Friday, August 07, 2009


In several classes that I have taught there have been moments when students have shocked, offended, and disrespected each other. A male student used the n-word (yeah, the actual word) sitting opposite an African American young woman this past spring. A female student called a Chinese immigrant young woman "ranting and raving" when she expressed understandable frustration with dominant culture. I could give more examples, but the pattern is always the same: Strong emotions, a heated discussion, and, usually, apologies made, and apologies accepted. True learning moments - I bet the students remember them.

One time a student said something that made me react with the same kind of fierce emotion. I had asked a class, all sitting in a big circle, to identify their cultural belongings: white, black, Mexican-American, Chinese, Vietnamese, however they wanted to label themselves. It so happened that a few students in a row identified as 'white'. Upon hearing that, the next student, before he spoke, raised his fist and said jokingly, "White power!".

To me that wasn't a joke. I heard those words, and I went cold. A couple of the students jerked. A couple of the students who were not white really jerked. A black guy looked scared.

When you are the teacher you cannot start yelling at a student in the middle of class, so I didn't do that. I don't remember exactly what happened, but I pointed out that what he had said was inappropriate, and I think we moved on.

Before meeting the class again I spoke with a few colleagues. I needed help tempering my emotions, and guidance in how to handle the situation.

The only person I talked to who really understood how I felt was a black sociologist. He told me that naturally a reference to white power would stir up emotions in someone from northern Europe. I hadn't been able to pinpoint it myself, but he was right. Obviously I had reacted strongly because of my own cultural background.

As a white person I don't use the n-word. I can't feel the pain associated with the word, but I know it's there, so I don't use it.

As a foreigner in the US I don't make jokes about 9/11. I can't feel the pain associated with the events of that day the way an American feels it, but I respect the feelings of others.

I think of this when I see the images where President Obama has been made to resemble Adolf Hitler. I think of it when I hear Rush Limbaugh talk about the Democrats using Nazi symbols. It makes me sick to my stomach. It's mind boggling to me that anyone in a democracy would say something so outrageous, with a straight face. The only explanation I can come up with is that if you say it, that proves that you have no idea what you are saying.

And you also have no sense of what it may mean to others. How is that even possible?

1 comment:

Gunnar Klasson said...

I går lyssnade jag på programmet Alling i P 1. Har du tid att lyssna så hittar du det här

Det var mycket intressant och bl a diskusterades huruvida huruvida Obama är svart eller brun.