Growing up in the south, I have been exposed to a disappointing amount of modern-day racism. I am personally ashamed that this is an issue we are still faced with in our society. I have always felt very inclined to end this ignorance and educate those who act on it. As a white woman, I will never be the object of racism but I can certainly work to end it.
Racism can come in many shapes and forms. People can be blatantly and intentionally racist, and they can also be racist from a pure lack of knowledge. The lack of knowledge doesn’t justify it, but it does open up opportunities for those of us on the right side of history to educate others.
At this writing, Halloween was last week. We see it every year: adults dressed up and headed to parties to drink beer and make s’mores with other costumed adults. Sadly, we often see these costume-clad adults wearing some eyebrow-raising costumes. They make the decision to wear costumes that are racially and culturally inappropriate: A “sexy Indian (Native American).” A man in a poncho and fake mustache claiming to be “a Mexican.” A girl who braids her long hair and wears dark foundation in an effort to be “a gangsta.”
A few days ago, I read an article about a college student who dressed up as Bill Cosby for Halloween. The wacky sweater wasn’t enough; he had painted his entire face with black paint. While many people are uneducated on the subject, blackface is totally insensitive and inappropriate. It has a deeply rooted and hurtful background, and with a quick internet search, one can easily learn that it is NOT the answer to this year’s Halloween party get-up. In light of this story, I am reminded of a situation I was faced with my first year of teaching.
I was mortified to find out that she was planning to put the black characters in blackface. Click To Tweet
My first teaching job was at a small elementary school in a rural area: very country people and VERY slim diversity. There were no black students. The high school English teacher was putting on the stage production of “To Kill A Mockingbird” for the spring play. Word got out that I had a background in theater, and she asked me to run lights and sound. I attended one after school rehearsal and was mortified to find out that she was planning to put the black characters in blackface. I immediately told her that this made me uncomfortable and that it was a terrible decision for the school. She quickly informed me that it was fine because it was for art and literature, and that there was no racist intention.
The next day, I talked with my principal at the elementary school to see how she would suggest I go about going over the English teacher’s head and putting an end to it. She told me that she’d talk with the superintendent and try to take care of it. A couple of days later, the superintendent called me to his office to talk about it. It seemed like I was going nowhere. Everyone I talked with told me that they didn’t see the problem with putting the students in blackface because it wasn’t being done with bad intentions. I explained in a many different ways as I could that aside from it being inappropriate, it would give the school a VERY negative image. I thought that the idea of tarnishing the school’s image would change their minds. After explaining several times that this could quickly turn into a media frenzy, I finally told them that I would not be involving myself in the production if it was not stopped.
I finally told them that I would not be involving myself in the production if it was not stopped. Click To Tweet
I reached out to my connections in the theater community to get some help. As a recent college graduate, I was able to get in touch with a theater professor at my alma mater who contacted the school and helped them come to the decision to proceed with the production, free of blackface.
I went on to help with lights and sound, and I even helped sew a few costumes. The kids did an incredible job with the show. They portrayed the characters with eloquence. The black characters were played by white students and the only thing that signified the race of the character was their acting, which was clearly interpreted.
Although it was years ago, when I look back on this experience, I am reminded that as teachers, we have the power to educate children (and sometimes adults) on these sensitive subjects. We have the power to mold students into future adults who don’t wear culturally inappropriate Halloween costumes or try to put a group of high schoolers in blackface. They will go on to be people who have the knowledge to stop situations like this from happening in the future.
I am reminded that as teachers, we have the power to educate children (and sometimes adults) on these sensitive subjects. Click To Tweet
I find it appropriate to wrap things up with a perfectly appropriate quote from Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s classic, “To Kill A Mockingbird.”
“First of all,” he said, “if you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view-““Sir?”“-Until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
For more information about blackface and its history, visit http://black-face.com/.
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