Blog Post

Could We Have an Open Dialogue About Race?

Let’s face it.  I’m Asian.  I could definitely play the race card, but I don’t.  Because I don’t want to.  I don’t think that it’s the right thing to do.  I want to believe that it is dedication, hard work, and passion for what I do that is what will get me to where I want to be in life.

Last semester, on the first day of class, there was a group of rowdy students in my class that would not be quiet even after I asked them to be quiet more than five times.  The principle that this is unacceptable behavior for the college classroom is the least of the issues.  Although, in the back of my mind, I could tell that this particular group of students did not respect me.

I talked to my supervisor about this group of students immediately after the first class.  I tried to brainstorm some ideas with her about why these students might be disruptive in the classroom and how to remedy the situation.  One of my suggestions was that it could be my age.  Despite having 8 years of teaching experience, I am still a relatively younger instructor.  So, I wanted to bring this this up as a possible issue.  The one issue that I did not to bring up was the fact that I thought that the students might not respect me because of my race.  I wanted to give my students the benefit of the doubt that the reason that they did not respect me was because of my race.  Remember, this was the first day of class.  I did not want to jump to conclusions.

My supervisor told me that the entire situation was my fault because of my poor classroom management skills.  I was told that regardless of age, there were no other instructors in the entire building having similar issues in the classroom.  My supervisor informed me that she would be assigning me a mentor to help me with classroom management skills.  It turns out that none of the things I would do would resonate with these students.  

One of the the first things that my mentor suggested that I do is assign students to specific seating.  I decided to rearrange the tables and chairs to try to separate some of the students in the group who were talking and disrespectful.  And all I got were complaints such as ‘Well, that’s not where I normally sit!’  Even though this was my mentor’s suggestion, in my supervisor’s eyes, it was still my fault that this strategy did not work in the classroom.

Then my mentor suggested that I try doing some activities with the students that might relate to them.  So, during Black History Month, I tried having the students complete ‘Black History Month’ activities as they related to math, including writing a paper about a famous Black mathematician.  And well, the complaints kept on coming.  In fact, one student even told me, “I’m not going to do your stupid assignment!”  It’s almost as if the students were offended at the fact that I was trying to reach out to them because then they would have no more reasons to disrespect me.

So, when the end of the semester came, it came as no surprise to me that almost all of the student comments eluded to the fact that the students thought I was a ‘racist’ and a ‘bigot’.  One of my former students, who happens to be a Black student, confirmed with me that he knew that the students thought that I was racist, and a small group of them were even planning some death threats against me.
According to my former student, the students walked into the classroom on the very first day of class already believing that they should not respect me because I’m a racist because of comments that they had heard from some of my other former students outside of class.  So, they were destined to make life miserable for me to get revenge on me for being a racist.

First, let me say this:  if you think someone is racist, and you haven’t confirmed it yourself, aren’t you almost worse than the racist in someway?  If you don’t confront the person, you’re just giving the person an opportunity to move on and be racist in another place.  You need to talk to the person about the way that the person is behaving and confront the racist behavior head on.  Maybe the person doesn’t even realize that he or she is exhibiting behavior that you might perceive as racist.

Second, I have been a victim of racism myself.  One time I applied for a summer job, and I brought my application into the store.  When I tried to hand the application to the owner, she told me to just leave it on the counter and someone else would pick it up later.  When I was out of sight, I heard her say to one of her employees to rip up my application and that I would never have a chance of working there.  Another time, I volunteered to be a greeter for a high school event.  One of the organizers of the events told me that I was not welcome to volunteer at the event because he did not want ‘an overweight Asian’ person to be the first person one of the high schoolers would see when walking in the doors.  Racism hurts.  But it doesn’t have to bring you down.  And you don’t have to exhibit racist behaviors in retaliation.

Third, if you are a supervisor, and you have an instructor who comes to you with a complaint that the students in the classroom don’t respect the instructor, I believe that you have a duty to try to figure out why this might be.  If a student complains that an instructor doesn’t respect him or her, the supervisor is likely to do a classroom visit to try to validate the student’s complaints.  The same thing should occur if an instructor files the complaint to the supervisor about the students, as in my case.  In this day and age, just because someone has the title of ‘instructor’, does not mean that the students will automatically respect the person in the classroom.

So, after all that has happened to me in the past semester, I am wondering if could we please have an open dialogue about race?
By Jon Oaks

College Math Instructor. Tech Enthusiast. Visionary. Creative Genius. But above all, I enjoy what I do. That is why I am a teacher. Because I like to teach.

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