Last Friday, I received an email from the history teacher. It was addressed to me and the other Black teacher on campus. One of the seventh grade students had called a Black student “a slave.” She said that she told him that it was inappropriate in so many ways, but she wanted us to talk to him from our perspective of Black women.
For about 30 minutes, I struggled with what I wanted to say. I wanted to cry, curse, educate, and punch him simultaneously. If I wanted to keep my job, my only option was to educate him. I quickly created a two-item list and titled it, “Why it’s Wrong to Call a Black Student a Slave: A Guide.”
The guide continues as follows:
- Is it 1865 or before? No. This student is not a slave.
- Is this student picking cotton or serving a master or mistress involuntarily? No. This student is not a slave.
- Is this student in shackles, chains, or on a chopping block? No. This student is not a slave.
- Was this student or his parents ripped from his home involuntarily, and forced into servitude? No. This student is not a slave.
- Slaves were typically treated brutally. They were thought of as inhuman and deserving of second-class citizenry. In fact, they weren’t even considered humans or citizens. They were considered 3/5th of a human being, and they were not allowed to vote or be educated as other citizens.
- Does your classmate deserve brutality? No. This student is not a slave.
- Should your classmate be treated inhumanly? No. This student is not a slave.
- Is your classmate undeserving of an education or their voice to be heard? No. This student is not a slave.
Your additional homework for this weekend is to do your research. You will write a three-paragraph research response to the question, “Why was my choice of words inappropriate?”
Once I printed this out, I responded to the email. I told the history teacher that I need to speak to the student about his actions. The other teacher also wanted the chance to speak to the student.
When speaking to the student, he felt remorse for his actions, but I realized that he didn’t know the weight of his words. All year, I have spent every class period emphasizing the importance of empathy and how language affect us in our everyday lives. I’ve expressed to this student how disappointed and hurt I was that he’d choose that particular word to describe another person, especially when he didn’t realize the meaning and connotation behind that word. Unfortunately, there was not enough time to teach a history lesson on the ongoing effects of slavery and racism and how they disproportionately target not only Black people, but all minorities. This is why he had to complete a research assignment because there is only so much I can do.
Once we went to the other teacher, we engaged in a bit more of an in-depth conversation about the personal effects of racism and how all people have suffered because of it. This student is El Salvadoran, and this teacher also explained that El Salvador has a history of colonization slavery. Therefore, Salvadorans are not exempt from the effects of slavery. The conversation went through a timeline of discussing history all the way to modern-day racism under a certain administration. At the end of the conversation, we reminded this student that we are not here to berate him for his words, rather to educate him on empathy and how words are important and powerful.
This taught me a lot about my role of a teacher. At the end of the school year, when I’m almost done with all of my content teaching, I’m never done with teaching life lessons. Teachers do more than teach content; we’re parents to out students.