Wednesday, April 13, 2011

To A Teacher

Recently, I learned that my history teacher from the 7th grade, Ms. S, passed away.

7th grade, for me, was a long time ago. But, I have always remembered Ms. S because of one specific moment in her class. For some context, I attended a public school in a small blue-collar Midwestern town comprised primarily of working-class white people. This town, like so many others like it, is often written off as racist, homophobic, ignorant, bigoted. And, indeed, those elements thrive, but like any town, it is not monolithic.

One day, in Ms. S's history class, a student, let's call him Chad, raised his hand and made a racist comment about Asian people. The comment was not particularly notable, mostly because similar comments about groups other than heterosexual white people were often made in school, at the mall, at bowling leagues, in the workplace, and in homes and it was business as usual. So, as much as I'd like to sit here and tell you that the 12-year-old me turned to Chad, wagged my finger, and gave him a stern lecture on the inappropriateness of racist "humor," I am sure I laughed along with the rest of the class.

Why I remember Ms. S is because she was the first grown-up in my life to call out and object to racism, or any sort of -ism, while in the midst of those who accepted it as the status quo. Being a buzzkill like that isn't always easy to do, even though many of us are conscious of how silence acts as complicity in these -isms.

While the class laughed at the racist "joke," Ms. S stared blankly at the student who made it. Once the laughter died down, she said "That is racist, and I will absolutely not tolerate racism in this class. Chad, please go sit in the hall."

That shut us up.

Just as those who are oppressed in some way (or ways) based on aspects of our identity experience microaggressions that further belittle, marginalize, and hurt us, I believe too that perhaps the road to progress, for some- certainly for me- is paved with microprogressions.

Living in a racist, sexist, homophobic, ableist, etc, society, it is easy to internalize these -isms, -isms that are then, if we are not vigilant and purposeful, reflected in our speech and our thoughts. We echo these -isms with ease if they are not confronted, challenged, and called out for what they are, because believe it or not, progressives don't spring forth fully-enlightened from the womb.

Being a progressive, I think, means being open to the notion that we harbor privilege and -isms not because we are necessarily Horrible People but because we live in a society that teaches us to cling to privilege and -isms. It means being open to the idea that it's worse to be sexist, say, than to be told that we might have just said something sexist.

Ms. S's obituary noted that she had and taught respect for all life and that she loved teaching history because she didn't want humanity to be condemned to repeat past mistakes. I am grateful that Ms. S not only respected all life, but that she had the moral courage to actually do so when it counted.

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