Q: “Why is the palm of your hands clean but the back of your hands dirty? Your whole body is dirty!”
“Why do you look like that?”
“Your face is burnt.”
Genuine questions. Ignorant statements.
How do you respond to questions about differences you can’t control? None of the questions nor the one statement were asked/ spoken with any hidden malice, just genuine curiosity. I was different and the students had noticed and wondered why. I understand where they are coming from. Living in a place where majority of the population is similar to you, it’s going to be quite odd to be in close quarters with someone who is blatantly different, and as a child you’re going to be curious as to why.
However, as a teacher, I am placed in some AWKWARD situations with timing of these questions. The first time it happened to me I had no idea how I should handle it. I knew these were young children so I tried to explain it to them as best as I could because I knew that most of their questions were out of curiosity or they were ignorant to what they were saying. So, instead of taking offense, I did my best to explain.
It was a sunny afternoon, I’m in the classroom teaching my first graders about pronouns. Unsure in my mind how I was going explain to these first graders the difference between certain pronouns I had impulsively called some volunteers to stand at the front of the classroom with me. My mind was whirring with a million different thoughts like, “Get the kids in a line, Julena!”, “Get the other kids to quiet down in the back, Julena”, ” How can you forget that kids’ name?!” “Where’s the other kid we called to the front?!”. So when this student, who had volunteered, grabbed my hand and said, “Teacher, why is this part of your hand clean but the back of it dirty?” I was completely caught off-guard. However, since my mind was running a million different directions per second, her statement did register and I mindlessly mumbled an “I don’t know” and went back to trying to get my class in order.
But then, this student hit me with the,”But your whole body is dirty!” and that snapped me out of my mindless rush. Here, in front of me was a curious child who wanted to know why their teacher was different from them and the rest of their classmates. Stopping the class, I bent down to the child’s height and looking right into their eyes I said very softly and gently, “I’m not dirty, I’m just black. My skin is different from yours because I’m not Korean.”
The student giggles and responds, “Then are you from Africa?”
A kid from the back shouts out, “No! Julena Teacher is from America.”
I had to smile despite myself and the uncomfortableness I felt. Nodding in agreement, I respond, “Exactly, I’m from America and you know this. We’ve talked about where I am from before. I can’t tell you why I am the way I am, but you can’t say mean things to me just because I’m different from you, okay? Just like you wouldn’t like it if someone made fun of you for being you, you shouldn’t make fun of someone because they are different from you. Do you understand?”
The student nods solemnly, and I nudge them into the line and continued with my lesson.
The second time happened a couple of months later in my third grade class. I was teaching the 5W’s when a student in the front raises their hand and said, “Teacher, why do you look like that?” Now, I was busy writing down the meaning of the 5W’s (what they should be doing as well) and so I was slightly caught off guard, so I turned and asked, “Look like what?”
“Like that,” was the response.
They didn’t want to specify why I was black and, unlike my first grader, I’m sure they had encounter the other black teachers in the school before meeting me, so I looked them in the eye and asked softly and kindly, “Why do you look the way you do?”
I wasn’t angry or anything. I just wanted them to contemplate for a little on their own because they were a little bit older. Without missing a beat, the student responded, “Because of my mother.”
I nodded, satisfied with her answer, “Well, I am this way because of my mother too,” I echoed.
I turned to write on the board, continuing with the lesson before I was stopped with a, “No teacher, are you sure you didn’t paint yourself?”
Looking the student dead into their eyes, I asked them, “Did you paint yourself?”
They paused for a second, thinking. Based on what on I had done before, they knew where this conversation was going. So they nod, “Yes, I did.”
“Okay, ” I shrugged. “Then I did too. Whatever you did to look the way you do, that’s exactly what I did to look the way I do.”
Then I continued with the lesson without any more interruptions.
That weekend, another student approached me with a comment about my skin. This didn’t happen in class, however, it happened at church. We were listening to the sermon saying when this student beside me leans in and says, “Your face is burnt.”
Bewildered, I said, “How is my face burnt? My whole body is brown.”
In total confidence they said, “Then your whole body is burnt.”
Shaking my head in disbelief, I said to them, “Are you burnt?”
And the conversation continued like this:
Student: No, I’m light.
Me: And how do you look the way you do?
Student: *Points in the direction of her mother* (states matter-of-factly) Because of my mom.
Me: Okay, so I look like this because of my mom.
Student: So your mom is burnt.
Me: *mental facepalm*
This method obviously wasn’t working so I decided to go a different route.
Me: No, my mom isn’t burnt and neither am I. We are just black. Saying things like that is mean and hurtful. How would like it if someone made fun of the way of you looked? Would it feel good?
Student: *shakes head*
Me: Exactly, so when you say things like that, it hurts my feelings and it could hurt someone else’s feelings. It’s not nice to say things like that. Do you understand?
I smile softly to show that I wasn’t angry and continued listening to the sermon.
I am no expert in handling these situations, and it would be a lie to say that I wasn’t bothered or affected by the questions or statements, but I also know that these students are young and highly impressionable. I didn’t want my students to think that it wasn’t okay to be curious about people who were different from them. I didn’t want to make it feel like it was a big deal to ask questions. So, instead of dwelling on the questions, I answered it without getting angry and continue with the lesson like they had just asked me a question about the lesson.
Sure, I went home worried, wondering if I had handled the situation properly, but I did the best I could in the impromptu situation and I can only hope that through my feeble attempts good is able to triumph. I wanted them to see that being curious is okay, but they needed to be open-minded with their curiosity. They shouldn’t judge me or others just because we are different from what they are used to.
I can only hope and pray for the best.
Well, those were the most awkward, race related questions I have ever gotten here before. To some, I may be needlessly optimistic, but I want to give others the benefit of the doubt. We all make mistakes and we should be allow to learn from them. I want my classroom to be a safe space where my students to grow. I have never been placed in an awkward situation or experienced blatant racism from older individuals yet. I don’t know if it is a lack of curiosity or concern of being impolite but it hasn’t happened to me yet, thankfully. I have been blessed to meet kind and thoughtful people.
Until next time,
See ya around, friend~~