Conversation would be vastly improved by the constant use of four simple words: I do not know.
– Andre Maurois
Thursday’s advisory began with a question. Actually it was a statement first, “Now, I don’t mean to sound racist.”
I turned to Matt, my co-advisor, and said, “We’re about to hear something racist.”
“Why is it that caucasian people can’t handle spicy foods?”
I was wrong.
The next 45 minutes ended up being one of the best advisory periods I’ve ever had.
We wound through racism and stereotypes and what separates the two. We talked about possible sources of those beliefs. We talked about some of the roots of American cultures and asked questions of the kids as to what they understood.
I explained my family had no discernible roots in the Caucasian Mountains and that it was okay to call me white.
When one student said, “Let’s say someone calls someone else the ’n-word’ for no good reason, what do we do?” we worked toward an answer to the question and dealt with the idea that “for no good reason” implied there could be a good reason.
From a bean bag chair, one advisee added, “The ’n-word’ was just a way the slave owners oppressed black men.”
I’ve had this conversation or some off-shoot of it many times. This was the best version.
“What about when you hear someone say something and you think it is racist? What’s the best way to deal with that?” I asked the advisory.
I called on a student who didn’t have her hand up, but whom I could tell was working through her answer by the look on her face.
“Tell us what you’re thinking,” I said, “Even if you’re not sure, tell us what’s playing through your mind.”
A little shocked at first, she said, “Well, I guess I’d ask them questions. When she asked her question,” she said motioning to the student who had asked the initial question, “you didn’t jump on her or anything. You just asked her questions. That seems like the best thing to do.”
I challenged a little bit, suggesting it was one thing to offer that answer now, but another to remember it in the heat of the moment when one feels offended. The advisee agreed and we continued thinking and talking.
We continued, as luck would have it well past the dismissal time for advisory.
No one made a move toward their book bag.
No one asked if they could leave.
No one departed from the conversation.
Because the conversation started from a place of curiosity and the topic we were discussing was rich with no clear answers, no one seemed to notice we’d tripped over the end of our mandated togetherness.