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Racism 101: Let's Talk About Diversity and Prejudice in America's Public Schools

Teachers and administrators do not talk enough with students about race or the harm caused by racist language. And that allows it to persist unchecked.
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(Photo: Lissandra Melo/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Lissandra Melo/Shutterstock)

The NBA did the right thing in punishing Donald Sterling with a lifetime NBA ban and a $2.5 million fine. Perhaps this will inspire more conversations about the prevalence of racial slurs in the professional athletic arena. Unfortunately, however, they are all too common in athletics in general, even at the high school level. And that's where the difficult conversations need to begin.

In Westchester County, New York, brawls ensued in February after the Mount Vernon High School men’s basketball team defeated Mahopac High School. Mahopac players and fans later called Mount Vernon players “monkeys” in tweets and blog posts. One post contained a Confederate flag. During the same month, a fight erupted in North Carolina after a high school basketball player allegedly hurled an insult at a member of the opposing team. In Michigan, after Howell’s all-white basketball team beat the mixed-race Grand Blanc in March, students posted racist remarks on Twitter. The hashtags attached to the tweets included #kkk, #lightthehcross, #rosaparks, and #wewhite.

Student offenders need to be held accountable, and in these three cases, they were. But teachers and administrators are also to blame: They do not talk enough with students about race or the harm caused by racist language. And that allows it to persist unchecked.

Let’s be clear, a candid talk about race is not what Donald Sterling was having, a point missed by Jonathan Capehart, who argued in the Washington Post that at least Donald Sterling is doing one thing right by taking “openly and honestly with a trusted friend.” But this was no heart to heart. Sterling was admonishing his girlfriend for associating with black people, who he sees as a lesser race.

When we refuse to talk in racial terms, we miss opportunities to discuss and analyze uncomfortable racial inequalities in school and society.

Open and honest does not mean openly racist. What we need in schools include: straight talk about racism; the recruitment and hiring of more teachers and administrators of color; curricula in which the work of racially-diverse authors, scientists, economists, politicians, and artists are central; and intolerance for the use of racist language by students, teachers, administrators, and staff.

In their study based on 80 focus groups and more than 400 student leader workshops, bullying prevention experts Stephen Wessler and Leila De Andrade found that most students hear degrading language, graphic jokes, and racial slurs multiple times per day. They were mostly targeted at race, but also gender, sexual orientation, and religion. And those on the receiving end were black, Latino, and Asian students. Regardless of the percentage of black students attending a school, the insults and jokes seemed to flow one way: From white kids to black kids. A sample “joke”: What do an apple and a black person have in common? They both hang from trees.

In my home of Tucson, a high school English teacher recently greeted his class with “What’s up, my niggers?” and closed with “I’m going to the hood to hang out with my niggers,” and used the N-word liberally in between. The teacher, who eventually received a five-day suspension, tried to explain that he was teaching his mostly white students the vernacular in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. But in a nearby school district, the NAACP is investigating complaints of racial harassment against black students.

My own 2001-03 anthropological study of students of Mexican descent in a central California high school revealed several racial and ethnic conflicts. During school-sponsored celebrations of Cinco de Mayo and Mexican Independence Day, students of Mexican origin endured physical and verbal violence; they were called “wetbacks” and “beaners” by their white peers. In addition to the conflicts during events, I recorded visible and enduring symbols of racial and ethnic tension on campus. Confederate flags and white power notations, as well as remarks about “dirty brown people” were engraved in common areas and bathrooms.

More recently, a 2013 poll by The Associate Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research and MTV revealed that the majority of teens who use the Internet say they at least sometimes see derogatory words and images targeting various groups, including racial groups. Six out of 10 of these same respondents say it is wrong to use racist or sexist language online, but that they also see them as innocuous jokes.

This points to a disturbing disconnect that goes far beyond sports: Young people recognize racist language as wrong, but do not see it as harmful. This requires intervention by respected adults in the form of guided conversations about diversity, prejudice, and racism.

These conversations should happen in schools. But it won’t be easy to for two reasons: First, some teachers and administrators are themselves perpetrators of racist language. And second, many are not so much colorblind but “colormute,” seeing people in racial terms but actively suppressing race labels when talking about people. In her 2004 book of the same name, educational anthropologist Mica Pollack, who coined the term, gives the example of a California public high school where some teachers, administrators, and students avoid talking about racial differences at all costs for fear of being misunderstood, ignorant, or racist. When we refuse to talk in racial terms, we miss opportunities to discuss and analyze uncomfortable racial inequalities in school and society.

Still, “colormute” may be putting it too lightly. I tend to agree with Attorney General Eric Holder, who once called us “a nation of cowards,” unable or unwilling to talk authentically about race. In light of the public outrage at Sterling’s racist remarks, and what we know about the harm caused to young people by racially degrading language, let’s be brave and have open conversations about race in schools.