Sunday, June 6, 2010

Racism beneath the surface in Thurgood Marshall Elementary

Blackamazon and s.e. smith introduced me to this story by Charles Mudede via Tumblr:
[J]ust last week, my daughter—who is 8 and happens to be the only brown person in her Accelerated Progress Program class at Thurgood Marshall Elementary—was ordered out of the classroom because her teacher did not like the smell of her hair. The teacher complained that my racially different daughter's hair (or something—a product—in the hair) was making her sick, and then the teacher made her leave the classroom...

If a white teacher—a person who is supposed to have a certain amount of education and knowledge of American history, and who teaches at a school named after the man who successfully argued before the court in Brown v. Board of Education for equal opportunities for racial minorities in public schools and went on to become the first African-American Supreme Court justice—removes a black student from a predominantly white class because of her hair, it is almost impossible not read the action as either racist or expressive of racial insensitivity, which amounts to the same thing for someone in that teacher's position.

There’s a follow-up story in which the school district responds:

But he insists race was not a factor. Any allegations of racial insensitivity or negligence are “wholly untrue,” O’Neill says, “because, well, because the district would not tolerate employment of a teacher that has racial animosity towards a student.”

How can O’Neill—who doesn’t even know if anyone has talked to the teacher or what is occurring in the investigation—be so certain about this one aspect? “Based on preliminary information I have, it is clear that the removal of the student, as inappropriate as it was, had to do with a health issue and not a racial issue,” he says. “To the extent of the health issues, what was said to the child, the circumstances, that is a matter that is still under investigation. Based on our preliminary investigation, it isn’t a result of racial animosity, as far as I understand.”

This struck me as very indicative of systematic white privilege.

The school district does not want to hire people who use the n-word, who are in the habit of committing hate crimes, who fly Confederate flags. They prefer to hire people who have plenty of black friends, who can quote MLK, who voted for Obama.

Racism is not just preventing a black child from entering a classroom. Its also about a white teacher who maybe feels a little less than comfortable when presented with just one child who is not “like her”, a child who is challenging not just because of her race and her hair and the olive-oil-based product she uses on it, but because she is bright, vocal, perceptive. From Mudede's article:
My daughter was aware of the racial nature of this expulsion not only because she was made to sit in a classroom that had more black students in it (the implication being that this is where she really belongs, in the lower class with the other black students), but because her teacher, she informed me, owns a dog. Meaning, a dog's hair gives the teacher less problems than my daughter's human but curly hair.
At some point, assertive black girls go from being read as sassy but unthreatening to an angry black woman. And maybe this teacher placed her student in the latter category.

The teacher probably did not think “this child is black, I don’t like black people.”

But the child was not considered. The child was not the one being protected. Instead, this white person exercised her privilege as an adult and a white person to disrupt this child’s day because she was suddenly, very suddenly, very very suddenly, sick.*

Why didn’t the teacher eject herself from the classroom, if she was the one getting sick? Why single out a little girl who is probably already othered in her environment? [note: those are a couple of good comments, but the rest of the comment section can get pretty bad]

And then the school district coasted on that privilege, allowing a little girl to go without education, or offering insufficient education, while they tended to other things.

This child’s concerns and being were de-prioritized for a white teacher, for a school system. This incident constitutes just one example of the systematic white privilege that white folks (like me) benefit from at the expense of people of color.


  1. OMM, what a bilious comment!

    But he insists race was not a factor. Any allegations of racial insensitivity or negligence are “wholly untrue,” O’Neill says, “because, well, because the district would not tolerate employment of a teacher that has racial animosity towards a student.”

    TAUTOLOGICAL MUCH? "The teacher can't be racist, because we fire racists, so since we didn't fire the teacher, the teacher must not be racist."

    Yep, that's some sturdy defence, there, O'Neill.

  2. YES! Logic talk, I love it. Apparently being hired by the Seattle school district is a necessary and sufficient condition for not being a racist.

  3. Yeah, and also because you totally have to have "racial animosity" in order to be guilty of racial insensitivity or negligence. Um, no. That's kind of the problem. If all we had to worry about was Villains with a capital V, and no one else ever did hurtful things, well, life would be a lot less complicated, wouldn't it?

  4. I just want to highlight— with a weird pride?— that this little girl is EIGHT, and she's about 1000x more aware of racism than her (white) adult TEACHER, and the (white) adult administrators of her school. Ah, the things you learn in school!

    Angry Black Women are MADE, not born.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

Blog Widget by LinkWithin