Monday, November 23, 2015

Challenges and Ideas for Teaching about U.S. Systemic Racism and Intersectionality to Recent Immigrants

The July 2015 Teaching Resistance column in MaximumRockNRoll (MRR) deals with the often-uncomfortable, inevitable complexities of communicating about systemic racism (particularly anti-black racism) in the U.S. with students who are primarily from immigrant backgrounds. It is by Ian McDeath, who grew up in Philly and is an indispensable shitworker and super-busy musician in the DIY punk scene there. He teaches at an adult school for older teens and adults. Ian can be contacted directly at igwinter [at]

Talking to ESL Students about Anti-Black Racism

I sort of started teaching ESL (English as a second language) as a work-study job while in college in New Brunswick, New Jersey. I say “sort of” because my actual job there was assistant to the teacher of the bilingual Kindergarten class and I basically just read weird stories and did cool art shit with 5 year olds. I got the job because I qualified for financial aid and because I had taken an extra year of Spanish in high school. I imagine there was probably a person who needed the job more and spoke Spanish better than I did. A few years later, I began working at an ESL school for adults of many different language backgrounds, also in New Jersey, and then at a similar school in Philadelphia.

I like teaching and see it as a radical act because as a friend once pointed out, it’s a form of authority that inherently undermines itself. I try to apply my politics to my classroom in fundamental ways. For example, every cycle, the class works together to create agreements (rather than rules) for themselves and for me. I try to empower them to teach each other. A lot of my lessons involve teaching students how use free and widely available resources to learn things on their own so that they don’t feel like they have to rely on some gatekeeper of knowledge.

I also try to talk openly about racism in my classroom. I do this when I hear or see something that strikes me as racist and I encourage my students to do the same. Generally speaking, these incidents aren’t directed at anyone in the classroom and I haven’t heard a lot of students say that they have felt personally hurt by racism from fellow students. What I more commonly find myself stopping class to talk about are anti-Black (specifically in reference to American Black people) comments reflecting people’s personal experiences, which range from feeling uncomfortable on the subway for absolutely no reason to being victims of mugging and assault. I am white (and straight and cis male and college educated) so I am familiar with people saying racist (and other types of fucked up) shit to me and thinking that I'm going to agree with them.

In my initial years of teaching adults, I made the mistake of treating these comments from students as if they were coming from someone in the political punk scene. That is to say, I got angry (sincerely so) or tried to embarrass the person who made the comment with the objective of pushing them to reflect on what they had said, understand why it was fucked up and never say it again. I’ve come to realize how misguided and uncool it was to take that approach with someone who hasn’t had the same opportunity that I’ve had to unlearn a lot of shit. It’s especially troubling when you consider that these were students who trusted me to help them.

Once I realized that my approach to anti-Black racism from my students was not helping them and mostly just making them uncomfortable talking to me about their feelings and experiences, I started trying to simply avoid the topic. I told myself that I was there to teach a language and anything else that they needed to know, they would learn one way or another. If someone told me that their child’s teacher was lazy and thought it necessary to mention that the teacher was Black, I would simply omit that detail in my head and carry on the conversation as if the person hadn’t mentioned it. If a young student said that they had trouble understanding Black people when they talked (followed by a ridiculous, caricatured imitation of Black American English), I would just say, “I don’t know what to tell you.” Taking this approach made me feel just as bad about myself as my previous approach.

The comment that caused me to reevaluate my response to my students’ anti-Black racism came from a then-student, a few years younger than me, who I have always liked and respected as a person, about a co-worker of mine that I deeply admire as a teacher and as a friend. Purely in the interest of illustrating the complexity of the situation, I will say that the both the student and the teacher in question are Muslim and that the comment centered on criticism of Black American Islam because of its connection to prisons. The comment also rang hollow of conviction, like the student was repeating something they had heard said with confidence but that they didn’t necessarily believe. I didn’t know what to say but I felt like the longer I let the comment linger in the air, the deeper the frustration set in. I wanted to go off for hours about history and capitalism and the media and capitalism and the police and capitalism but I didn’t even know where to start and I could feel myself getting more frustrated, so instead I just asked “Have you ever read The Autobiography of Malcolm X?”

No, teacher. I don’t like to read. Only what you give me for homework.”

It’s also a movie. I’ll find you a copy if you promise you’ll watch it.”

Of course, teacher. I love movies.”

We ended up watching it together after class and talked about a lot of the themes and messages in the movie as well as the important historical background and how that history has morphed into the current landscape of anti-Black racism in the United States. We talked about how that gets exported via mainstream television and movies to people in other countries.

I’m not sure if all of that was the right way for me to go about addressing the student’s comment. On the one hand, it kind of feels like it was just a white person (me) lecturing a non-white person about racism but I think it was also a lesson on the historically and culturally specific way that anti-Blackness exists in the United States. There are also a few things that I learned are important about discussing American racism with recently arrived adults from other countries:

1. Most places in the world have their own forms of anti-Blackness. In some places, it's similar to the United States, where Black people continue to be the victims of poverty and violence at disproportionate rates as a result of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the racist institutions that it morphed into. In other places, Black people are immigrants, seen by the population as an invasive other, taking jobs, contributing to crime and tainting the cultural (read: racial) purity. In some places anti-Blackness is the process of occupation and colonialism by foreign armies and companies that deplete countries of resources and pit people against each other for survival. In some places, anti-Blackness is simply racist American media imported and internalized, which brings me my next point:

2. Racist American media is consumed worldwide and, just like it does here, it influences beliefs and feelings towards American Black people. American television and movies tend to portray Black people as violent and prone to criminality and this becomes internalized in some of my students (some of whom would be considered Black by most Americans) even before they arrive in this country. I'm often asked which parts of the city are fun/beautiful/safe to go to with the expressed or implied understanding that Black neighborhoods are none of these things.

3. For someone that has not been raised and educated in our specific and complicated formula of coded racism, it can seem pretty absurd. They see a world where most Americans hate and fear Black people but never say it directly. The cultural ideal they are presented of an American is a middle-class, white, college-educated person. They see these Americans afraid to go to Black neighborhoods or uncomfortable around young Black people but then have to learn a new set of culturally specific words and phrases to avoid saying that, which is a lot for someone who is already adapting to a new language.

4. Most non-Black American people, including ESL teachers, need to address their own anti-Black racism before they can really talk to their students about the topic. It's important for a teacher (or anyone, really) to understand how they themselves are affected by anti-Black racism. A teacher's anti-Black racism can present itself in the topics that the teacher chooses to talk about in class and how they choose to talk about them. It can also appear in how the teachers talks about the place where they live, their friends and co-workers and current social and political events. If they are afraid of or less comfortable around Black people or in Black neighborhoods, then for that teacher to tell students not to make anti-Black comments just seems ridiculous to them (and it kind of is). Additionally to this point, ESL teachers (and everyone) need to educate themselves on the history of U.S. racism and the current legal and economic policies that perpetuate racism. Otherwise, it can seem like all this anti-Blackness just came out of nowhere or that Black people are themselves responsible for the situation they're in.

5. Students coming to the United States for the first time see a racially segregated society where most Americans tend to interact with people who come from similar racial, economic and language backgrounds and where Black people are disproportionately victims of violence and poverty and most non-Black people don't do anything to change that. It is easy for students to look at non-Black people in society and believe that they are racist (which a lot of them are). Unless a non-Black teacher makes a point to address racism in their class, it is possible, and not totally crazy, for students to think the teacher might dislike Black people. All non-Black people have the responsibility to fight anti-Black racism. For ESL teachers, this means having meaningful conversations with your students about American anti-Black racism.
Ian McDeath

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