Thursday, November 11, 2004

Making a case for Racism

Working in a predominately white, upper class high school which churns out college-bound students by the sackful, I am presented with difficult problems every day. Should I tell my 16 year old teaching assistant to ask for a Humvee or a BMW for her birthday? Should I bring apple or pumpkin pie to the Thanksgiving party?

I have one black student, a freshman. I'll call him Will. I know that he's black because when I look around my English classroom he's the one who isn't white. He is also incredibly smart. We trade books to read, he writes about liking Charles Dickens and other American and English classics, he writes amazing poetry--and he is completely failing my class. Rarely does he turn in homework or raise his hand to speak in class. He blows off studying and, as a result, his test scores are low.

Usually in this situation, I just let the kid fail; it's his choice. But this time I called a meeting with his family, and Will signed a contract (which I wrote) stating that he'd turn in his homework or he'd stay in at lunch with me making up the work (and if he didn't there would be further consequences). Well, Will didn't live up to his end of the bargain, and I wrote him a referral--he had to visit the administration office (and get detention). My hopes: the more we tightened up, the more he'd be inclined to just do the work.

I got a vist from the administrator assigned to Will (after I wrote the first referral). Evidently, Will had been involved in a fight the week before--strictly a fight between some frehsman boys (with no racial overtones at all in the adm's eyes). Will's family saw it differently, and they complained about racism to the superintendent. Thus, this administrator was concerned, rightly so, about my plan of attack and the potential consequences. His point: in my years of teaching at this school, I had rarely imposed a student contract or set such a rigid plan in motion with a student. Implications: was this racially motivated? Or, more to the point, could it be construed by others as being racially motivated?

I felt bad about the situation I'd placed this administrator in; I set him up by not getting him involved with the process. But I also saw clearly the fear that surround the issue of racism at work. I think that fear overshadows, at least in this case, the good we're trying--and suppossed to be trying--to do.

The plan with Will was the right thing to do. Unfortunately, it's not going to work. The kid still isn't doing what's expected of him. I'll have to scrap this plan, and I may just have to let him fail. The interesing question that was raised out of all of this for me: Was my involvement racially motivated? That is, did I get involved because Will is black? Honestly, I'm not sure. My initial reaction is that this kid is special--he is super-smart and I just plain like him. But maybe it is, partly at least, because he's my sole black student. What if that's true? Some might argue that that is racism at work right there. Will is a sullen, quiet kid in class, and I think some of my colleagues here and elsewhere may judge him based on that and, possibly, because of the color of his skin. Shouldn't he get more now because he is black? The world will certainly offer him less because of his skin color. Isn't it our duty to find those smart, talented black men (and women) and do whatever it takes to grant them success? More importantly, is it our duty to put MORE effort into these young black students than our white students?

That's the tough question I'm mulling over now. I think the tough answer is yes. That answer doesn't seem to sit well because it's not "fair." No, it's not. And that's the point. "Yes" exposes what we know intellectually but don't truly confront or act upon: that our insitutions including, our school systems, are racist. They help white students succeed. Talking about it is one thing, but having the white and black students in front of our faces and actively making choices to confront these instituions is hard.

So do I let Will fail? At this point, having put so much time and energy into him with little to no results, I would let a white kid fail. I have a feeling Will is at least partly rebelling against his surroundings; he feels different, and he is very, very aware of the racial make-up of this community. Knowing that, at what point do i just back-off? Like I said, if he were white, I'd have backed-off already. In this case, however, maybe I should be racist.


At 5:57 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The problems with discussing race in America, is that we only have one term, racism, to describe all behavior and phenomena that are racially inflected. But “racism” is, to say the least, a pejorative term, and being called “racist” is so depreciatory that it can cause you to be dismissed entirely. Calling someone a racist today is the rhetorical equivalent of calling someone a communist in the fifties; it means you need give no credence to anything they say. Given this, people rush to avoid the appearance of racism, even if, as in your story, doing so leaves the underlying racist outcomes in tact. People do this in the name of being fair. But fair is about as uselessly defined as racism. In most people’s minds fair equals same. This is just false. Fair does not equal same.

