Discrimination is ugly, fearful and ignorant. It’s been a part of every community I’ve worked in the world, whether it’s toward people from other cultures, races, religions and more. It’s much easier to turn a blind eye to discrimination and stay in our comfortable enclaves. But I believe that if you want to end it, you become an educator and take it head on with the next generation. No excuses.
Darryl Johnson is a Teach For China English teacher who did just that in rural China, a place where racism is rampant toward people of different skin colors. Check out Darryl’s reflections below on his own journey to combat discrimination in his village with compassion, patience and love. See another teacher’s lesson to his students about discrimination after a local terrorist attack.
In Jamaica we have an expression, “Weh ‘yie nuh si, haat nuh feel.” What the eyes don’t see, the heart doesn’t feel.
Would this adage hold true for a black person teaching in a remote, largely homogenous village in rural China? I was about to find out.
On June 20, 2012, I moved to Yunnan, China and began my position as an English teacher with Teach For China. I had originally anticipated that I would appropriate many titles over the course of my work as a educator; titles like teacher, friend and mentor. So when I was called “monkey”, “darkie” or labeled pejoratively as “African”, I was bitter. Even angry.
The moment I arrived at my placement school I was accosted by tiny little hands that yearned to poke and prod my Afro. I was surrounded by a sea of children and staff, few who had ever met a anyone outside of their mountain village and all of whom were obviously expecting their new English teacher from America to be white. Awe-struck eyes marveled at my chocolate skin and the depth of my irises. I was the Hottentot.
I stood there caged as these children whispered insults and poked me. One even tried to “rub the dark off” my skin. From a distance I watched enviously as dozens of children played cheerfully with my white Teach For China colleague. What had I gotten myself into?!
After the excitement ebbed, I made my way to my dorm room and tried to digest what just happened. I reflected that I would need to be so much more than a teacher during these two years. It would be so easy to sink into bitterness, fear and return to America. But I couldn’t. I would need to lead by example and to build relationships based on mutual respect with my students. We spent our first couple of classes discussing respect, cultural understanding, compassion and the value of friendship.
In those first few weeks, I remember explaining what the word “complexion” means. Most times the definition is misconstrued only to mean the color of someone’s skin. The Latin origin of the word describes the term as a specific aspect or characteristic that makes a specific object or person distinct from another. In other words, it describes difference.
The shade of our skin, however, does not seek to disprove our common humanity. Fear and ignorance does that. I remember my second and fourth graders looking so perplexed as I threw out words that I had obviously just looked up on my Chinese-English dictionary. I started giving them examples and invited each student to think of personal examples.
I explained to my students that despite the fact that I am black, that I too have feelings. I implored them to understand that we have the capacity to love and to feel hurt and that that was a given. On the other hand, the words we say, the way we act and how we react to words is a personal choice. We can choose to hurt others or to uplift them and make them feel loved and appreciated. I asked why this was important and after prolonged silence Ella raised her hand and said, ”... because we all want to be loved”.
Needless to say, after my initial talk with some of these students I received several letters in makeshift envelopes apologizing for the way they behaved the week I arrived.
Two years have now passed and as I sit on the train on my way to the airport in Kunming one final time from my school, my heart is full. Leaving my children has been the hardest thing I have ever had to do. For the past month I’ve been going on hiking trips and picnics with my students. I have received hundreds of letters in makeshift envelopes. I have given so many hugs and shed so many tears.
As I sit here causing a scene and possibly creating a new stereotype for all my fellow passengers that all black people cry on trains, I am proud of myself for not lashing out when I have felt scorned and dejected. I am proud that now my children are saying things like, “Are we getting any new BLACK teachers next year?” and “We want a black P.E. coach because black people are the fastest and strongest at sports”.
It’s beautiful to see how far my students and their families have come. I had the owner of my favorite restaurant in my village in tears when I told her I was leaving. Two years ago I had these very same people taking pictures of me and conjuring up stories about what Africans do and their unmentionable habits.
For some of my friends and students in the village, they will never leave their community or meet another black person again. But that’s OK. Because they know that Africans, blacks and people of all colors deserve respect and love. They have seen the complexion of my heart and I too have seen theirs.
Darryl will be attending the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education this fall studying international education development.
Photo by Darryl Johnson, Teach For China 2012-14 Fellow
The opinions expressed in Lessons From China are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.