In case you missed it, last week was Teacher Appreciation Week, so if you didn't make some small tribute to your child's teacher, you can still come through on Monday. In my classroom, it was mostly the usual, a few heartfelt cards, a gift card or two, and then basically being bombarded with sweets all week long. The sweets I don't mind so much, even though I'm prone to overindulge. I just treat that week like Christmas or Thanksgiving - just accepting it as a cheat week and then getting back to healthy living after the weekend. Still, it's all in love, and it does feel good to be recognized for hard word.
However, this year, I got a surprise this week. Among the few emails of encouragement and gratitude, I got one email, actually two back to back from the same parent, calling me a racist and accusing me of making a child suffer. This because the student got a zero grade for an assignment she turned it that was so far from completion that it was basically just a heading on a paper. And the heading was done wrong.
I actually get these types of emails or even face-to-face accusations at least once a year, just not during Teacher Appreciation Week, usually from disengaged parents who don't know me, but are angry about their child's poor performance. It's usually a combination of a frustration over the inability to get the child to perform and and a refusal to acknowledge the child's weakness or laziness involved. I sometimes wonder if the racist accusations pop up at these times because they tend to work elsewhere, but that's another blog entirely.
So, in defense against the charges, I have to start by pointing out that not only does the child's entire class consist of Black students, but also the entire high school is Black, with one or two exceptions, and so her child is certainly not singled out for her race. Then, I usually have to point out the flaws in the child's work, or the lack of it, which in this case would have been pretty obvious if the parent had just looked at the assignment online and the work her daughter submitted. Finally, the one thing that always makes the racist argument go away is when I say that I'm married to a African-American woman. Then comes the apologies and "I didn't know" and back-pedaling.
But even this bothers me. Why is that even a defense? Racism is such an irrational thing. Racism, or race prejudice, is defined, basically, as the opinion that other races are inferior to one's own, or actions based on that opinion. It tends to accept premises that are not only untrue, but unprovable. It often flies in the face of logic and even demonstrable facts. Like a virus, it usually persists in the most unlikely places and in the most adverse conditions. What is it that people always say when they are accused of racism or prejudice? "Some of my best friends are Black." And the irrational thing about that is that, somehow, they are unable to see how the feelings of superiority that they really do have are incompatible with the friendships that they really do hold. So, in my case, whenever something like this happens, and I get off with the interracial marriage defense, I often want to complicate things and ask my accuser why they would accept that defense in the first place. Is it possible for me to be married to an African-American woman, and genuinely love her, and also think that she is inferior because of her race? I actually know a couple of husbands who think they are superior to their wives for other reasons, and yet also think of themselves as loving them, so why not.
And I know it doesn't make sense to think that a person could be friends with someone, even married to someone, and still think that someone is inferior. However, one of the reasons we lose the fight against racism is that we expect it to make sense. I have this talk with my students whenever we read some literature that deals with racism, or some historical or even current event affected by racism. They tend to ask why somebody would behave so horribly, or how someone could be so racist, against all logic and reason. I always tell them the same thing, that racism is unreasonable and illogical, and when it starts making sense to you, that's when you know you have a real problem. For instance, the seniors just finished reading Heart of Darkness by Conrad. In preparation, we looked at several opinions of the novel, from scholars like Chinua Achebe and others. Some say that the novel is obviously racist, or at least supports racist ideas, because of its depictions of Africans, and others say that it's anti-racism, because of the way it condemns the European colonization of Africa. My question for the students is whether the same author can be genuinely opposed to colonization and the mistreatment of Africans for moral reasons, but at the same time also think of them as inferior because of their race. It doesn't make a whole lot of sense, but it seems to me that people do hold these impossible, irrational, conflicting opinions all the time.
I'm starting to think that accusations of racism work the same way. Sometimes they are well-founded and true, based on concrete evidence. Sometimes they are based on nothing but a hunch or a gut feeling or a vibe, and are still true, because the racism is so far beneath the surface. Sometimes you can know a person for years, and think you know where they stand on race, and then one joke, one FaceBook post, or one emotional reaction shows you how they really think, in places they would probably never admit to themselves. They might need to have this pointed out to them so they can start some real self-evaluation. But sometimes the accusation itself is unfounded and irrational itself, and flies in the face of all reason and evidence.
At the end of the parent-teacher meeting, the parent apologized for the offense, and acknowledged that she was frustrated with the grades and wasn't getting good information from the child about the coursework, the class policies, and this assignment. We worked it out and put it behind us, I hope. So, the lesson to take away from the experience, if there is one, is that racism is irrational, and the ways that we identify it or dismiss it are often just as irrational, or at least arbitrary. Also, that appropriate Teacher Appreciation gifts might include, books, cards, edible treats, or maybe a mug or t-shirt, but never nasty, accusatory emails.