Recently, I was in a public place with a friend when I saw a woman wearing a very creative, flamboyant outfit. Knowing that my friend would be interested, I discreetly whispered to her to look at the woman in the colorful outfit. She looked but didn’t see her. I offered different descriptors. “The woman with short hair,” I said. Then, “the woman in heels.” And finally, “the woman with the large earrings.” Finally she noticed. This would have been easily forgettable except that I realized a pattern in what I had avoided saying. Throughout my description, I had avoided pointing out the woman’s race.
I did the same thing at my racially diverse school. My students, however, had no hesitation using race-based descriptions. “That white teacher gave me a pencil,” they might say. “That Mexican kid hit me.” Or “that black girl is my friend.” It felt a little jarring at some times, but the children were mostly using the terms simply as descriptors, not as put-downs. It was often the easiest way to identify someone.
In contrast, the teachers would engage in verbal gymnastics, attempting to avoid any mention of race or color and appear colorblind. The adults tended to focus on less obvious characteristics when trying to identify a student. They might talk about hairstyles or height or other things that are difficult to see from across a playground, avoiding the topic of race at all costs.
The kids’ methods were not always foolproof. Once, a child’s announcement that “that Chinese kid” hit him was met with a vehement declaration from the offender that he isn’t Chinese, he’s Cambodian and never to call him Chinese again. There were also times when the descriptor had so much disrespect in the tone that you could tell the child was using “black” or “white” as a way to say something much worse. Almost any word can feel like a racial slur when said with enough disgust. However, much of the time, the kids were honestly just trying to use the simplest way to describe a classmate.
While I’m not suggesting that we start identifying people solely on race, I don’t think we have to fear it. Race is one of many facets that identify a person. We want to be aware. Not like comedian Stephen Colbert who says that he doesn’t see race, but people tell him he’s white and he believes them because police officers call him “sir.”
As a teacher, I have a lot to learn about the subject of race. Sometimes I’m afraid of how a conversation will sound, coming from a privileged white person. So I avoid it. At other times, I have wanted to skip immediately to the lesson for the day and ignore the students’ questions and ideas. But that is when I need to take a deep breath and be engaged.
When students ask me questions about race, however, and I take the time and respond honestly and directly, it creates an atmosphere of respect. Whether they are asking why I get sunburned so easily, why white people on TV seem to have a lot of money or if I had any black friends growing up. These conversations open a dialogue and can show student that race is not something to be afraid or ashamed of, and that I am a person much like them, even though I look different.
Harris is a teacher, tutor and volunteer in California.