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Thass Raciss… I think.

Today a young White man walked up to me and offered me this piece of information: he is an “Albino Moon Cricket”.  That’s what his teammates called him.  I don’t know why he felt like I needed to know this – I suspect it had something to do with him attempting to avoid reading one of the many versions of “Cinderella” scattered about the classroom – but it was very important to him that I did.

“A what?” I asked.

“An albino moon cricket…that’s what I am…” he said.

“What does that mean?  Why are you telling me this?  Is this some sort of racial slur that I should be familiar with?”

“I don’t know,” he said.  “It’s just a funny phrase I heard, and I was told that I was one.  I don’t think it’s racist though.”

“But then…why are you an albino?  I’m looking it up.”  I proceed to Google it.  The first definition that pops up comes from Urban Dictionary, and it is not, as one would imagine anything that comes from Urban Dictionary is, pleasant.  (There’s also an essay from an artist about why he calls himself a moon cricket – how he took the negative and made it a positive –  but as I was in the middle of class, I didn’t have time to read it.  I did go back and read it later.  It is pretty interesting.)  “It IS racist!” I declare loudly, reading the definition for the class.  Apparently, after a long day of work, slaves went outside at night to sing and dance.  Under the moon.  Like or as a cricket.  And, at least according to Urban Dictionary, it is a synonym for and “basically the same as saying Nigger“.  Everyone’s jaw drops – did my teacher just say the “N” word out loud?  Yep.  She did.  The kids didn’t know how to react.

“Did you know this definition when you said that to me?” I asked him.  He swore that he had no clue.  I have learned early to never believe kids when they look amused and they vow cluelessness.

So then I was confronted with a teachable moment.  The kind that comes along, and you have to stop what you’re doing in order to teach the kids an important life less.  We had a discussion about moon crickets, and whether or not the term was “funny”.  I mean, yes.  It sounds funny.  But the “definitions” and sample sentences were not, they were downright offensive, and as “funny” as they were supposed to be, shamefully indicative of the types of race problems we have in this country.  And yes, it was relatively meaningless for most of the kids up until the point when I dropped the n-bomb and associated the term “moon cricket” with what they consider the biggest racial slur.  But then we had to consider, was it a harmless made up racial slur?  Or did it have the potential for serious damage?  Was it okay for them to continue calling each other “moon crickets” and laughing about it?  Or did we need to put a stop to the language right then?

“I mean, I would hate to write someone up for picking on another kid and have to write, on the referral slip, ‘he called his classmate a moon cricket!'” I said.  They laughed until there was water in their eyes.  And then I had to say…”But you know, it’s not actually funny.  I mean…it’s funny that this is the term they chose.  It’s ridiculous.  But the fact that there are people out there that actively seek ways to hurt other people because of their skin color or cultural background or whatever is not funny.”  The class sobered.  “Maybe,” I said, “just maybe it’s hilarious to you because as a White male there are very few insulting race-based slurs.  You don’t have to think about what it’s like to be the minority in the room.  You don’t have to confront marginalization in your daily life.  (Of course, I had to define marginalize.)  It’s easy to tell someone that they should lighten up when no one is weighing you down, right?”  They nodded their agreement.  I continued, “However, if we choose to respect it as a racial term, then do we give it power over us?  Should we just ignore it and move on?  Or should we try to censor the spread of ‘dangerous’ words and ideas?”

At this point, they looked thoughtful.

They looked considerate.

They looked like they were weighing the implications of knowledge and power, words, language, censorship and sticks-and-stones.

The classroom was deadly silent.

And then someone broke the silence.  They softly whispered…”moon cricket“.

Teachable moment ended.

About Whiteness/Blackness and Beauty

The other day in my freshman English class, while teaching The Odyssey, my students perused through pictures in the text book. They often giggle at the urn depictions – mainly because of their flat appearance and the way that people’s heads sometimes appear to be completely unbound by the normal limits of human anatomy. They go “ewwwww” when they see the naked Cyclops and they marvel over early 19th century depictions of the sirens.

And I’m used to most of the comments.
But one, in particular, disturbed me. Well, no, actually, it intrigued me AND disturbed me.
It was in reaction to this picture. That is a picture of the Enchantress, Circe, who was supposedly beautiful, alluring, and kind of evil. She turned Odysseus’ men into swine (admittedly, they acted like swine anyway, so they kind of deserved it) and kept Odysseus for her own for quite some time until he had to beg her to leave. And even though Homer calls her a “fair-locked” goddess, that’s the picture they chose to use.
Which is important, considering that one of my students – one of my incredibly intelligent, well-spoken, well-read, and usually thoughtful – looked at the picture and said “Isn’t she supposed to beautiful, or whatever?”

“Yes…why?” I replied, thinking that he was going to comment on how he didn’t think she was that pretty. They often make comments about what they think is and isn’t pretty – as if I care. Instead, he said something even more…interesting.

