Learning Racial Literacy Shouldn’t Be Punishment

Race Manners: Using a teacher’s slipup solely to shame her won’t make the school a better place for kids of color.

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They especially shouldn’t be in the position of having to say “I thought it was funny” to put a flustered teacher at ease. Maybe the dad thought “All you Indian guys look the same” was hilarious, or maybe he didn’t want to cause a rift with the person who looks after his son every day. We can’t say for sure, but it’s always better not to create a situation in which you have to guess whether you’ve offended someone with whom you have a professional relationship.

But I’m troubled by the idea of sending the teacher to the conference as punishment, or even as a way to demonstrate that the school found her mistake unacceptable. That sends a message that only people of color and white people who have messed up have to think about race, which I’m sure isn’t the ideal position for a school that values diversity.

Although the swift reaction by the principal and administration was no doubt well intended (and somewhat admirable in that way), it doesn’t do a lot to address the real issue: that they want the school to be the kind of place where people of all backgrounds feel welcome—not as sources of confusion, as burdens to be navigated, or as catalysts for awkward moments and apologies.

This is something that should be everyone’s cause, all the time, not just when something goes wrong or someone has potentially been offended.

Thankfully, there are lots of resources to help make sure this is the case. Take, for example, tips from Harvard University’s Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning on how to teach in racially diverse college classrooms. Plenty of them—like “Learn how to intervene tactfully and effectively in racially charged classroom situations and to manage hot moments or hot topics” and “Assess conscious and unconscious biases about people of cultures other than your own”—translate easily to all grade levels and to interactions in the school community as a whole.

The chapter “Diversity and Inclusion in the Classroom” in Barbara Gross Davis’ book Tools for Teaching has a litany of tips that the school could embrace as an ongoing project, including these: “Treat each student as an individual, and respect each student for who he or she is,” “Become informed about the history and culture of groups other than your own” (this alone could have straightened out the Indian-Sri Lankan confusion), and “Introduce discussions of diversity at department meetings.” Creating a diverse school environment where all kids and families can thrive isn’t simple, and it’s much more involved than forcing apologies and penance when a teacher falls short. Remind the school how much more the broad embrace of tips like these would benefit your students than would one woman’s trip, under duress, to a conference.

The error the teacher made when she confused the two dads was embarrassing and revealing. But a far worse mistake would be for the school to confuse punitive responses to diversity issues with productive, proactive ones.

Jenée Desmond-Harris, The Root’s associate editor of features, covers the intersection of race with news, politics and culture. She wants to talk about the complicated ways in which ethnicity, color and identity arise in your personal life—and provide perspective on the ethics and etiquette surrounding race in a changing America. So if you need race-related advice, send your questions to racemanners@theroot.com. Follow Jenée on Twitter.