“Ms. Torres, do you want to hear a joke? It’s kind of racist, though. Is that okay?”
I’ve heard this question from students quite a few times in my career as a teacher. Usually, it’s in a one-on-one or small group conversation; occasionally it’s in front of the whole class. I am sure I’ll hear it many more.
While I don’t want to hear the joke (it’s just not my kind of humor, among a number of other reasons), I’ve recently struggled with that moment: what should I do when a student doesn’t just want to talk about race but is potentially going to offend someone?
Some might argue that I’m “too PC” with my students. The Atlantic has already featured two hotly debated pieces, “The Coddling of the American Mind” and “Microaggressions and The Rise of Victimhood Culture,” that I saw many people praise for its “refreshing” and “brave” look at higher education. I had strong disagreements with both pieces, but they pushed me to write the following question in my own journal: in creating a safe space for students, am I caring too much or “coddling” them in the process?
I’ve sat with this for a while and then realized the flaw in my own question embodied much of my issue with this debate. We forget that the gap between caring for and coddling students is huge, and the nuance of that gap matters. Like many, I was too caught up in the headline to actually step away from it and consider what the discussion meant for my own practice.
Whether or not I allow racist humor or comments isn’t the issue: the issue is how I choose to handle those moments. If I simply shame a student and tell them their comment is “wrong,” without an explanation, I can also create a culture of silence where my feelings take precedent over students’ opinions. Instead, I ask the question I want my students to ask all the time: “Why?” Why do they want to tell the joke? Why do they think it’s okay? I hope that in doing so, I show my students I honestly care about their opinions and want to engage with them in tough discussions.
Here’s the thing: a key part of my role is to try and build relationships with students and among the members of my class. That’s part of any basic teacher pedagogy, and I would argue is true from early childhood education (as the American Psychological Association notes) to higher education (Darryl Yong writes wonderfully about that here). Relationships are built on trust and, as Dr. Yong points out, a feeling of safety within a classroom. My students should know I care about their opinions.
On the other hand, if I accept when students potentially make others feel unwelcome or unsafe in our class, I’m not really doing my job as a teacher. Those slights, however “small” they may seem to those who make them, can have a lasting impact on students, as discussed in another piece from The Atlantic, "Microaggressions Matter,":
It is certainly worth exploring microaggressions on the basis of their link to implicit biases, and the ways in which they can both telegraph and contribute to the proliferation of more invidious, macro-level prejudices. Implicit biases have serious material consequences beyond hurt feelings, from discriminatory hiring to racial inequities in policing and the broader U.S. criminal-justice system. In other words, microaggressions matter because they seem to be both symptoms and causes of larger structural problems.
Beyond these structural symptoms, failure to call out these issues can create a sense of “otherness” in our students, as shown in the candid and thought-provoking student-produced piece “I, Too, Am B-CC":
I see these students’ pain and recognize myself in their conflict. If I care about my kids, it means caring about the actions we make each day that can lead to the heartbreaking struggle these and so many other students can face. It means doing what I can to prevent that pain by having the tough conversations needed to move past it in a space that will make all of them feel accepted equally.
I think it’s important to push students, and occasionally bring up uncomfortable things. However, if I’m purposefully allowing (or causing) discomfort, then it’s my job to make sure it’s with good reason and they understand the purpose at the end. If you take the time to know your students, you’ll know how and when to push in a way that’s useful. If a large chunk didn’t get anything out of the discomfort or don’t trust me enough to engage in it to begin with, then I didn’t do my job.
“Coddling” my students would be running away from the conversation altogether. Caring about them means creating a space where we can have these difficult, frank discussions in a way that still allows my students to feel safe, validated and empowered, even when we disagree. Once that space exists, my students often blow me away with their intelligence, grace, and ability to empathize and listen to each other. When I see that happen in my class, I can’t help but feel we’re all doing a pretty good job.
Above: A group of ninth-grade students discussing and performing Romeo and Juliet. Image from author.
The opinions expressed in The Intersection: Culture and Race in Schools 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.