"This small black person represents us before we learned all the information about it and the big gold person is how he feels after we've been enriched with all the knowledge."
Racist or Innocent?
I haven't been able to find a full story about the event depicted in the video below, but it appears to be a presentation to the Martinsville City council by a group of students from the Piedmont Governor's School about a recent survey they conducted with local residents. They created some type of "story quilt" to represent their learning. As the students presented, Sharon Hodge, the only black member of the City Council, stopped them after the comment above. After asking for clarification, she expressed her feelings of offense at the portrayal.
We're just a few weeks removed from the all the news surrounding Brad Paisley's collaboration on "Accidental Racist" with LL Cool J. Critics especially cut the opening lines of the song in which Paisley tries to justify his "confederate flag" shirt by claiming he only wears it because he's a fan of Lynard Skynard.
Likewise, I doubt the students creating the quilt intended to offend anyone by using a small black figure to represent ignorance. Does that excuse the action?
The council lady goes on to defend her actions in an interview with a local news station. She points out in the video the lack of diversity in the group- all white with all white teachers. She also mentions that only ten percent of people interviewed by the students were black in a city where the population is over forty percent black.
She clearly states that intent is not the issue.
And it isn't when it comes to racially sensitive issues. Whether I mean to offend or not doesn't change the offense. In a diverse public education system this is an ever present problem.
In the comment section to the video above, at the time of this post, only one comment supported the councilor. User name- mhairston. Anyone familiar with the Martinsville area would recognize the last name and why it is significant that it is the only supportive voice. The area has a deep history with race. Growing up white in Martinsville, I was largely unaffected by issues of race. The older I get, the more I realize how much I missed out on the meaning of race because of my skin color. I imagine the lives of black, white, Asian, Latino, etc., are all affected by race in ways that different ethnic groups are not aware of, making the risks of "accidental racism" all the more likely.
As teachers, we respect and love all of our students. We carry our own "ethnic baggage" complete with preferences and prejudices just like anyone else. But, we serve a population of students bringing all their "baggage" on the trip as well. I'm sure that somewhere along the line I've crossed the line unintentionally, but I hope that I've been able to build strong enough relationships to grow in my understanding and respect of those who are different from me.
In the end, we're all the same underneath the skin. But human interactions are skin to skin and race isn't something that can just be ignored.
I think for a white person, without understanding the history of race in the area AND without understanding the current racial experience of others it would be easy to shout this council lady down for calling out an innocent student. But, I can understand why she might find "a little black guy representing ignorance" offensive.
What do you think?