When the Stories I Tell are Racist

Hi, y’all. There’s a video making the rounds. It’s a clip of a teacher using a racist dramatization to imprint a math concept on her students. The whole thing was so strange that I researched it, unable to believe the teacher created this out of whole cloth. I was right. Not only do sites recommend using the mnemonic to remember the math concept. They also suggest giving the mnemonic a backstory most of us would consider racist. A Native American student in her class absolutely experienced her dramatization as racist. Turns out, about 9 years ago, the school cited the teacher in the yearbook for her innovative teaching…using this dramatization as an example.

What are we to make of this?

For me personally, it’s that my understanding of my own behavior as racist/not racist is probably stale.

An Example

Lately, I’ve been in the middle of telling a story from my personal history—one I’ve told before—only to start feeling uncomfortable. If I’m honest (Lord knows, I’m often not honest when it comes to my motives), I intend for the stories to make me look LESS racist.

Let me give an example. I tell how white citizens in Jackson, Mississippi, fled the public school system rather than comply with court-ordered integration, while Charlotte, North Carolina, did not. The purpose of this story is to say what a better job Charlotte (where I moved to) did than Jackson (where I’d moved from.) By extension, I’m saying I did a better job with integration. Or to paraphrase, “I’m one of the good guys.”

The problem is, I’ve long understood integration was undertaken at the expense of Black children and Black teachers and Black administrators. So why am I still bragging about how “well” Charlotte did with integration when the whole thing sucked?

What Do I Do Now?

My temptation when an incident such as the teacher’s video surfaces is the opposite of self-examination. I would much rather watch the teacher’s outrageous performance and smugly congratulate myself that I would never do something like that.

But what might I be doing that’s worse?

A lot. I’ve come to believe stories passed down in the dominant culture are passed down BECAUSE they make us look better. All the stories in which we’re the non-bigoted heroes are probably suspect. These stories, which many of us hold most dear, are probably places we need to examine first and hardest.

“My new city did a good job with integration.” Truth: Integration itself was a racist failure.

“Our great-grandfather outlawed Mississippi’s despicable practice of convict leasing.” Truth: Which ushered in the even more despicable Parchman prison.

“My ancestor started the first school for African American children in Washington County.” Truth: To keep the babies from going to school with his babies (and my story might not even be true.)

Being Proactive

Here’s the really, really hard part. My awareness of how inappropriate my stories are often only hits me when I’m talking to people of color. Because that’s when I’m most aware of the potential racist cast of what I’m saying.

That is unacceptable. A cut shouldn’t have to be inflicted for me to see the error of my ways. Why the hell am I bragging to a Black couple friend about the success of integration in Charlotte? I’m not going to share other faux pas I’ve made. But believe me, they are there. (Side note: every interaction between me and anyone my dominant group has pushed to the margins carries great risk to them, and I should be grateful as hell that they’re willing to risk the interaction.)

How can I fix this? Not by adding scaffolding to the stories (for example, “Of course, I understand the terrible impact integration had in general.”) Nope, I’m going to quit telling any stories that have been in my bag for over five years.

Yep. Delete them. Focus instead on new understandings about life. Or better yet: listen to others. Only share insights that come from what they’re saying. Stop telling canned stories. If I’ve said it before, it doesn’t get said again.

I realize this will not be easy. Habits die hard, if nothing else. But you know the added bonus? You (by which I mean me) are less likely to sound like an old fart telling yet again the same old boring story.

When the flowers were blooming

math teacher racism, racist stories, talking racism

Comments (14)

  • I agree that the implicit bias we all have regarding race is a difficult hurdle to overcome. I don’t think any one of us will completely succeed in surpassing our own biases, but we can become more aware of them and we can do our best to make amends. I think your determination to stop repeating self congrstulatory fqmily stories is highly commendable. And I plan to follow your lead with my own family stories. Let me recommend a book that can be very helpful, How thrvEord is Passed, by Clint Smith
    And keep bringing it
    You are taking upntopicd that need to be heard now

  • Dear Ellen, I am challenged and grateful for the truth gleaned from your self reflection about how one’s stories, those cherished “old chestnuts”, are mostly told to make oneself look like one of the good people. Throw our the moldy nuts, indeed! Make room in my mind for more listening in the now. God help me.

    With love and ongoing gratitude for you and your nourishing writing,
    Your old fart of a friend

    • Ellen Morris Prewitt

      I publish these types of posts with trepidation, not knowing how folks will react. So thank you for that, particularly the humor. I also do them to hold me accountable. Once I’ve put something into the atmosphere, I can almost hear the universe saying, hey, what about that promise you made not to tell that story? 🙂

        • Ellen Morris Prewitt

          I hope that by writing it down then making it public, it will trigger a “wait a minute” moment when I hear myself returning to an old story. Of course, I’ll probably be back here in several months sharing my failures…One step forward, two steps back! (and thank you for joining in the conversation on this–I really appreciate it)

  • Such an interesting post. I can relate in that things have changed so much over time and I am also a bit vintage. I need to reexamine some of my stories. I am always fascinated though by your family and upbringing because it was so different for mine in the north. Because issues of race were not in the forefront for whites in the north except during certain time periods it’s even more of a mine field to examine them, I think.

    • Ellen Morris Prewitt

      Those of us in Mississippi in the ’60s/’70s probably had more immediate need to create flattering stories. At least I know my family did! Thanks so much for reading, commenting, and considering my random thoughts.

  • This is so good, Ellen. As you know, when I was researching and writing my novel JOHN AND MARY MARGARET, I was having an “awakening” to race issues. A huge influence for me was reading CASTE by Isabel Wilkerson. Being from Mississippi and coming of age there in the 1960s, I think this “awakening” will take the rest of my life. I turned 70 in March.

    • Ellen Morris Prewitt

      I have got to read Caste. I read Warmth of Other Suns, and Tom has read Caste, so we have it here. Your comment will make me get it out of his “read” pile and put it in my “to read” pile. Thank you!

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