In a middle school on the outside of the city, a test was being given to a group of 7th graders. With such a big test, anxieties were a little higher – both for students and teachers.
One student, whom we’ll call Greg, thought it was a good idea to rapidly click his pen to an imagined beat, whisper to friends out loud, and giggle for a few moments. One of the teachers watching the class kindly reminded them to quiet down before going back to assisting another student. Once the teacher wasn’t paying attention anymore, Greg began his antics yet again.
The second teacher in room, whom we’ll call Mr. J, noticed his counterpart was busy, and decided he needed to speak to Greg about his behavior. Mr. J always appeared nervous when disciplining students. In fact, he appeared that way around them almost all the time: they didn’t look like him, they spoke differently than him, they joked and danced and were more expressive than him. There was a fear behind Mr. J in thinking he couldn’t connect to his kids; fear that often grew to the point it could only be masked in anger and machismo.
“You were told to cut it out,” he said. After Greg whispered a small retort (as most kids would do) and scowled at him, Mr. J decided to watch the student like a hawk – every extra click of his pen, every giggle he made, this teacher would call Greg out, deduct extra points from him, argue with him aloud, all the while distracting the rest of the room with his chastisements. Finally, the first teacher (and really, the only adult in the room) decided to move Greg’s seat for the remainder of the test. Mr. J went about the rest of the period with false satisfaction at having “made an example” out of Greg. Greg either glared, or refused to look at Mr. J the rest of that day, and for many days after.
Later that year, another class was in session – an English Learning Lab. Here, students learned new words, their definitions, parts of speech, uses, etc. The teacher in this class, a wise woman whom we’ll call Mrs. R, always tried to tie the day’s lesson to a newspaper clipping, article, or news-video of some current event in society and the world.
Around this day in history, the stories were often tragic, and very much on the student’s minds. Stories of people who inspired them, who looked like them often ended sadly – the death of a global leader like Nelson Mandela could be easily grasped with words like “unforgettable” to describe the man he was, or how the protests following the killings of young African American men were to promote “nonviolence”. To help round it out, there would be mini lessons to further explain things – a fun little rap could be heard all the way down the hall clarifying what the prefixes of those words, “un-“ and “non-“, meant. An all-encompassing class, a deep class, and a fun one – all as a way for kids to learn their English skills, as well as the current and social events.
After such tragedies, Mrs. R would often open the room up for discussion: for many of the kids, processing these events at a young age left them anywhere from shocked, angry, confused or somewhere in-between. Allowing the students to ask questions and give them honest answers was the only way to begin digesting it, and something Mrs. R always stuck by. Mr. J was an assistant in this class as well, often reading the same articles and watching the same news clips with the students – often in shock himself.
After one such story about another death of an unarmed young black man, Mrs. R mentioned, “It’s certainly a shame, and that’s another reason why we must make sure to have that talk with our families about how we interact with those in authority, because often times, we’re looked at differently for where we come from, how we look, and so on. Someone may already have an idea about us before they even know us, so we must always be on our best-”
“Mrs. R, doesn’t everyone have the talk with their parents?” one student asked.
“Well not everyone does, necessarily,” she replied. She turned to Mr. J and asked, “for example, Mr. J, did you ever have a talk with your parents about how to be composed in front of police?” Mr. J began to feel uncomfortable, but it wasn’t his fear that was kicking in – it was a completely different feeling when he barely choked out a, “no” and saw everyone, everyone in that room, everyone who looked different than him, stair at him in disbelief. “But that’s the way it is,” Mrs. R continued. “Until there’s a day we don’t have to have an extra talk with our kids, some of us will need to be on our best in every interaction with those of authority, because the truth is we look different and we’re judged differently” she replied to the class.
Guilt swelled in Mr. J’s throat – he could barely say another word the rest of the period.
That class, that year stuck with Mr. J. In all his interactions, in all his new roles and responsibilities, he worked to let his guard down, be more open, and more honest with his kids. When they were well behaved or did better in class, he tried to compliment them more, reward them with games, arts & crafts etc. And even when they weren’t, he still strived to be as constructive and positive about his disciplines as he could be without degrading and demeaning anyone. You could see a change when he did or didn’t try harder to be better himself: when he worked in his one-on-ones, when he hosted his clubs. He appeared to enjoy the work more, he enjoyed the kids more, and they – for the most part – enjoyed him more too when he could, and it was more of the same when he couldn’t.
This wasn’t fool-proof. Some students, like Greg, took even more effort to connect with. Greg, now an 8th grader on his way to high school, appeared in a few more classes with Mr. J again that year. Although he didn’t always work with the struggling teacher, when he did, Greg didn’t (or couldn’t) hide his distaste for the teacher, and Mr. J, still unsure and uneasy on how to bridge a relationship with Greg, failed on trying to improve it.
Greg graduated and moved on to high school. No resolution between the two. No look back from Greg on the last day of classes.
It wasn’t until Mr. J was home for the summer, after leaving school and spending time with his younger cousin, that the error of his ways had truly set in for the lowly teacher. His cousin, a child similar in age to a lot of his former students, was acting up – saying inappropriate things, not cleaning up his messes, not listening to any instructions, all the things a kid his age would typically do.
For the millionth time, even though frustrated, Mr. J politely asked, “please stop,” or “I asked you to do this,” or “I think you’re misbehaving a little bit” when he noticed how calm he was being – at no point did he shout, at no point did he demean or degrade his cousin. He noticed at no point, was he ever afraid of his cousin, or think they didn’t have enough in common, or think they came from too dissimilar of backgrounds – he was just a kid. Family or not, he was just a kid doing what all kids do.
