher said a lot of the students were offended/mad over the lesson that was being taught. When the teacher was reading the sentence that contained (nigger) the students became offended. I heard from one of the students he accentuated the R, and another said he kept repeating it etc. You get the jest (sic) of it.
I did speak to the whole class about this and they did listen. I said this is a lesson plan not to be offended, and it wasn’t meant as an insult in any way. I said some other stuff I can’t remember exactly everything. I feel they were being childish. I also think if you were teaching this lesson there wouldn’t be this issue. I’ll explain when I see you. It is most unfortunate the times have changed to what they have become.
On a side note I like the sub who has been teaching your class. I had a nice talk with him after 1st period. He is a very calm, relaxed, and reasonable person.
Campus Security, Brown Middle School
After it happened, I wanted to demonstrate goodwill, so I considered expressing regret to the kids when I saw them in a later period. But I realized that would validate the students’ complaints and add to the confusion.
“Confusion” seems almost like a euphemism for the mental trajectory of these kids. Here was a gentleman standing before them expressing abhorrence for racism (no one has ever accused me of mincing words), but all they could see was a white man saying the word “nigger.” Neither the context nor any of my explicit condemnations of racism could overcome the knee-jerk reflex.
Before the uproar occurred, one of the students, a black girl, made a reference to “the one who said the slur ― the white guy.”
I pointed out to her: “The poem didn’t say he was white. How do we know the guy who uttered the slur was white? Couldn’t he just as well have been Middle Eastern, Indian, etc.?”
The student looked at me like I was asking if we knew the sky was blue.
I might be wrong, but it seems as though our society has reached some general conclusions about racism: 1) Whiteness carries with it an inherently racist bent. And even if it doesn’t, whites have been responsible for so much racism that the stereotype is fair and appropriate. 2) Whites today are responsible for the racism of their ancestors. 3) Whites have a potential for racism that exceeds that of any other ethnic group. 4) Any remnant of racism anywhere must be met with increasingly exhaustive programs, self-flagellation by whites and fresh discussions about the problem. 5) The abject contrition of whites is a perpetual responsibility.
Furthermore, being a victim of racism (in this case being in the same room as a white guy who says “nigger” regardless of the context) excuses all manner of misbehavior. Not one of these kids will receive so much as a gentle exhortation to be respectful of their substitute teachers. Instead, their teacher will gently explain to them that their sub was actually deploring the ugliness of the very thing they accused him of doing.
And maybe that’s what should happen. After all, they’re kids. Yes, they behaved irrationally and disrespectfully, but those qualities have been encouraged in them. The real villains of this story are the behind-the-scenes revolutionaries who have operated unseen in a hundred venues of education and media, whose work has changed the entire sociocultural structure of American society.
“It’s not okay for teenaged students to speak abusively to their adult teacher.” Unless, of course, they are victims of racism, which now trumps a vast array of laws, protocols, facts and most of all reason. Here we have to clarify that being a victim of racism includes: having been on the receiving end of a known racist act or racist speech; having ancestors who were the victims of racism; simply making accusations of racism, especially against a white person; having feelings or suspicions of racism. All of these amount to victim status. And God forbid anyone should question the righteousness of anyone who has identified herself as a victim of racism for any reason. That itself is taken as proof of the fact and an additional instance of it.
Those who cry racism, of course, have the advantage of occupying a prominent position in the victim hierarchy (shared by women, gays, transgenders, and almost any group except white, Christian males) which makes available to them a generous supply of social amenities. Affirmative action was only the beginning. Where we once gave social rewards mainly for merit ― skill, hard work, responsibility, kindness and humility (all things that improve both the individual and society) ― we now reward anyone who has been hurt, claims to have been hurt, feels hurt, or even feels fine but is thought by others to have been hurt. Any and all are grounds for condemnation of every WASP within a country mile ― and showers of sympathy and compensation for the “victim.” It’s a fact of 21st-century American life: feeling hurt and pissed off is the new socio-cultural currency. But you have to belong to an approved victim group, which white Christian males are not. Those are the rules.
All this is a brilliant and utterly wicked way of emasculating an entire subset of the population. I’m not talking about conservatives and Christians (although their hands get tied too): I’m talking about all the people in these victim groups. Imagine you had a teenage kid and you told him his failing grades and behavior problems were someone else’s fault. How much improvement would you expect?
This is the new America. At this point, I don’t believe it can be fixed. But there is a silver lining to all this: though we may wince as we watch hordes of empty-headed people wash over the precipice, wisdom and history tell us that hardship and persecution cause the Church to thrive.
It’s about to get interesting around here.