One of my college students once said the word "ghetto" in my class to refer to something cheap and tacky. She was of Asian descent. However one of my African-American students took the statement as a personal insult and an ugly argument began.
As their instructor, I had to intervene and ask them both what exactly is a ghetto. I got two different answers and not one of them even made a mention of the historical meaning of ghettos through WWII, etc. So we had to start over with the definition of the word, much to my dislike.
Has anything similar ever happened to you?
I have a few stories. I'll start with the oldest one.
I attended a very racially integrated high school for the performing arts. We were our own little cosmos of races who all got along. White kids dated blacks, Hispanics dated Asians, anything you could think of, and none of us, while in our cocoon, thought much about race at all. Until we went out into the "real world" where our group met with stares of disgust and sometimes even slurs. Curiously, the most memorable example is when I went to Six Flags with my male friend who is black. The harassment we encountered was not from other white people, but from black girls who shouted at him to "Stick to his own kind."
As a teacher, like others here, I had a student in my college class about a year after 9/11 who is Muslim. This girl had grown up in the States, had attended classes with other white people all her life. But after the attacks, she suffered much harassment. She was called names like "towel head" and "camel jockey." Her locker was defaced. She decided not to wear her hajib to school any longer to avoid the taunts. She broke down in tears and told her story to the class after I had assigned an essay titled,"Why I Wear the Veil."
My third example is from just last semester, and it reminds me to be aware of my own misconceptions. I had a black student named "Blake Edward Schuler." Not knowing anyone's name the first few days, whenever I called roll, my eyes would scan for a white hand going up. Blake, to his immense credit, laughed it off. "Now why is it," he said, "That when teachers call out a name like "Deshawn" they look straight at me, but when they say, "Blake," I am the last person their eyes go to?"
Hmmmm, I haven't really had to "mediate" per se, but I definitely was involved in an uncomfortable exchange. This happened in the mid-nineties when the "moment of silence" was all the rage in South Carolina public high schools. On this particular morning, after the Pledge of Allegiance and the "moment of silence," one of my more particularly abrasive homeroom students said the following: "So, miss, ... when we have this 'moment of silence' ... do you PRAY? Huh?" Now, keep in mind that this particular student was absolutely (and ironically) incensed about me following the rules as a homeroom teacher. He was traditionally one or two minutes late most every day due to extended socializing. By school rules, that adds up to a tardy. Period. He didn't like that. Anyway, this was his way of "getting me back" in that his question was particularly designed as something to report back to my superiors or to "get me in trouble" in a more vernacular sense. I truly wasn't expecting a crisis of conscience that morning, but I replied with something completely innocuous which was, "that is my affair" (ironically echoing the "great" Gatsby). He just rolled his eyes. Looking back on it, I could have been some kind of Roman Catholic hero and said, "Yes, I was, and this is what I was praying about, ..." No such luck. : )
One of the strangest situations I have been in as a teacher involved a charge of racism. Last year, an African American teacher and I were summoned to a parent-teacher conference with an African American female student and her mother. Out of the student's four teachers, just the other teacher and I were "invited" to attend the meeting because the student was not passing our classes. After going over in detail with the mother and administrator the missing assignments in my class, I had to sit and listen to the African American student accuse her African American teacher of not helping her because she was racist. She said that her grade was so low because the teacher was intimidated by her (the student's) strong personality and her sense of racial identity. The teacher maintained her composure, and she and I were both able to show the mother that her daughter's grade was a reflection of her not completing assignments, not low test grades, or anything that could be interpreted as subjective. While I left the conference bewildered, I felt that the mother and daughter's questions and charges had been resolved. However, my coworker told me the next day, that the principal had agreed to move the student from the "racist" teacher's class to another teacher's.
Lately, some of my students will jokingly "test" me with comments such as "she didn't call on me because I'm black." Most of these remarks are an attempt on their part to see if they can get a rise out of me, and what has worked best to relieve the tension that the comments cause in the classroom is if I use humor to respond. I will usually say back, "Don't you remember that I told you that I wouldn't call on you because I didn't want anyone to know that you're my favorite student." This never fails to elicit a begrudging smile or silence as the student tries to think of something else to say.