I share this story of Mr. J to explain a deep issue of bias that goes beyond the classroom. This may sound unfair and as if I’m trashing a former co-worker of mine, a stranger to you who can’t even defend himself, but he is no stranger – he’s me.
This story is mine.
This reflection, this failure – is mine.
Bias and privilege are very much alive in our world, and no one is immune to it – myself included. I had a bias against Greg because I saw him differently – because he looked different than me, because I didn’t see any familiarity to bond with him, and because I didn’t recognize him as just a kid, acting like almost every other kid his age would and treating him as such. I tarnished and ruined a potential growing opportunity for us both – and left a lasting, negative impact on him. There is a huge chance that whenever he meets someone who looks like me, someone with pale skin, in an authority role, or both, he may already have a negative view towards them – simply for my actions.
I have a privilege that I never had to be told, or reminded, that I need to act in as formal a way as possible when speaking to anyone of authority for fear of severe punishment, or even of not coming home. I never have to worry about someone judging me when walking down the street, or in a critical scenario, for how I look.
When we ignore certain parts of the news, or brush it off saying, “welp, that always happens to them,” “oh, it’s not going to be that bad,” “it’s been going on for years, why does everyone care now?” or worse: “oh well, that’s that”, our ignorance plants itself and grows – tangling into more and more parts of our lives, and of those around us. The way we carry ourselves – the decisions we make, in public or at home, the language we use in the open or in private, the way we vote, the way we close ourselves off to what is happening to real people in our shared world – that’s all a duty and a privilege, and yes: simply for looking like me.
I had a dream, an image in my head when I began my teaching of becoming a role-model, a story-teller, a beacon of wisdom and knowledge and someone for my kids to look up to. I think back to how many teachers – both in and outside of the classroom – influenced me, and I wanted nothing more than to mirror that back to my own kids. Even those like Mrs. R that I worked with, colleagues of mine, made me want to be better – even if I didn’t know how to show it. Every student that I felt a connection too, that – through their actions or words – let me know I helped or made a difference in some way, drove me to continue.
And every one that didn’t, every one that I failed at building or mending those bridges, righting those wrongs, brought me two steps back. In my life, I don’t know if I’ve felt a greater sense of defeat or shame than when I realized and finally saw a negative influence I had on a young person’s life. I’ll be a part of their history, but I won’t be a good story.
I know what it’s like to get defensive when someone suggests your actions are biased, stereotyping, or even bigoted. I know what it’s like to hide behind that blind arrogance and throw it back at someone tossing those “-ists” and “-phobics” around – I’ve come to know those ugly suffixes well, and not because I sat in on the class with a rap.
When we’re accused of them, we immediately throw it back, saying, “I am not a (racist, sexist, homophobic, Islamophobic). I don’t see differences – we’re all treated the same!” But what we don’t get, is that by denying it, by dismissing it, by not acknowledging our faults, our differences, by not seeing other, real people suffer because of it, we become every bit of that thing we swear we’re not. We become that monster beneath the rug everyone feeds with the ignorance swept under, and no one wants to talk about.
If you look like me, we’ll never know what it’s like to be in “their” shoes – those who don’t look like us, those who don’t pray like us, those who don’t love like us, those who weren’t born like us, or born here like us. When we look at “those people” questionably, or say something crass about how they live their lives, even amongst ourselves, we leave a lingering negativity where it doesn’t belong. We won’t have to remember every morning that there are people and structures to our society that are out to work against us and put harm to us and our family simply for who we are. We create cells of hate that may hurt them, a cancer that will certainly harm us.
Today. And tomorrow.
I write this piece with a heavy mind on recent events the past few weeks and the clouding atmosphere growing in our local and national communities. I won’t argue about how you did or didn’t vote in this election – the time has passed and now we all have work to do to move forward. But if you look like me, I will say this – if you claim you voted “for economic change” or “to shake up a broken system,” and not for all the hatred and bigotry that’s come along with it, you must show it. We must show it. It’s become a package deal, so we must prove it’s not what we wanted.
Our bias and privilege will benefit us when the families of others are torn apart, when crimes against those different than us continue (and worsen). But no matter how nice you are, you don’t get to say you’re not a racist if you don’t denounce slandering graffiti in public, and still make crude remarks and talk as if nothing is wrong, or “out of the ordinary,” in private. You don’t get to say you’re not a sexist when you don’t belittle your sister, your mother, your wife, but go about life catcalling a passerby, dismissing a public servant, a boss, a coworker or their ideas because of their gender (or vice versa).
Failing happens. As you’ve learned, I’m not perfect. Not even close. I fail at all the above almost on a daily basis. But I now know I continue to fail every day on my way to learning. It will take me my lifetime to unlearn what I’ve learned, to be the person I want to be for myself and others. What I’ve learned so far is this – if you refuse to even recognize your failures, refuse to own up to them, refuse to live with them and to let them sit in you, change you, you’ll have no growth. Even if you start to recognize them but don’t work those new muscles, you’ll be the failure. You’ll be all the negative suffixes, the “ists” and “phobics,” that we dread to speak of.
If you look like me, then you’re hopefully realizing there’s been a slumbering beast of hate and ignorance awakening around us – it’s been hiding in the shadows of our lives for years, decades. If you look like me, you may not have noticed sooner because of those same looks and the lives we were born into. We haven’t had to face that beast. That’s a privilege. But I am warning you – whether it’s today, tomorrow, some day in the next 4 years or beyond – if there’s no effort, if you ignore how your actions affect others, if you ignore the harsh realities that so many in the country go through, you will end up on the wrong side of history. You will fail, as I did with Greg and other students, to be on the right side of someone’s story. If you’re like me, that is already failure to our eyes – so how can we stand to see that, or worse?