Racism in the ClassroomI teach at a very small, racially diverse private school.  Today, two of my sixth grade students presented their version of a perfect world.  In this world, there were...

Racism in the Classroom

I teach at a very small, racially diverse private school.  Today, two of my sixth grade students presented their version of a perfect world.  In this world, there were slaves and black people had no rights.  Blacks did not have the right to vote or own land.

The other students were perplexed and hurt.  When asked why she would create a perfect world with racism, the student's response was that they were able to design the world any way they wanted to and they chose this.

Unfortunately, I was only able to briefly address this because it was right before the period ended.  I have had to handle things like this before, but I am curious.  What would you do?  It seems like the rest of the class is terribly offended, because they are all very tolerant.  Just taking up the issue privately with the offending student might offend them further and make them feel like the issue was not addressed.

I would love to hear some other insights!

13 Answers | Add Yours

litteacher8's profile pic

litteacher8 | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted on

If in fact you allowed the students to design a world any way they wanted, well, you gave them the proverbial inch, and they took the proverbial mile.  I suggest they're taking you to task -- are you indeed going to honor what you stated about building any kind of world they wanted?  In their eyes, it's hypocrisy if you don't.  I'm sure they came up with slavery just for the shock value.  Talking about counseling, Freedom of Speech, disciplinary measures, etc. is missing the point, and giving them exactly what they wanted.  Since the topic was brought up publicly, I'd address it publicly -- and only publicly -- but by asking them how is it that their world would function -- and does it accomplish what they want -- and why that kind of world ceases to exist now.  If they counter you on all points, then they certainly will have to agree if you present your ideal world, which is one where there are white slaves that have no civil nor ownership rights.  Everyone, especially 6th graders, are entitled to their own opinions, horrible as they may be.  Letting them discover the inescapable conclusions of their horrible suppositions would be most instructive. Doing that publicly could be a lesson for the class in how bad ideas self-destruct over time.  Those who were upset may gain some solace in that.

Ultimately, it was out of my hands.  Parents found out and made a fuss, and the kids ended up suspended.  I still handled it the way I felt best, but I did not have free reign to handle it without interference.

literaturenerd's profile pic

literaturenerd | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

Posted on

I work in a very small rural district.  Too many of my students show racist qualities.  I cannot tell you how many times I have heard snide remarks and seen, basically, white supremest mentalities.  Now, every time something is said, I make sure to let them know how inappropriate the comment is and that they are limiting their view on the world.

I have taught, and continue to teach, multi-cultural units.  Unfortunately, while some minds are opened, too many stereotypes continue throughout the class overall.

Unfortunately, I have to agree with posting #10. I know I cannot change their mindsets given it has literally been ingrained within them by those around them.

What I do hope for is opening their eyes to the importance of acceptance. Luckily, I teach a subject area that is open for interpretation, literature. So, instead of focusing on racism, I focus on the acceptance of others views- regardless of race.

enotechris's profile pic

enotechris | College Teacher | (Level 2) Senior Educator

Posted on

If in fact you allowed the students to design a world any way they wanted, well, you gave them the proverbial inch, and they took the proverbial mile.  I suggest they're taking you to task -- are you indeed going to honor what you stated about building any kind of world they wanted?  In their eyes, it's hypocrisy if you don't.  I'm sure they came up with slavery just for the shock value.  Talking about counseling, Freedom of Speech, disciplinary measures, etc. is missing the point, and giving them exactly what they wanted.  Since the topic was brought up publicly, I'd address it publicly -- and only publicly -- but by asking them how is it that their world would function -- and does it accomplish what they want -- and why that kind of world ceases to exist now.  If they counter you on all points, then they certainly will have to agree if you present your ideal world, which is one where there are white slaves that have no civil nor ownership rights.  Everyone, especially 6th graders, are entitled to their own opinions, horrible as they may be.  Letting them discover the inescapable conclusions of their horrible suppositions would be most instructive. Doing that publicly could be a lesson for the class in how bad ideas self-destruct over time.  Those who were upset may gain some solace in that.

brettd's profile pic

brettd | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

Posted on

I teach in a conservative city, with a population that is mostly Latino and Caucasian.  Recently, I had a student, a senior, ask me in front of the entire class why "President Obama looks like a monkey."  Like you, I was almost too shocked to react.  There are, of course, many other examples of racism between Latinos and Whites at our school.  One of the ways we have addressed it is by chaning outr curriculum to include an Ethnic Studies class, and more multicultural literature.  It is not a problem you can fix in one class period, or probably even in one year, but over the course of your teaching career you can impact this.

megan-bright's profile pic

megan-bright | (Level 1) Associate Educator

Posted on

This issue should definitely be handled privately and then breifly publicly as she already stated her views publicly and the other students' feelings and thoughts should be taken into consideration.

