We are all still thinking, talking, teaching and grieving about the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old in Florida, wearing that universal hoodie. Again, as a nation, we confront the issue of race and what it means to be an African-American teenage male in this country.
While this discussion plays out on a national scale, similar conversations erupt quietly in high schools and on college and university campuses with astonishing regularity. As teachers, we should mindfully pull from the national wave of painful but honest discussions sparked by Trayvon Martin’s senseless death by connecting the nonlethal (but still incredibly hurtful) incidents that occur in our schools on a regular basis.
I’m talking about those instances when, for example, the student newspaper runs something deemed offensive, hurtful or a harmless joke. Perhaps it’s a photo of white students made up in “blackface” and Afro wigs on a majority-white campus. Maybe it’s a cartoon swathed in “satire” mocking Muslims. It erupts in a reaction that always shocks the majority and too often deepens the isolation and marginalization of the minority. It is also a crucial teaching opportunity.
Representatives of the harmed community write letters to the editor, protest outside the newspaper's office and submit columns reminding the campus that, once again, something unnoticed by the majority population feels like an assault.
“Don't you understand?” they ask. “It's like death by a thousand cuts. We put up with this all the time. Enough!”
Many exasperated majority students are confused. They genuinely have no idea what their peers experience.
The school newspaper editors and staff respond in one or more of the following ways: genuine apology, resignations, university-wide teach-ins, appropriate corrections or editor's notes. Too often, a silent, seething resentment curdles and hardens, leaving no room for empathy or real growth.
The students raising their voices are weary. They’ve explained it again and again. They feel unheard. Integration fatigue, it's been aptly called.
The folks on the other end resent the "hypersensitivity" and "overblown" reactions. No harm was meant, they say. It was satire. It was a joke. It had nothing to do with race. Why is everything about fill-in-the-blank (race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc.)?
Recently it erupted again, in Louisiana. Beneath the classic headline “Offensive or Just a Joke? Students Speak Out on Comic in UL Paper,” the story described how “University of Louisiana Lafayette students are upset over a comic strip that ran recently in the campus newspaper, The Vermilion. Those students say the cartoon is racially charged and shouldn't have run in the student-run paper.”
It happened a few weeks ago on my campus. A Latina student was accosted by a group she identified as white female students who rolled their Rs and mocked the language they assumed she spoke.
In both cases we must seize the moment to make the connection. What are the assumptions, histories, stereotypes, faulty thinking and misunderstandings made visible by these local incidents? In what ways are they connected to the death of Trayvon Martin? It is our job to guide our students through these difficult but crucial conversations.
Cytrynbaum is a journalist and instructor at Northwestern University.