Friday, September 17, 2010

Taken Aback

One of my students said today, aloud, in front of a whole class (we were just about to leave, and someone had asked me about my other class, and the student's comment came as a response to my answer): "[Ethnic group] are liars."

Holy Cow. I was taken aback.

And then I told the student that big generalizations like that were inappropriate. But not in any sort of brilliant or stunning way. Alas.

My students usually try not to be racist. They don't generally want to be racist. Sometimes they're insensitive, and sometimes they're closed-minded. But they really don't WANT to be racists. That's one of the things that makes them wonderful to work with.

I think I need to talk to the student about how that comment sounds racist, and how s/he might want to think about people of [Ethnic group] who might be in the room.


  1. Wow. Yikes. Yeah, I think that calls for a little one-on-one talk. Good luck. It's definitely not a talk I'd like to have. :(

  2. OMG. I'm not sure how I would've handled it. Certainly not as gracefully as you did. My inclination would be to press the student to articulate a reasoned and informed rationale behind that statement. That type of comment makes my stomach turn, especially when it's coming from someone who doesn't "want to be racist," which is strange to me. Thanks for sharing!

  3. You could also deal with it collectively -- as in "this happened", and such generalizations are things we all do (Why is the plumber always late?). Then the student who said it is not so much in the hot seat...`

  4. it's unfortunate that happened -- and that it happened at the end of class. if you had the reaction you did, surely some of the other students did, too. and your response was fine -- it was the message that everyone would go home and think about, why gross generalizations about a group are wrong.

    the real problem is not just that an ignorant comment like that might make other students in the room uncomfortable -- the gist is that he accuses them and all of their kind without any foundation to the accusation. and no, the anecdotes he will come up with will not do for such a broad accusation.

    it wouldn't be surprising if a similar comment came up again, perhaps at a more convenient time to allow classmates to respond.

    i don't know, and you might not either, if students in your class interact outside class. sometimes this kind of thing was the subject of intense discussion in my dorms -- even though i was at a small, largely residential school, with approachable professors, the intensity of outside-class discussions sometimes surprised the professors.

  5. 1. What the hell?

    2. On the other hand, think about where the kid might be coming from. I remember at Berkeley, there was a guy, the nicest guy, from somewhere small in Northern California, and he was the only one in his family to go to college, and he seemed kind of racist.

    After a few years, he confessed with embarrassment that his parents hadn't wanted him to go to Berkeley because there were too many...don't remember, minorities or Asians...had warned him not to get in a relationship with an Asian girl. He himself couldn't believe how provincial and racist he had been.

    He recounted this in shock...with a sense of realization of just how far he had come, what he had come from. We were all blown away too, to think that someone with us actually truly had been taught things like that...and in a lot of ways very impressed by him that he had come so far from his background.

    I guess the point is - still a kid, and that came from somewhere. He may not have affiliated with those beliefs as a conscious choice. Of course, there, he might not have as much "reality therapy" contact with different people to change them without a little prodding. I'd explore before putting the beat down.

  6. Thanks for your responses, all.

    I had a gentle chat with the student yesterday, and the student was horrified that the comment could have been perceived as racist, and didn't intend it that way. I suggested being more careful about making broad generalizations and such.

    The student also mentioned that another student had said something after class (the other student being a member of said ethnic group had found the comment inappropriate).