The end of the school year is hard in many ways, one of which seems to be ending well, saying goodbye, and making a transition to a new phase of schooling and growing up. At my school, on one of the final days, students who wish to participate in student council next year give speeches, and students vote for their future leaders. Student government, by its nature is fraught with the problems of adolescents in general — students want a voice, power, and to make a difference, but in reality, there is very little that they can do to affect the typical issues that teenagers raise in speeches about student government.
At my school, Student Council is a group that provides leadership by way of modeling the behaviors of “good citizens.” They also put on dances, they coordinate movie events, they even have fund-raisers, sometimes for the purposes of donating to worthy causes. But they can’t eradicate homework, they can’t shorten the school day, and they can’t tell teachers not to give tests (all things that have been promised in student council speeches at one time or another). Students feel frustrated that they have been given a “voice” but are then given a list of topics about which they must remain silent.
During the speeches one student candidate “rapped” his way through his speech, and he poked fun at the efforts of former student council members and events, but he also made a mockery of any serious students who might hope to make a difference. If that wasn’t enough, the candidate wore straw cone hat, the type worn by peasants working in the rice fields of countries like China and Vietnam. Though the student did not directly refer to his costume in his speech, it was clear that he meant to present himself as a clown, with the hat as the equivalent of a bright rubber ball nose. The candidate was intent upon getting attention, laughs, and applause. His candidacy was not serious or purposeful, nor did it seem that he intended to act in a serious way if he was elected.
When he finished, I was astonished at the applause and the laughter of the students, and I was even more astonished that no teacher (including myself) had asked the boy to remove the hat, that no one disqualified him immediately from serving on the basis of his clear mockery of the event and his use of a cultural identifier in this ridicule. After students were dismissed to recess, I spoke to this boy about his choice. A few other teachers did as well. He confessed that his choice had been between the “rice paddy” hat and a sombrero. It seemed that he understood the choice he was making.
I know that my reaction to this behavior is intensified by my impulse to protect my children from the thoughtless hurts meted out by people with the power of whiteness behind them. However, I also know that watching the reaction of the 120 students who, on the surface, seemed to identify with and applaud this action, made me think of many other students in the audience who were confused and upset, but were not sure why. Using a cultural icon, or an item of food, clothing, or speech that is specific to a cultural group, especially one that is historically oppressed, to ridicule, mock, and make a joke is offensive and harmful. It erodes our sense of community that relies upon the shared belief in the integrity of each individual.
With two days of school remaining, we have to come to grips with this action, and with our silence in the moment. The first step will be discussion in advisories.
In a year filled with lessons on the construction of whiteness, this one has only reinforced my awareness of the harmful impact of silence.
This incident has also raised awareness among our students and faculty and opened up fruitful discussion about how we as a community respond when a member of the group shows ignorance or intolerance. In our faculty discussion, a colleague noted, “I think our discussion will be more meaningful to the kids if we admit that sometimes even grown ups aren’t as sensitive as we should be to what is offensive because we haven’t walked in the skin of the people it hurts. This doesn’t excuse anyone’s behavior. It just means that we are all learning every day how to think of others and be aware of their feelings and then how to act and think responsibly in reaction to hurtful behavior…even as adults.”
When I started this post, I was upset, angry, and hurt. I was also disappointed that I did not more quickly take action to stop the harmful behavior before it happened. If this difficult event can help each of us to examine our own conscience then perhaps, from the most unlikely of moments, we will experience some growth.