Monday, February 05, 2007

Beyond FEBRUARY: Black History Month and a Bit of Wishful Thinking

Black History Month is upon us and I can’t help but feel discouraged, and not just because we celebrate famous African Americans during the shortest month of the year and pretend that’s enough. I’m discouraged because most people move into March each year with little, if any, new insights about race relations in our country. And I’m discouraged because I just read about a local boy who’s suffered…and will continue to suffer for a long time…because a local teacher remains uneducated about the realities of racism and the potential impact of discriminatory remarks.

The boy’s name is Xavier, and he’s an eighth-grader. He’s the same age as my son, but looks nothing like him. Xavier is black, and the photo in the local paper of him and his mom show his big dark eyes under a furrowed brow. He’s frowning as he stands outside his school, questioning the camera aimed at him, apparently irritated by the reason for the photograph.

Xavier was reprimanded in mid-January for talking in class. After class, his teacher pulled him aside and said, “I don’t need any African Americans messing around in my class.” You can almost hear the hiss of that statement and all the years of painful American history and hostility behind it. It truly is amazing what lies so near the surface sometimes.

Other students overheard this comment, adding to Xavier’s embarrassment. When Xavier was moved to another class, how was that supposed to make him feel less ostracized? And when the school district awarded him funds to attend a “surrogacy training program designed to help him deal with cultural adversity,” how exactly was that supposed to console him? I can’t imagine such a program would be viewed by my son…or any eighth-grader…as anything but a punishment, though I hope it helps Xavier understand the special challenges that lie ahead because of where he lives and what color skin he happens to inhabit. I wish his former teacher had been enrolled in a surrogacy training program designed to help her teach tolerance to everyone she knows (starting with the woman she faces each day in the mirror) but apparently that truly is wishful thinking.

The teacher was simply placed on administrative leave and reinstated after the incident was investigated and the boy’s family’s story deemed accurate—and she’s yet to apologize to Xavier for her damaging remark. Such a remark made by a teacher truly is damaging. If Xavier had been raised to believe in himself and his ability to achieve whatever he wants regardless of his skin color, that belief has now been damaged.

So my wish for Black History Month is this: that more people in this country consider the special challenges faced by those who differ from them, and that people who work with children stop to think before making any remarks about race or nationality that might be misconstrued—or are simply mean and meant to intimidate. I guess that’s two wishes, so let’s go for the magic third: I hope students like Xavier understand they have the right to voice concerns over any form of mistreatment, to go to their families for support, and to question the motives of anyone who makes derogatory remarks regarding their heritage. Black History Month is a good time to consider how to treat each other with utmost respect, but that kind of learning really ought to continue throughout the year and ought not be limited to school children. I think Xavier and his mom would agree with me on both counts.

Photo credit © The Philadelphia Education Fund


Blogger Matt said...

Race relations is something I think about a lot, it is very upsetting to know that we still have race issues in this country, after all we have been through.

And I guess I question why? Is it really so hard to see and accept another point of view? To embrace someone who is different who has a different cultural value system?

It Baffles the mind.

7:16 AM  
Blogger Sustenance Scout said...

Matt, It baffles me, too. But it's easy to see how things like this can happen because so many people insist discrimination no longer exists and don't even recognize when they're making derogatory statements. Education remains the key, so the more conversations we have on this topic, the better. Hope it's not too cold in NJ! We're having a heat wave here in Denver this week. K.

1:31 PM  
Anonymous Susie said...

I agree, it's very discouraging to hear that those in a position to influence children are still so ignorant of how words can affect a child. What about tolerance training? Are teachers not required some training in how to incourage positive interaction in a multicultural environment? As someone that was classified as "other" when I attended school, it's not just a black and white world.

4:24 PM  
Blogger Sustenance Scout said...

Susie, part of the problem here in the southern suburbs of Denver is the distinct lack of diversity. Most students here are white, so I doubt tolerance training is a big part of the overall training picture for teachers. Hopefully media attention to stories like Xavier's will lead to more awareness of the need for such training, especially as the population continues to grow and (hopefully) diversify. K.

5:39 PM  

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