“Then why does she look like an African?” I cocked my head and looked into his brown eyes, which he promptly buried behind his brown hands when he realized his error, as four of his best friends – all Black females – swooped down upon him.

“What is your problem?!” they shrieked. “What are you trying to say? That because she looks African she can’t be beautiful?!” I didn’t even need to step in! Even some of the White females in the class jumped on him. “Would you say that to your MOTHER?!” the asked. The White males stayed out of it.

“I mean…” he struggled to explain, “I thought she was Greek! I just meant…why didn’t she look White! Why does she have to look like….one of them poor Africans you see on TV? She doesn’t just look African, she looks like, Somalian or something.” He said all this with a pained expression on his face. He realized he’d messed up and uncovered some deep truth about his culture that he did not want to admit. He hurriedly tried to cover it back up. “Doesn’t she?” he pleaded.

“Well, she does look poor,” one of the girls conceded. I pressed her for more information. “Well, because she…just…looks like her hair is in rollers or something, I don’t know.”

“So..because she looks Black, she’s ugly and poor…okay…I see how it is…And you all said that you didn’t buy into those Cinderella stories,” I tsked at them, reminding them of how we’d read five different “Cinderella” stories and how I’d argued that stories like these helped shape their own ideas of beauty – blonde haired/blue eyed and the like. “Okay, we’ll leave C alone about it…for now…let’s move on to our review session…”

What a teachable moment.

The Kids Pay Attention

Today I asked my students to weigh in on racial profiling as it relates to airline security. I noted that some have called this akin to a “witch-hunt” and, as they were about to finish up The Crucible I wanted them to weigh in on what they thought about the issue and whether or not it was truly similar to the 1692 Salem Witch Hunt.

Their answers were quite interesting.
And the discussion was amazingly…civil. 🙂

“Is this a fair practice? Is this a necessary evil?” I asked the class, ramping up to begin playing Devil’s advocate. The class seemed to be, at that point, pretty much evenly divided over the issue. No one wanted to admit to being a racist, but no one wanted to think that their naivete was going to lead them to sit down on a plane next to a successful underwear bomber either. One student, curly-haired, angelic looking, acerbic witted, self-identified “wealthy” White male argued back with one of his classmates who claimed that it was a “hateful, but necessary” practice. “Yes, you’re right,” he says, sarcastically. “We should totally judge people based on race because obviously, their race has something to do with their motives for driving planes into things.”

“What about the IRS guy?”
“Not his fault,” he responded, quickly.
“Wait…what?”
“White male, not his fault. Mental issues, suicidal and all that. Next?”
“Okay, what about the Oklahoma Bomber?”
“Again, not his fault…White male,” he grins.
“D.C. Sniper?”
“Ooohh…tough one,” he says, sucking his breath in and pretending to mull it over. “He was an American, but he was Black…and believed in Islam, so yeah… I’m going to go with…totally his fault.”
“British guy? With the bomb in his shoe?”
“Not really British…totally his fault,” he declares.
“But…he was actually British…”I point out.
“Lies! Prevarications! Corporate Falsehoods! Global Warming Hoax!” he declares “Dude didn’t look White, so it had to be his fault…just ask Fox News!”

Sometimes, I really, really love my students. Occasionally, when they think you’re not looking, teens pay attention.

Vexed…”Helloooo! The President is Black now!… We make decisions…”

I know that I’ve talked about this before – especially in my rant about "G-Force" and those "Transformers". At least everyone looks stupid in this movie, not just the Black character. Still, to quote Huey Freeman ("The Trial of R. Kelly") "I admit that I’m often…vexed by the behavior of my own people. Yeah, vexed is a good word." 'Vexed' is a very good word indeed.

I Guess I’m not the Hipster I thought I was…

Really?
Because I’ve been accused of having a tendency towards hipsterness more than once.
And also because I’m pretty good at opining about movies/music/etc. As far as race is concerned, I’m pretty good spotting the “good intentions” behind things. I think I’ve got great race-dar (You like how I did that, don’t you? Admit it) and I’m also pretty good at calling myself out about it. My husband is pretty good at this sort of thing as well.

And I loved Crash. There is a giant poster of it hanging on my wall – along with other movies about race and class. American History X is another of a my faves. But somehow, I missed the discussion about just how bad Crash is for some – and then I had to reflect on my reasons for liking this movie.

Somehow, Norbit didn’t win Worst Movie of the Decade award and Crash did?
But perhaps it is because, to quote the author of this piece, I am a Black Woman who “believe[s] in the curative qualities of yet another ‘dialogue around race’…” At first I had to think about this – because I didn’t realize that was a bad thing. In fact, I’m pretty sure that it’s when we attempt to have a colorblind and raceless nationalistic view of the world that things get screwed up.

Fortunately, there were a few commenters who made me feel vindicated

http://ta-nehisicoates.theatlantic.com/archives/2009/12/worst_movie_of_the_decade.php