By Nadya Bech-Conger and Jocelyn Fletcher Scheuch
Note: The names of students have been changed, to protect their privacy.
Person 1: “ Colored people are…”
Person 2: “Do you mean, people of color?”
Person 1: “Yeah, whatever.”
We’re sitting in a tight semi-circle in the middle of the room: 40 ninth graders and two teachers, for three hours of Humanities class. I’m co-teaching, as I have for more than two years, with Nadya. Today we’re talking microaggressions, and while it’s not our first time, it’s our first time focusing specifically on racial microaggressions. We started the day analyzing a variety of definitions of racism, looking for themes, and building our own definitions. Our students held this document in their laps, scribbling in the margins: racism is a system; it’s behavior; it requires power; it benefits some groups at the expense of others.
Now students are reading aloud the racially charged microaggressions that we have written on index cards and passed out at random. “ Colored people are…” “Do you mean, people of color?” “Yeah, whatever.”
There are a few seconds of quiet as students process how this conversation is an example of a microaggression. Student faces register a variety of familiar reactions: confusion, recognition, uncertainty. Then hands start to pop up, bodies lean in, and a few whisper with their neighbor.
Chris gets the first word, “Well, I guess I see how this is a microaggression. Really, it is just about trying to do what it politically correct.”
Now I’m triggered. I repeat the mantra that Nadya and I have been using during these ‘courageous conversations.’ Wait. Let the students take care of it. Wait. But, I can’t help myself, and I hear the strain in my question even as I ask it.
“What do you mean by politically correct?” I ask, exchanging glances with Nadya. I can tell she too, is focused on trying not to take over their conversation.
Lily raises her hand. She and Emily are conferring. Emily will take care of it. I call on Lily. “I guess being politically correct is just finding the most polite and least offensive thing to say,” she says.
Emily adds, “It’s like, using the broadest, most respectful language. The most inclusive.”
Sitting next to Emily, Dylan starts muttering; this is his modus. He can take care of it. Let him. Nadya calls on him.
“Well, yeah, I guess you could say that, but the problem with politically correct as a term is that in general, well, you know, how it is used in this day, is as a way to, I guess, just show that you don’t really think that you should have to be polite, but really, you are being polite.”
“Yes!” I say, a little too enthusiastically. Shut up, Jocelyn.
Nadya asks, “Do you mean that it’s kind of dismissive?” I watch her struggle to keep it light, to not put words in his mouth, but at the same time, she’s triggered too. God, this work is so hard.
“Exactly,” says Dylan. “It’s totally dismissive. And snide. It’s like, I don’t really care about respect, I’m just saying it because other people do.”
Bella is squirming in her front-row seat. Nadya invites her in. “I don’t get it,” she says, after hesitating. “What IS the difference between ‘people of color’ and ‘colored people.’ They sound the same to me.”
Nadya says, “I’m so glad you asked. Let’s unpack those terms.” She talks about history and context and how the words have been used. She tells a story about something a friend said.
Tien says, “Oh! It’s like connotation and denotation.”
Is this really happening?
Chloe raises her hand. “I think it isn’t really people’s fault if they don’t know the history. Like, if I wasn’t in this class, I would never have known that “colored” was a bad term that has a horrible history. I have probably said that before. It is not people’s fault if they don’t know.”
I can feel her discomfort. “Thanks Chloe,”I say. “You’ve taken a real risks by admitting that you did not know. I appreciate that risk,” I respond to Chloe with as much warmth as I can muster. But it’s hard, not because of anything Chloe said or did, but because I’m distracted by Chris’s earlier comment. Something is tugging on my brain, wanting to come out. They are wrestling with these complex ideas, but there’s something they are just not getting. Finally the words come to me.
“What we are doing here. These conversations we’re having. These ideas we are having you engage in. It is not about not being offensive.” I’m breaking the rules. I’m taking over, and I’m not keeping it light.
The effect is immediate and explosive. There is no raising of hands; there’ a cacophony of
“Then what the heck have we been doing all year?”
