About 10 years ago, I was walking down the hall towards my office to drop my stuff off before first period. As always, a bunch of kids were standing talking at their lockers, sitting on the floor madly copying someone’s homework or just hanging out. One of my ESL students was sitting on the floor, leaning against the lockers. As English as a Second Language teachers, we take opportunities when we can to have little conversations with our kids to help them practice English.
Me: Good morning Felipe.
Felipe: What’s up my n….?
I stopped dead in my tracks. Let’s count the number of ways that’s just inconceivably wrong.
- I’m white.
- He’s Ecuadorian.
- He was sitting near a group of American-American students who appeared to take offense to this.
- No matter who you are, it’s an incredibly bad idea to say anything inappropriate to a teacher.
- At our school, we work hard at ridding the world of that ugly word that is steeped in, and represents, racism, discrimination, lack of civil rights and slavery.
- And Felipe had come to the US about 3 months before this conversation so I wondered how he picked it up so quickly.
So I replied with the kind of silly question that I find myself often uttering. “Felipe, why did you say that?” Smiling happily, he replied in Spanish “Because they did.” At this point he has his arm extended pointing to the group of black kids who were really interested in this exchange. “And because of music.” Ahhhh……
He seemed so proud of himself. Like I do when I’ve just learned a new idiomatic expression in another language.
Me: *sigh* You can’t say that.
Felipe: Why not?
Me (in my head): Because 1st period is going to start and I have to go to the bathroom and this is waaaaaaaaay too long a conversation to have right now.
Me (aloud): Because you can’t say that in school and you shouldn’t say it anywhere and I’ll explain why later. Just stop saying it. And don’t say anything like that in front of me again.
As I walked away, I realized that I had given him exactly the wrong advice. All I had conveyed to him was that I was annoyed, flabbergasted and disappointed in him. He, on the other hand, had started the conversation out probably a little proud that he had learned this cool expression in English and was trying it out.
Later in the day, I took him aside and gave a mini-version of what the word literally means and what it represents. He responded something to the effect that the black kids call each other that. I said something lame like that doesn’t make it right. And that there are words that each culture or race or ethnic group can say to each other and not be offended but don’t want someone else to say. He said “Like what?” Now I knew he was just playing me.
But this issue stuck with me all day. I identify myself as Irish-American, even though my DNA shows a mixture of different western European countries. I thought of the time that I had to call a white parent about a problem with her son. She screamed at me “I KNEW THIS WOULD HAPPEN WHEN I FOUND OUT HE HAD A MICK FOR A TEACHER.” In a rational world, I would have taken the time to reflect and to realize that this was about who she was, not who I was. Because I was not in a rational state of mind, I hung up on her. In anger. My respect for my colleagues and students of color grew even more as I realized that this was the first time in my life someone called me a name based on my culture, but that they had to listen to this all the time.
So I went back to Felipe and told him that I was wrong. That I am exactly the person he should try out expressions with. I can tell him what is okay and not okay to say and when and why.
Until he and his friends brought me lyrics from a rap song and said explain this please. It was filled with sexual references. Uh oh. I said ask one of your older cousins who graduated.
Because… that’s not what’s up with me.