I take this as a given, but in case it is not, let me pose to you the theoretical fair contest in which each of has to play by the same rules and the winner will get the same prize, let’s say, a million dollars. Same rules. Same prize. That’s fair, right? Okay, here’s the contest: the first person to menstruate wins! Or the person with the biggest boobs get the million bucks. Or, if that is too hard, how about a contest in which the winner is the first person to successfully translate a children’s book into Japanese, or recite a bruchah in Hebrew, or make a quiche from scratch. In theory, these contests are all fair, in that we both have the same opportunity to enter, and the same opportunity to win. But of course we don’t. You are no more likely to win the menstruating contest that I am to beat you at a video game. (If your mind is starting to stick on the part about inherent biological differences vs. learned differences, I’ll be happy to take that up later, but for understanding this point about “fair does not equal same” it really doesn’t matter what the root cause of the difference is. It is enough to know that we all have any number of both biological and cultural ways in which we differ from others, and while some of those could have been changed by making different decisions in the past – or being raised by a different family, or living in another country, or choosing a different spouse, or hobby, or whatever – none of them can be changed retroactively so they are what we bring to the table at any given time.) And at this time, in these supposedly fair contests, I’m winning the million bucks. And no, I won’t buy you new car, because you had just as much opportunity to win as I did. You just squandered it, you wastrel.

What is wrong with this (non-)logic is that it provides you with equality of opportunity without guaranteeing, or even really offering, equality of outcome. Which is where I would offer you a much better term than fair, same, or equal. What you were talking about offering Will in your classroom was equity. Equity is not about giving every kid the same thing, it is about providing every kid what they need to get to the same place. (In this case, the place being a passing grade in English, at your school, where it sounds like being a Black kid shapes part of his resistance to participating, so it should certainly shape part of your response to getting him to participate.) For a less laden example, if we were to go all out in a head-to-head, winner-take-all, quiche making contest, it would be equitable to let you have a cookbook, and not let me have one, because that is the level of support we each need to get to the desired outcome of a yummy brunch. It’s just that simple.

(But, of course, it’s not. Accepting the need to think equitably instead of equally will automatically make you a better person, but it won’t automatically make you good at creating equitable supports for kids. For the record, anything that feels like a contract, a punishment, a double-or-nothing, or a singling out has a bad track record in bringing disengaged Black kids back into the academic fold. The hardest part about doing equity work is in finding the supports that make sense to the kids, not to us. Which is only sensible. I mean if it were obvious to you what a kid needed, you’d be providing it already, right? That is because you are fighting on the side of good.


At 6:43 PM, Blogger jamie_donohoe said...


Two questions:
1) How did you get to be this smart?
2) Will you give me a million dollars if I find a way to menstrate?

At 12:19 PM, Anonymous Trundle said...

I think the real problem are the illogical connections between a contest and what it indicates. Because, ultimately, a menstruation contest would be a "fair" contest to determine, well, who could menstruate the fastest. It would be irrelevant, though, in attempting to figure out who was the smartest, or fastest, or who could make the best kite.

It's the same problem with a lot of "contests" (in their various forms) in the world. An IQ test, for instance, is a relatively "fair" way to measure something. But what it tends to measure is a particular type of analytical thought process -- not who is the most qualified for a scholarship.

I think the same thing can be said of grades, although what they measure is really a multitude of things (in no particular order: intelligence, discipline, parents' income, submissiveness, etc.). The breakdown is when people assume this assesment is somehow relevant to anything else (scholarship worthiness or future success).

At 8:57 AM, Blogger jamie_donohoe said...

Agreed. SAT tests are a perfect example. Originally they were designed as a sorting system, a way to tell which students were most likely to succeed in college. Realistically, they are more likely to tell which students have anough money to hire a tutor or take a preperation course.

At 10:15 AM, Blogger Jonathan Korman said...

Jamie, I've taken the liberty of using your story as a jumping-off point for a discussion over at the anti-racist conference Beyond White Guilt. Some interesting stuff has come up.


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