As a classroom teacher, I haven't had to mediate in a confrontation, but we do address this type of issue on almost a daily basis in my classroom when students use racially, sexually oriented, or ethnic slurs. The most common response is "We're just teasing," but they don't realize that these words will negatively impact even if it is not intended.
I have been accused of racism by a black student because I repeatedly failed her project. Unfortunately this student just was not putting the work in and repeatedly failed to do anything about the alterations I said were necessary for her to do if she wanted to pass. Speaking to other tutors who had taught her, they said that this was a typical "defence" for this particular student. Blaming others to avoid facing her own shortcomings was a tactic that she had developed. In the end I spoke to her and explained that I was going to pass her project on to another tutor as she felt that I was discriminated against her. It was a very difficult issue to handle though as it seems that accusations of racism are very dangerous, even if they are not based on fact.
If we're talking about physical altercations like the one in Post #3, no. But I did once have to deal with the fallout from a white kid suggesting that the Mexican kids in class had broken the fax machine by trying to fax a taco through it. He then followed it up after class with a "joke" that impugned the sexual morals of Mexican students. (This was a college class that I was teaching to high school students in multiple sites via an interactive internet connection.)
What I ended up doing with that (it was a government class so this went well with the subject matter) was spending the whole next lecture talking about free speech and hate speech and the difference between what is legal in school settings as compared to what is legal outside of school.
How many examples would you like me to provide? I am a longtime teacher in Florida, and I have had to break up many racially motivated fights over the years. The most recent one came between two students who were in a class for at-risk students--one white and one black. Apparently, the black student began needling the white student, and the next thing you know, they were squaring off face-to-face. Luckily, no punches were thrown, but the white kid threw out plenty of "F" bombs and "N" words before he left campus. He was picked up by school security on his way home.
In a more serious example, I came upon two students after school duking it out. A large black student had a white student on his back, pummeling him relentlessly. He disregarded at least three warnings to stop, and it took all of my strength to finally pull him off (and I'm 6'4, 290 pounds). I took them to the office--that was no easy feat, keeping them apart--and let the principal deal with the situation from there. At least that's what I thought. The next day at school, I was told to report to the principal's office, where a local police officer was waiting. He read me my rights and told me the black student's parents had sworn out a warrant against ME--for hurting their son with excessive violence. Luckily, the police didn't believe a word of it (the son and the family had already been in trouble with the law), and the case was dropped.
I have plenty of other similar stories, but you can probably understand why many teachers do not step forward to break up physical confrontations when they occur in the schools. Many think it's a job best left for the school resource officer.
In a recent class, one of my African-American students accused the teacher in the previous class of racism because he had not given her as much help as she believed she was entitled to. This particular student needs much hand-holding and a great deal of attention, I should add. I had absolutely no reason to think that the previous teacher is racist, or that he would have acted in a discriminatory way, and, in fact, I have plenty of evidence to the contrary. I asked the student if she honestly believed that his failure to help her as much as she wanted was based on her race, and I offered examples of African-American students who did not perceive him this way and felt he is a very good teacher. After some conversation, she backed down and admitted that she had no good reason to have made the accusation. Of course, just in case, I did make the department head aware of the accusation and memorialized my conversation with the student in an email. An accusation made once could be made again, and I felt a need to document her admission that nothing discriminatory had occurred.
I am constantly being accused of being racist as I am one of only two white teachers in a building with primarily Hispanic and black male students. I generally am called "racist" when I am punishing a student. I work very hard to dole out punishment, corrections and attention on an even and just basis so I am not really worried when a student makes this statement. When we are in the Principal's office or outside the classroom the student will likely admit that I am not racist. I work very hard to make sure that I treat all the students fairly.
I have had several confrontations between my Hispanic and black students. The most hateful and severe confrontation was when my black student kept calling a particular student "Mexican". The student kept telling him that he was Brazilian, not Mexican. This then caused my Mexican student to what to know what was wrong with being Mexican.. so on and so on. The black student kept saying if your Hispanic then your Mexican... you all swam the river..." I had to send all the students out - divide and conquer. The next day we talked about labels and ethnicity. From that time on until the end of the school year you could see the students divide within the school.