Ethnic slurs and sexual harassment

On flteach there was a thread on discussing race and ethnicity in the classroom. It was started by a teacher who was concerned that a P.R. girl had been singled out, not in a mean way but enough to make her uncomfortable.

Someone wrote in and asked a question, citing me specifically, so I responded with a description of the crude ethnic put-downs my dad’s generation commonly engaged in. I added at the end that teenagers tend to do that sort of thing and if you let them fight it out, they wind up working out things and being friends.

I made reference to Deborah Tannen’s books. A story I had in mind is about when a team’s supporters arrived at the stadium for the football game and found a problem getting seats. They took some seats reserved for other people.

Sure enough, the other people showed up and some words were exchanged. In short order, there were threats and obscenities exchanged among the men and the women got very upset and anxious. Gradually, some sort of accomodations were made and men with swollen chests eventually sat down and got ready to watch the game. So far, so good.

But then, within a couple of minutes, the men were exchanging comments about the teams and began having a very good time talking sports with each other. The wives were infuriated. “You guys were about to kill each other a few minutes ago and got us all scared and upset and now you’re chatting like old buddies! You’re all nuts!” etc.

The men were non-plussed. They were just doing the normal, testosterone-filled guy thing. The women were trying to damp aggressive behavior they feared would get out of hand. Transferring that to the school, kids, both boys and girls, have their rituals and experienced teachers know that. One time my friend, Brian and I were walking down the hallway at school after the last bell and all of a sudden he broke into a run and said, “Go to the office and tell them there’s a fight on Westwood St.” Sure enough, there was a fight. As a veteran teacher, he could see enough through the double glass doors at the end of the hallway about 40 feet away to know there was a fight and even where it was.

Knowing when it’s serious (this was) and when teacher intervention will interrupt a normal, unharmful process is an ability most teachers develop over time. This includes the ever-present teasing. Knowing the difference between normal teasing and bullying, “messing with” a person and harassment, kidding around and malicious attacks is an ability teachers need to work on.

The other side of that is a kind of moral watchdog who is going to correct all behavior that doesn’t meet some standard. Realistic standards must be enforced, but idealistic, utopian pleas for everyone to just get along lead to students dismissing teacher concerns b/c they are not realistic and real harassment going underground.

If all the students have enough slack in the reins to show their real behavior, the true bullies and malicious malcontents will show themselves and then can be dealt with individually. Of course, teachers should enforce principles of good behavior in the classroom, but I have met many people who want all guns gone, no foul language ever, no girl ever tying out her sex appeal, no horsing around at all, and so on.

The proof of this? The ubiquitous “zero tolerance” policies all over the place. Zero tolerance is a stand-in for intelligent and informed judgment. What happens is that a principal lets a kid slide b/c he knows the kid’s dad while another kid gets “busted” for the same delinquent act. All over the country, Black kids serve more detentions than White kids and for a different range of offenses; that sort of thing gave rise to zero tolerance instead of the sensible action of correcting the behavior of the principal.

It makes perfect sense to curtail ethnic slurs and other sorts of slurs in the classroom. But we must be careful we don’t get so high up on moral mountain that we lose sight of the fact that a good deal of that behavior works itself out and only if we allow the normal course of such behavior to occur will we be able to spot the truly harmful behavior.

I had a girl drop my class as an aide b/c the boys were taunting her with sex-laced comments (albur). I didn’t hear their comments. I apologized to the girl and reprimanded the boys. That sort of thing should not be tolerated. But some teachers want to stop all sexual joking.

A Black boy was having a lot of discipline problems in school. He played the clown in class, a defense against the comments often made in those classes about Blacks. One day early on he discovered that a Black girl in the class was African. He went nuts. This wasn’t that long ago but a lot of African-Americans who are not educated still believe Africans are something out of Tarzan movies, and this boy behaved like that. It was sad and embarrassing for everyone.

So I had several talks with him. At that time, we had no Black teachers in the school who could deal with this issue. We had one person but she would probably have dismissed the boy as lower class and not dealt with his issues. These issues were tied up in his self-image as a Black boy in a school where our biggest gang problem at that time was White Power gangs.

He eventually calmed down but it was a sad reminder of the conditions under which many Black kids attend school.

One of our teachers took kids on a trip yearly to Mexico. He wouldn’t let any Mexican-American kids go. Such exclusion was common on our campus in my early days there. Thanks to a few, too few, staff hirings of minorities, some of that lessened. So bullying and exclusion doesn’t come from just the kids. My friend intervened by going on the trip, too, thus gaining some leverage to let Hispanic kids go on the trip.

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