“Mr. Spencer, you’re not supposed to have chickens,” a student informs me.
“White people just don’t have chickens in the city. It’s a Mexican thing.”
“I had no idea your nationality had a monopoly on poultry,” I respond.
Later, a student asks me who sings “Brown Eyed Girl,” and I tell him Van Morrison. “Why don’t more blacks sing rock music these days?” he asks.
“Van Morrison was white.”
“He sounds black. Have you heard him?”
“Yes, I have. I grew up listening to his records. The man is most certainly white.”
“Well, let’s just see what Google has to say about it?” he comments. “Okay, yeah, turns out he’s white. But he sounds so black, doesn’t he?”
Sometimes it’s more depressing. As we walk to the art class, a student sees the janitor and says, “He’s a terrorist. Look at his beard.”
“Why do you think that?”
“Because he’s got a beard so he must be Muslim.”
“He can’t be Muslim,” another student responds, “He’s Mexican. Muslims are from Iraq and now the Iraqis want to build a terrorist center where the Twin Towers used to be.”
I clarify their misconceptions gently, but it’s too early in the year for them to know if I’m any more trustworthy than an e-mail chain or a misunderstood monologue on Fox News. I suppose it’s part of the “hidden curriculum,” which is really too bad because the non-hidden curriculum is mostly white and mostly male and mostly red, white and blue stripes and as much as I enjoy our nation’s freedom, I have a hard time with a narrative that is simply, “Look how far we’ve come. Let’s pat ourselves in the back for the fact that lynchings are a thing of the past instead of the present.”
One of the best part of teaching is the honest conversations about race and culture and ethnicity and all the other social constructs that we created to divide rather than unite people. I can’t have those conversations in my neighborhood, despite its diversity, or in my church, where silence on race seems to be the norm. I experience the two extremes of the silent political correctness or the white noise of “normalcy” as the racial majority.
I can’t do white noise in my class room, because what once felt normal to me is now a deafening megaphone. My students can’t do white noise very well either and their neighborhood is rarely politically correct. If I’m holding out any hope that we can fight against racism, then perhaps honest, awkward dialogue is a better weapon that tidy and nice silence.
So, what I get is honesty in its raw, human, edgy form. I get honesty in all its delusional misunderstandings and bizarre stereotypes and for what it’s worth, I’ll take the ignorance, because it forces me to realize that I can often be racist, delusional and ignorant. I’ve just learned to hide it a little better.