I would probably ask the student some very generic non-judgemental questions, document everything, and then I would probably meet briefly with a counselor as to what would be the next appropriate move. I also wouldn't take any actions with the mindset that I could change this student's views.

ask996's profile pic

ask996 | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Senior Educator

Posted on

While this situation does need to be dealt with, I would caution that you proceed very carefully. Take with both your counselor and administrator first. The source of this racism could quite possibly be traced back to the family home, and you will probably want their advice on how to proceed when addressing this issue with the parents.

larrygates's profile pic

larrygates | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

Posted on

I agree with previous responders that this is a tough situation. I'm not sure how much success you will have, as the kids no doubt picked up this attitude at home. Racism is a learned concept; and it is axiomatic that this is where they picked it up. To attack them, counsel them, confront them, etc. will only alienate them and possibly the parents. So what to do?

I don't see this as a free speech issue. Anyone with a working knowledge of the constitution knows that there are limits to free speech. It is doubtful that you will ever be able to reach these students--their "I did it because it's my country" attitude tells me that you would probably be fighting a losing battle. I do think you should PUBLICLY address the wrongfulness of racism and slavery before the entire class. These are not issues of public debate; it is settled social and political policy that these two elements are painful vestiges of our past from which we are still attempting to move on. No doubt the offending students will be upset, as will their parents. Be that as it may, it is better to offend the few than by your silence, offend the many. We all know that you can't reach every student. At the risk of sounding cynical, these students may be some who you cannot reach. But by all means, address the issue publicly for the benefit of your remaining students.

kapokkid's profile pic

kapokkid | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

Posted on

That is really tough.  I would think some discussion needs to happen with the students individually but as a group there has to be some work to try and help them deal with how that makes them feel about each other.  In some ways I would be glad that students were willing to say how they felt but it is also really scary to run into students that feel this way, especially at a relatively young age.

catd1115's profile pic

catd1115 | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Assistant Educator

Posted on

Wow tough situation. I think especially since this is a middle school setting you have to deal with it in two pieces. First the student(s) who presented this need to be privately pressed for the reasons why they chose this. The ability to explain their choices and how their choices make a "perfect world" is an innate part of the assignment. Once you have pressed them to determine the answer then I think you need to spend some class time on what the other think, what slavery and institutionalized racism really looks like for everyone living in that kind of society. In addition it might me a good time to discuss that freedom of speech doesn't actually apply in the classroom (sad but true) and what responsibilities go with the right of free speech.

I think the key to handling this is you need to know the real reason why they made this choice for the assignment. I also think it would be an appropriate time to inform both your administrator and the student's parents of what is going on before you proceed with the entire class.

Best of Luck!

clairewait's profile pic

clairewait | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

Posted on

The fact that the student is a 6th grader is alarming.  On one hand, she is old enough (and certainly has been educated) to know better.  On the other hand, 6th grade is still immature enough to not be fully aware of the consequences of such thinking (and speaking) in our society.  It makes me wonder what is going on at home that created either the thoughts, or the desire to voice the thoughts.

I agree that this is a difficult situation.  I probably would not change anything major in my curriculum plans for the year to skirt the issue by bombarding my students with Civil Rights lessons.  Instead, I might take one day to directly address the feelings of all the students associated with this girl's presentation.  I would probably talk first to my administrator, and come up with an age-appropriate lesson plan that would allow my students to talk about their feelings in a safe place.  Then, I would contact the presenter's parents.  I'd voice my concerns, my discussion with administration, and my plan.  I would then probably write a letter to all the parents in the class explaining the "upcoming" lesson.

It would be a very delicate thing to balance this between "open discussion forum" and "attack the original presenter for her crazy racist ideas."  In fact, I might even try to do something like this but first break up my class into smaller groups.  It would be nice to have a few other teachers/adults to facilitate these small group discussions.  Perhaps instead of using the one student's exact ideas, maybe you could create a similar hypothetical situation, so that one girl doesn't directly feel ostracized.

lmetcalf's profile pic

lmetcalf | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Senior Educator

Posted on

As I read your post all I could think was, "what would make a student say something that blatant and inflammatory in a public forum like a classroom?"  I think this student needs to be counseled outside the classroom, and then the issue needs to be addressed in the classroom as well.  Everyone in that class needs to be heard on this issue.  This student thinks that under the freedom of the assignment it is OK to say anything, and it isn't.  That has to made clear to all.

accessteacher's profile pic

accessteacher | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted on

Tricky! I would agree with #2 though. This might be a great opportunity to look at slavery as an issue and some of the impacts of it on society at large. You might want to show some images of the reality of life with slavery and maybe give some empathy exercises after reading accounts of slave life. How would you feel if...? etc. However, you obviously have to do something, as you might find that other students complain to parents. Maybe tackling it as a whole class issue rather than pointedly aiming at those two students might be the best bet.

pohnpei397's profile pic

pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted on

Wow!  Tough one.  I've only ever dealt with that at the college level (the students were HS students but it was a college class).  What I did then was to spend the whole next session of the class on free speech and where the limits of free speech in a classroom are.  That might not work so well in 6th grade.

If it were me, I think that I would spend some amount of the next class discussing causes and effects of racism.  My only real worry there would be that I rewarding the offending students (who were probably trying to get attention more than anything).  I also might worry that I would be pushing them into a corner from which they might lash out.

If I could do anything I wanted, I think I might force them to actually answer the question -- make them talk about why that was the world they wanted and really push them to think about what they're saying.  The same problems as above apply, though...

Tough one!  I'd be fascinated to hear how this comes out.

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