“That’s exactly what you have been telling us to do all year. Not be offensive.”
“Of COURSE” that’s what you’ve been teaching us.”
And, from the back,
“You THOUGHT that’s what they were teaching you!”
Through the din, I exchange looks with Nadya. There is a question in her eyes.
“Let me repeat,” I say, “This is not about not being offensive. That is not the point.”
“Ok, so what is the point?” Jackson pointedly asks.
“Let me finish my thought,” I smile.
I pause, letting the tension fill the air. I do not know how to tell them what I mean without going on an theoretical rampage. I turn to Nadya, now smiling at me knowingly,with eyes that still hold that question. Almost three years into co-teaching these conversations, we’re not quite reading each other’s minds, but I know she’s asking me, I thought we said we weren’t going to do this?
“Are we really going there?” she asks, still smiling, a little incredulous.
“Yes. I think we have to go there.” And so she pauses, waiting for the chatter to die down.
“Okay, here is the point. You need to understand….” she is searching for the words.
We haven’t practiced this. We haven’t even ever talked about it together, and we have talked a lot. She’s trying to get it right, knowing that she has their attention in a way that is rare and poignant.
“It’s not about not being offensive. Once you leave this classroom, we don’t care if you’re offensive, that’s not the point. It’s about not participating in a system that oppresses people. We’re doing this work so that you can see the elements of systemic racism and oppression, and so that you have a choice about what you do. Because when you decide to do nothing, you’re participating in that system of oppression.”
At this point, the classroom is buzzing as they try to wrestle with this concept. All along they thought we were teaching them how not to be offensive, but here we are in April and they are finally in a place to understand that it isn’t about not being offensive, it is about not participating in oppression.
In the back, Shaun raises his hand. Nadya doesn’t hesitate to call on him, knowing there’s an opportunity here. Shaun rarely speaks in class. He is perceived as white, but identifies as African-American. He is smart and popular amongst his peers. He plays varsity as a freshman. He has something neither Nadya nor I have: credibility.
Quietly, he begins a short speech which will change the mood in the room for everyone. His simple statement will take the waves of cognitive dissonance in the room, and turn it into an incredibly powerful moment for all of us.
“I just want to say that I really see what you are trying to do here. When I think about the person I was when I came into this class in the fall and the person I am now, I just see that I am much more open-minded. And, I wouldn’t be as open minded as I am now if I didn’t have this class. So yeah, I see what you guys are doing.”
I feel a rush of emotion, and wonder if my eyes will well up. Never, in all of the years that we have been directly teaching about racism, has any student so clearly articulated how our class has impacted them personally. By doing this in such a public way, he has swayed some of the most resistant minds in the room. He took care of it.
Skylar raises his hand. I take a deep breath as Nadya calls on him. All year, we have struggled with allowing him to have a voice while feeling we need to ‘take care of,’ or at least challenge, many of the things that come out of this young man’s mouth. Breathe, Jocelyn. Whatever he says, the kids can take care of it.
“I agree with what Shaun said.” Wait, what?
“ And yeah, I guess I have become more open minded too,” he goes on. “I think one reason we have been so resistant is because, we know how to recognize microaggressions now. I mean, we see them happening all over the place. But we don’t know what to do.”
I could do cartwheels. I turn to Nadya, who is already looking at me. Her face says, Can you believe this? We’re both having a hard time trying to keep our cool, a cool we have worked so hard to maintain all along. I want to do a little dance.
“Look at them,” Tiana quips from the back of the room, with a not unkind smirk. “they are like totally gonna cry in front of us.”
We give in. Nadya and I give each other a dramatically corny teacher high five. “Yes!” we shout together.
“Well, you’re in luck,” I shout to them all, “That is the exact thing we are doing next class!”
The bell rings. The kids leave. Nadya and I are left standing in the empty room, looking at each other in disbelief. How were we able to get here this year when it has been impossible in previous years? Did all of the work we have put into crafting these soft experiences, these slow shifts into more difficult work, actually pay off? How do we do that again?