I returned to class to find that one of my students had taken some liberties with a poster hanging on the door. He/she had taped a picture of Sweet Brown, a Black woman made infamous for her reaction to a fire. She essentially became a viral sensation for all the wrong reasons.
Anyhow, her particular response, “I ain’t got time for dat” was what was posted. While I wasn’t shocked when I saw the meme, I was…disappointed, I guess. That’s the beauty about insensitivity and all that’s wrapped up with it (racism, classism, sexism)–when it hits you in the face, you have to deal with it. I mean, I could have simply ignored it, took the poster off the wall, tossed it in the recycling bin, made a comment under my breath about “these kids” and kept it moving.
I didn’t, though. I told the kids that I was bothered by the poster for several reasons, the greatest among them being that it traded in stereotypes. That it made fun of someone who was Black, poor, from a region of the country that was different from ours. And I’m sure I fumbled around for some other words, but I tried to raise awareness, but I also intentionally made a point not to preach. Preaching gets you nowhere. You’re better than this, I said, simply, finishing with something like I need you to be the people that ask questions about what we see, that make things right, that don’t do what’s easy because it’s funny.
On the fly, when grappling with issues like these, I can either be dynamite or dismal. I think I was probably somewhere in the middle: I was tired, I was annoyed and I was, as I said, disappointed. I mean, we’d had some breakthroughs already in class, addressing issues of oppression and inequality, so when this incident reminded me of how much further we all must go…yeah, I was fumbling and stumbling for my words.
I gave the same speech to all the classes. I will probably never know who did it, but at least the message was consistent: you’re better than that. We don’t trade in stereotypes in this classroom. Ask critical questions and make some change in the world.
That night, while checking my email, I found that one of my students had sent me a link to an article about ironic racism, Antoine Dodson and Sweet Brown. He asked if I could send it out on the class Twitter, thought it germane for the conversation earlier that day.
OMG. They GET IT! At least one of them does. All it takes is one, right?!
I can’t quite describe that moment: me sitting at the desk, with some cynicism attempting to dampen my spirits, and there’s this kid’s email…
Next day, I read the article to the group and explain that said student gave me the language I needed to express my frustration: ironic racism. We had some brief discussion and I posted the article, both on Twitter and on the FYI wall (the announcements section of the room).
I am so grateful to him first for being an ally (because I have few kids of color in my classes this year), for being able to speak truth to power, for giving ME the language to use…for taking responsibility for helping us all understand why we need to wake up and pay attention.
Yup. It happened. On that one incredible day.
And I can quickly summarize that in the days after, I ended up having some moving conversations with kids about awareness, about their own anger that people weren’t more outraged, about being invited to bring my fourth period to an assembly for LGBTQ awareness…all small steps to moving us in a positive direction.
I also realized that I, too, have a choice. I can be disappointed in the kids, or I can be heartened that–together–we can string together more incredible days, where events such as this happen.