I was hired to teach STEM, but I increasingly find myself teaching my students about being human. I fight this uphill battle with middle school students in an unusual northern suburb of Chicago. A snapshot of my first hour class would be representative of America. It looks mostly white, but there is a lot of diversity hiding behind the sameness of teenagers. I have students accepting nicknames that demean their heritage because they don’t want to appear difficult. I have students Americanizing their names to keep from being considered Mexican or Muslim. I have students who embrace their skin color to own it before it can be used against them. Mostly, I have students who do their best to look the same. The homogenization of my students often leads me to witness a great many identities being sacrificed to defend against the sting of tween angst.
It was in this environment, at the beginning of the day, a few months back that I was faced with a new spin on an old conversation. Two students were criticizing Lil Tay; they were incredulous that she acted black. I was not familiar with Lil Tay beyond the name recognition that happens when you teach middle school students all day. I was bothered by the direction of the conversation as a white student who had demonstrated a firm belief of his own privilege making him superior to all those around him continued to berate a 9-year-old internet sensation for her persona. He was speaking, without irony, to a Syrian student who is the child of immigrants and vociferously denied his heritage while pretending to be as Caucasian his friends. Their conversation grabbed my attention quickly and I listened for a few exchanges before interrupting to ask them, “Why do you get to decide who is white and who is not?”
That was the spark that set off the fireworks of a classroom disruption discussion. The class knew that I was about to let them avoid work for a few minutes while we discussed what I often called ‘Being Human’. I tried to avoid the traps laid by students to get me off topic like this, but there were instances that genuinely needed to be addressed. I secretly feared I’d be fired for getting into controversial subjects outside of my class’s stated curriculum. I wouldn’t say all the heads turned to our conversation because students innately knew that eye contact meant they would get dragged into discussions. I was careful not to single any student out and would carry on conversations with the speakers as long as they were engaging in response.
I repeated my question and proceeded to ask them if they think there could be a reason it was offensive that they felt they had the right to decide who was white. The conversation lightly touched on the history of oppression through the use of color distinctions. The student who was the genesis of the conversation enjoyed engaging me and would often parrot the opinions he heard at home with pride. I was speaking to him, but I was addressing all of the class; I especially wanted the students who hid their culture to know that someone would stand up for them. I was filled with self-doubt that I was just playing the white savior role. Our conversation eventually led to my confronting the question of why he felt he had the right to decide who was white. His ironclad response was to point at a picture of Lil Tay and say, “look at her.”
His argument would hold up with most people, but I have an unusual example in my family. My nephew is half black and half white. He is almost 2 years old and has almost none of his father’s characteristics. He is blonde, has light eyes and is pale to the point of being a solar reflector. I showed my student a picture of my nephew and asked him if my nephew was black. The student stepped right into the example and scoffed saying that the kid was clearly white. I then showed the student a picture of my nephew with his father and paternal grandfather; both of whom are clearly black men. I then asked the student if my nephew was black. My student could not answer that question. My example was checkmate in a much-needed conversation, but it left me with questions. The most important question being, how will my nephew see himself growing up and what will his identity be?
Currently, my sister and her boyfriend live with my nephew in a predominantly black neighborhood. Will my pale skinned, blonde-haired, blue-eyed nephew have to prove his blackness over and over? If they move to a white neighborhood will he hide it with shame? He is almost two years old and he has a long road ahead of him. Who will he be and how will he see himself are questions that I cannot answer. I know that he will face internal struggles that will cause him to war over denying parts of himself. I know that there is no easy answer for him and I am glad that he has a supportive family to help guide him.