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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Dear Race Manners:

I’m a teacher at a private elementary school that is in a predominantly white area but counts diversity and inclusion among its core values. This year we happen to have a Sri Lankan family and an Indian family who have boys the same age, each of whom is picked up by his father after school.

This has caused some confusion! One teacher is feeling horrible because she has confused the fathers twice. First she sent the Indian child to the Sri Lankan father’s car. The next time, she sent the right child but called the Sri Lankan father by the Indian father’s name when she greeted him. She was so flustered by her second mistake that she tried to make a joke of it, saying, “All you Indian guys look the same.” He laughed, but she immediately didn’t feel right about it and confessed to other teachers what happened.

When it got back to the principal, the teacher was asked to write an apology email for her “racism.” She did, and the father wrote back that it was not a problem at all and he thought it was funny. But now word on the street is that she might be made to go to a conference for people of color as punishment or as the school’s effort to make up for this.

I feel terrible for her because she is a great person who made an innocent mistake, and I think the school is overreacting. I almost said so when asked to weigh in, but I thought better of it because I don’t want to be a racism apologist. What’s your take? —Anonymous

I can see why you’re conflicted. Your sense is that the school’s reaction to this incident seems overly punitive and doesn’t really seem to get to the core of the problem. But we all know that simply sweeping incidents like this under the carpet is never a smart move and definitely doesn’t solve anything. You never really want to be the “Stop making such a big deal about it! She didn’t mean to be racist!” person. Those people are on the wrong side of history and decency about 100 percent of the time.

But luckily the school has a broader set of options. Despite how it may seem when celebrities and others in high-profile positions make these types of mistakes, the choices when it comes to incidents of racism, racial insensitivity or race-related misunderstandings don’t have to be limited to “It’s fine! Ignore it!” on the one hand or “Heads will roll! Someone’s going to pay!” on the other.

If you are asked for your opinion or have a chance to share it again, I would encourage you to suggest that the incident be used not as an opportunity to shame a single teacher but, rather, as a wake-up call to the school community and a call to action to recommit to the institution’s mission of being a place where families of all backgrounds feel comfortable.

To get into this frame of mind, it might be helpful to understand what likely happened at the moment (OK, two moments) when the teacher confused the Sri Lankan-American and Indian-American dads.

As I’ve explained before in Race Manners, psychologists call it the “cross-race effect,” and it means that we find it easier to recognize, distinguish and remember faces of our "racial in-group" than we do "racial out-groups" simply because we see features that look like our own more frequently. There’s also the idea that when we see people of different ethnic backgrounds, our minds pay more attention to what makes the person unusual to us than to his or her individual features. We lose some of the distinguishing details in the process. Confusion (and embarrassing moments) can follow.

The great news is that even if you and the other teachers at the school only see two people of Indian descent and two people of Sri Lankan descent per year, there’s a pretty easy way to stop this confusion from happening that will also work for other families whose ethnic backgrounds make them unusual in your school community.

Kurt Hugenberg, a professor of psychology at Miami University who has spent much of his career studying stereotyping, prejudice and cross-race face identification, told The Root that the ability to distinguish one face from another depends on both past experiences and motivations. In one encouraging study, when he and his colleagues told subjects that they were likely to fall victim to the cross-race effect, people were able to eliminate their confusion. How did they do it? Simply by deciding to pay attention to what made individual out-group members unique.

In other words, making the school’s employees aware of this phenomenon could itself be enough to avoid potentially alienating moments in the future. It’s that easy.

In my opinion, the teacher at the center of this story did owe an apology for her flustered attempt at humor. Putting aside the fact that she mentally merged two countries and fumbled the punch line (the fathers are not actually both Indian, so that joke fell flat), parents who come to school to pick up their children don’t do so expecting to have to navigate off-color jokes, and they shouldn’t have to.