How I Responded to Racist Language in the Classroom

How I Responded to Racist Language in the Classroom

Image credit: Becker1999 via Wikimedia Commons

by The Educator Collaborative Associate member Janet N. Y. Zarchen

Ching-gong-hu-gong, hay-yahh, wa-ju yay yo kong.

This is what I hear as soon as I walk into the seventh grade classroom. Loud enough for me to hear but not the teacher. Or maybe my ears are just more sensitive?

I look the student directly in the eyes, calmly shake my head, and silently mouth the words, That’s not nice.

Calm on the outside but a jumble of emotions on the inside.

Outrage: Are you freaking kidding me? Who are you to say that?

Hurt: Again? Of course, again. I will always be an outsider. I will never belong.

Worry: What next? What else do I say to the student? What do I say to the teacher and administrator?

As soon as I can, I approach the student and say, “I want you to know that what you did wasn’t nice, and I didn’t appreciate it. I don’t know you, but I want to think that you are a person who wants to be nice, so I hope you won’t do that again.” I walk away, not wanting to hear the possible denials or excuses.

And then it happens again in fourth grade.

And then again in fifth grade. This student even pulls back the corners of their eyes.

It happens in different classes and different schools in the same district, where 83% of the students are Black and Brown and only 1% are Asian.

The next time I visit the seventh grade class, I make a point to talk to the student about the assignment they are working on. I want to have a “normal” conversation with them. I don’t want the student to remember me only for the racialized interaction we previously had. I don’t want the student to feel embarrassment or shame around our interaction. I don’t want them to suddenly become “color evasive.”

I want it to be “normal” that Asian people exist in the world and in this student’s world. Every month when I visit that class, I make it a point to talk to the student.

I do not want the student to be reprimanded or punished for their actions. And I am still processing the fact that this happened three times in this district. So I wait before mentioning it to the teachers or administrators.

In some cases, I wait months.

While waiting, I talk to friends and colleagues. I share how I reacted, why I reacted the way I did, and what I want to come of each situation.

In the end, I land on this: These young students have been socialized into their ideas and beliefs about Asian people. What they did was inappropriate and racist, but it is a systemic problem. I do not want these students to become afraid to talk about race, to fear making mistakes, to think that talking about race is racist. I want them to learn to be anti-racist.

One friend told me I was being too generous. Maybe I am?