During a Teaching Tolerance workshop at a suburban school on the East Coast, 30 teachers were discussing the power of language to reinforce biases. A kindergarten teacher described, with some regret, how she often asked her young students to "come to the rug and sit Indian-style," until a Native American child asked her what it meant to sit "Indian-style."
"Before then, I'd never thought about what I was saying or how it might sound to someone of Indian heritage," admitted the teacher.
"Oh, they're only words," another teacher responded heatedly. "How many times are we going to have to change our language to suit other cultures? How else do you tell kids to sit that way?"
"Sit cross-legged," came the simultaneous reply from several other participants. "Or just tell the children to come sit on the rug. If they need to cross their legs, they'll figure it out."
After several months of conducting such workshops, I was not surprised at the sharp exchange. Often, issues that seem straightforward at first turn out to be catalysts that reveal deeper differences.
My role as a facilitator is to make sure that such confrontations lead to honest, respectful dialogues between teachers. Many times we discover that this is the first time teachers of different backgrounds have felt free to talk candidly about issues of race and culture. Once we establish that the room is safe for questions, teachers are forthright: "What's wrong with calling someone 'colored'?" "When black folks are stereotyped as 'having rhythm,' is that positive or negative?" and "Why don't we ever talk about racism toward whites?"
After a recent workshop, a participant came up and whispered to me: "I wish all the teachers in my school would come together and talk like this."
"Talking like this" means accepting the risk of saying things about race that may sound negative or painful or racist -- not with harmful intent but with the goal of educating each other and increasing our awareness. In the minefield of political correctness, even the best-intentioned of us run the risk of unconsciously offending one another. Many times, the offense is followed by defensive maneuvers that only make matters worse: "I didn't mean it that way," "What I meant to say is ... ," or "I have friends who are ... ."
As I travel around the country conducting these workshops, what surprises me most is that people, especially educators, want to talk about the issues -- they just don't know how to start talking, and they don't know how to continue talking when the conversation snags on an offensive term or an angry outburst.
What I try to help people realize is that verbal miscues and misunderstandings are inevitable potholes in the road to better cultural understanding. If we are to continue learning about each other (and ourselves), we can't expect a "bumpless" ride. We have to grit our teeth and drive over a few potholes, despite our fears.
One group of mostly Southern teachers found, in a frank discussion of the "N-word," that facing difficult issues doesn't have to be disastrous. In their workshop, the teachers were discussing offensive language when Kim, a 5th grade teacher, reluctantly asked for advice on how to handle a situation in her classroom. "I have several black boys who insist on calling each other 'nigger.' But they get very upset if a white child uses the word. What should I do?"
Tanya, a black teacher, offered practical advice: "Don't make a big deal over who is using the word. Just lay down the law that that word will not be used in your class by anyone, period."
Tanya then shared a personal experience. She explained that she had recently moved to the area and found the racial climate at her new school frustrating. "In fact, not long ago, a 4th grade student, a white boy, called me a nigger. That blew me away!" She went on to describe how she pulled the child aside and gently asked if he knew what the word meant. He didn't.
"How would you feel if I called you 'stupid' or 'ugly'? Would it hurt your feelings?" she asked the boy.
"Well, it hurts my feelings when you call me 'nigger.' It's not a nice word."
Although the child apologized, Tanya told the group that she felt it was not the last time she would hear him use the word because he was probably repeating what he heard regularly at home.
Kim was satisfied with the advice Tanya offered and felt comfortable enough to ask her why blacks choose to call each other "nigger" anyway. Tanya quickly clarified that only some blacks choose to use the word, not all.
Kim's question led to a discussion of internalized oppression and how, sometimes, an oppressed group will take ownership of a derogatory term. Some say this is a manifestation of self-hatred. Others say it's a coping mechanism -- when blacks use the term amongst themselves, the word becomes less painful and, in turn, hurts less when used by whites.
Someone in the group asked if pronunciation played a part in whether the term is viewed as offensive or not. When I turned to the flipchart and wrote "Nigger" and "Nigga(h)," I heard a muffled moan from one corner of the room. A white teacher was frowning severely and seemed to be on the verge of tears.
"Celeste, you seem uncomfortable. Do you want to say something?"
As she covered her face, she mumbled, "I hate this. It's painful just watching you write those words on the board."
Some participants agreed with Celeste, while a few laughed nervously. A barely audible sarcastic remark came from one of the black teachers: "Oh, you'll get over it, honey."
Perhaps because I'm black, I knew the remark was not meant to be hurtful. Rather, it was a way of telling Celeste: "It's a good thing you're not black because you would be in constant pain." And, like the other black teachers in the room, I also knew that, for Celeste, the pain of reading the racial slur would be fleeting compared to the pain of having it hurled at you.
The "constant pain," anger and frustration that some African Americans live with daily boiled over during an in-service workshop for the faculty of a Southern middle school. Before arriving at the school, I had been told of the tension that existed between black and white teachers.
As the 60 staff members took their seats, I couldn't help but notice that the majority of black teachers congregated on one side of the room. I was given a sign of things to come when, after explaining that the purpose of the program was to talk openly about race, racism and stereotyping, someone jokingly responded with: "You've got your work cut out for you with this group!"
Even so, the session went well as we discussed the history of intolerance, violence and hate crime, and the increasing diversity of our student population. The big chill came when we started listing common stereotypes attributed to blacks and whites. With a little prodding, the group warmed up to the activity. "Colorful," "loud," "religious," "lazy" and "militant" went under the African-American heading, while "pretentious," "controlling," "arrogant," "conniving" and "evasive" were among the stereotypes listed for whites.
A soft-spoken black teacher explained why she listed a certain stereotype. "I say they're 'evasive' because they [white people] only talk about you behind your back, not to your face. Whenever two or more black teachers talk in the hall or meet behind closed doors, we hear through the grapevine that the white teachers think we're starting something. Or that we're militants. Or that we're talking about them, and it must be 'a racial thing.'"
As she spoke, several black teachers nodded their heads in agreement, while the white teachers looked bewildered. What became clear during the ensuing, and sometimes emotional, exchange was that the teachers -- both black and white -- had become victims of a "he said, she said" environment where feelings were hurt, rumors were spread and division was inevitable. A lack of open dialogue had led to an atmosphere of mistrust, misunderstanding and miscommunication. And now that everything was coming out into the open, several teachers, black and white, were reduced to tears.
The principal, who had been present throughout the workshop, acknowledged that she was unaware of the significant distress among staff members and vowed to have regular meetings where teachers could continue the dialogue started that day.
On the flight back to Alabama, post-workshop exhaustion set in along with old nagging doubts. I wondered if the teachers at that school would continue to talk, or had they only opened up because there was an impartial outsider there to facilitate? Was I being too optimistic to think that talking to each other might help improve race relations?
Wearily I glanced through the participants' evaluations of the session. Comments such as "Workshop was too short," "Needed more time to talk," "2 1/2 hours was not long enough" and "Great discussion!" made me feel a little better. But one comment jumped off the page and put everything into perspective: "This workshop was the beginning of a cure for a terrible disease."