Whenever an act of racism occurs in my community, or in the world around me, I never know quite how to respond. My natural reaction is to be appalled and disappointed, then fear settles in, then uneasiness, followed by confusion. My gut tells me I want to figure out who to blame first, and then I want to understand how this impacts the people around me, specifically the students in my classroom.
Being a high school teacher has its perks. We see immediately what is on a young child’s mind, whether positive or negative. When something so blatant happens that shakes the community, it is sometimes difficult to get a read on how the message is interpreted. What rolls off one’s back as minor might plant a seed of contention in another’s. There certainly always seems to be a level of response to the ignorance of the action, specifically in this case, the desecrating of school walls with epitaphs and racial hatred. The important message to recognize is that it is out there for people to respond to, whether consciously driven or designed by unintentional circumstances. It is difficult to imagine racial epitaphs to be accidental; however, the motivation is unique in this situation.
The initial reports of this most recent incident are that the student was not fully aware of their actions. One could argue this is an attempt to save credibility as an organization, or the truth of the matter might be as simple and basic as it is being described. Whatever the answer to the action, the bottom line is that this unfortunate moment exposes a frightening part of our society that we would sometimes rather quiet than provide a voice of reaction. As it is, this should be handled as a teaching moment for students, wherever and however involved.
Ironically, we are living in a present society that is increasingly accepting the notion of ‘alternative’ or fake news. Such terms are being bandied about with such frequency that the phrases, ‘Bowling Green Massacre’ and ‘Last night’s terrorism in Sweden’ have become household maxims, and the terrifying truth is they are believed statements by many, despite the originators coming out with statements otherwise.
The reality is that words of hatred have appeared on walls that our youth will see with frequency and then naturally react to afterward. So how do we go about repairing the damage? I think the real solution lies in what are the reasons these events occur, and how can we raise the consciousness of our young people to such a degree they begin to recognize the dangerous precedent of accepting racism rather than fighting to overcome its venomous impact on our society.
Accepting racism is the failure of our society to identify it as problematic to our youths’ value system. What this means is that rather than confront the issue, if we can quietly just pretend it away and not put dramatic focus upon a real issue, maybe it will simply go away. That is about as relevant as imagining that inane rhetoric is more reasonable than the truth from the leaders of our country. There is a saying that suggests, if it said enough times, then people begin to believe it as true. In the case of racism on the bathroom walls of our schools, there is a percentage of students that will certainly ‘buy into’ the hatred rather than recognize it is damaging to our society’s value system. This is where open discussion needs to begin.
When we speak of teaching moments, we have to clarify when and how these opportunities are going to happen. Rather than using band-aids on a segment of our society, we need to rally around the bigger picture. Our youth are the most impressionable people in our world, and their actions will be the foundation of the future of this country, one that is chock full of immediate change and adjustment as that mosaic of assimilation continues to take hold. Rather than rely upon hope without dialogue, we need to begin the conversations and continue to encourage them in meaningful and thoughtful ways. Perhaps then, words on a wall, or rhetoric meant to sway our society will become less and less powerful and the truth will begin to matter.