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.
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.)
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.