See? Stereotyping can lead to violence.
Here’s a great plan: let’s organize a whole-day rollerskating field trip and invite an entire middle school. Twelve-year-olds on wheels. Just what my nerves, recently frayed by weeks of Math test prep, need.
Though I predicted ten kids in tears within the first twenty minutes of this trip, it went far better than I had anticipated. (Granted, anyone with any discipline “points” had to stay back at school in uniform, while those who had never gotten in trouble or who had worked off their points by helping teachers got to skate in style.) Turns out, I’m better at rollerskating than most of my kids. I spent an entertaining hour with the dangerous skaters assigned to “time-out” at the edge of the rink. We took bets on how many kids would fall in the next five minute increment – the average was around seven.
Back at school, things were dragging. “We already took the test! Why do we still gotta do all this work?” This is what happens when you present a standardized exam as the be all and end all of education. Kids think school is over after they fill in the last bubble. In a way, they’re right – it’s been made pretty clear to me at the beginning of the year that my job consisted of getting them past those testing deadlines. Yes, there's a Social Studies test at year-end, but everybody (kids included) knows it doesn't count for anything. We're doing individual research projects (a region requirement for getting out of 8th grade) but that's our last big deadline.
So I was half-relieved when another teacher arrived at my door during first period to announce that the Assistant Principal had forgotten that some Gang Unit Police Officers were in the school today to talk to the kids about why they should stay out of the Bloods, Crips, Rollin 60s, Rollin 30s, the ACLU, etc. etc. Ok, kids – change of plans today – and I chalk up “presentation” on my blackboard agenda and take a seat.
The main presenting cop was a tall black man in a pinstripe suit. His partner, a portly white guy, hung back by the door for most of the two periods they spent with my 8th graders.
The presenter started by informing my kids that he was here from the D.O.E. and that he worked for the Chancellor’s office.
“Who’s the Chancellor?” a kid in the back wanted to know.
“He’s the boss of all the Principals of all the New York City schools.” For many kids, this guy was the highest authority figure they’d ever met.
He wanted to open with a few words about education. He said it was very important, and that the black community was failing at educating their kids. “It’s a sad state of affairs,” he said, “when I would tell my daughter that if she has trouble in her calculus class, she should find an Asian or Indian kid and ask that kid for help.”
At my desk, I bit my tongue in shock. My A.P., standing against the wall, said nothing.
“And why would I tell my daughter to ask an Asian child?” he asked my children.
“Because Asian people take school more seriously than we do.”
“Because Asian people are better at math.”
Holy shit, I thought, silently – still behind my desk. When my team leader came into the room, I called her over and whispered, "This presentation is all about how Asian people are smarter than Black people. What do I do?" Apparently, nothing.
The guy went on to make the points that he would rather be treated by Black doctors than by the Indian and Pakistani doctors at Kings County Hospital (“We shouldn’t hate them – they’ve had the same opportunities that we have – but everybody prefers their own – it’s not racist to say that.”)
Now, I’ve always thought that any comment that needs to be preceded by “I’m not racist but…” is circumspect, to say the least, but I also always thought that I’d react to direct racism when I saw it.
Instead, I just hid behind my desk while he told my kids that Koreans only hire other Koreans, Mexicans are hard workers, and that Haitians take education seriously. At this, my Haitian Assistant Principal smiled and volunteered, “I’m Haitian.” Jesus Christ.
When finally, as if in answer to my – still silent – prayers, the conversation actually turned to gangs, the guy was able to make some points about the history of the Crips and Bloods that surprised my wannabe gangsters. They were engaged, things seemed to have taken a turn for the better, and I relaxed a bit.
Then, the worst: “I can look around this classroom and tell who is going to end up in the penitentiary.” And -- now he’s looking at one (most improved!!) kid in particular, “They’re going to put pink lipstick and a wig on you when you get to Riker’s Island.”
As I – yes, still silently – watched so much of what I’d done with these kids seem to unravel, I tried to figure out why I wasn’t saying anything.
Was it because I thought it wasn’t actually that big of a deal?
Was I afraid to confront this man with a badge?
Was it because – except for the other cop in the room – I was the only white person?
I spent the afternoon talking to other teachers about what I should have done. Some – more experienced than I – said they would have confronted the guy in front of the class. Many said they might have been as shocked and confused as I was – especially if they were first year teachers with an administrator in the room. Still, I was kicking myself all weekend.
So this Monday we took a break from Anne Frank to talk about what boys say about girls and what girls say about boys. The different genders got to write big lists of assumptions on chart paper and then the opposing side got to cross out the things they disagreed with.
Then we got into small groups and rotated chart paper with labels at the top “White People,” “Black People,” “Arabs,” “Jamaicans,” (the kids chose the groups they wanted to discuss.) And the stereotypes flew:
People think that all Black people sell drugs.
People think that all White people are afraid to be fat and love plastic surgery.
People think that all Jamaican people smoke weed.
People think that all Arabic people work at corner stores.
“Now,” I tell them, “I wanted to talk about stereotypes today because we’re learning about what has happened throughout history when people judge other groups of people.” We review what groups were stereotyped by the Nazis and what happened during the Holocuast.
“But I also wanted to do this with you guys today because I thought that there were a lot of stereotypes being thrown around here on Friday.”
As soon as I said it, everything came out:
“Yeah – he said that only Asian people were good at math!”
“He looked at me when he said that he could tell who was going to jail!”
“He said they were going to put pink lipstick on me! That’s messed up.”
“You’re right.” I said, “That was messed up.” It was good to talk about it.
My kids wrote about times when they had witnessed or experienced bias or stereotyping. A couple of them wrote about the cop’s visit.
“He said you should ask an Asian kid for help. But really, I’m the top math student in the class, so you should ask me.”
One girl wrote about a visit to the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens during which a tour guide had pointed out a cotton plant to her and said, “See that? That’s what your people used to pick.”
Another talked about how her mother had punched a white lady on the street who had called the girl’s little brother a racial epithet. “See?” she said, “Stereotyping can lead to violence.” It’s true.
They went home with an assignment to look for bias in the TV shows, commercials, movies, and music videos they watched over the next week. I left feeling a bit better.
After a meeting with my A. P., it’s been decided that she and I will meet with these officers before they present at our school again. If, after we observe their next presentation, we still see a problem (or really, if I still see a problem and she’s forced to accept it,) they won’t be back. And that makes me feel a little bit better too.
I still wish I had said something at the time, because it doesn't make me feel good enough to say – like I keep saying about everything that goes not-quite-right – "maybe next year."