Help me bring up talking points about racism in middle school.
December 4, 2018 4:51 PM   Subscribe

My middle school age son's teacher keeps stating that Asians are Orientals, even though my son has repeatedly told him that he doesn't find it funny, finds it offensive, and my son has already talked to his counselor and the Dean of Students. Where do we go from here?

We are Asian. My 8th grader has this shirt. His science teacher has been picking on him the past three weeks, stating the following things:

-what about Russia? isn't Russia in Asia?
-what if he made a shirt that said Asian IS oriental?
-he thinks Asians are orientals, what does my son think of that?
-what if he made a shirt that said Russians Are Asians?

My son has replied with:

-if you're joking, it's not funny
-I don't think it's funny being called Oriental
-why would you say something like that
-why do you keep saying something like that

This has happened in class three different times. The first time, the whole class got involved in the discussion, the teacher admitted he was wrong (Russia is not part of Asia), and my son thought it was over. The second time, my son went and talked to his counselor and the dean of students. My son thought they kind of "poo-poo'ed" it (his take was that they thought the teacher was known for being sarcastic and didn't realize he crossed a line). We thought it was over and they would speak to the teacher, but again, today, my son had science and the teacher made ANOTHER reference to how Asians are Orientals. In front of class.

When pressed about it at the end of class, the teacher told my son, privately, that he was "just joking" but I am livid. I don't even want my son to go to school tomorrow so he has to deal with that teacher, and I am furious with how the school is handling it. What talking points can I bring up to the school, and who can I escalate it to? I already am filing a "harrassment and intimidation incident" report.
posted by alathia to Education (43 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Wow - that's horrifying. Principal or school board would be next steps with the dean being useless.
posted by leslies at 4:56 PM on December 4, 2018 [25 favorites]

Make sure that you are documenting everything... What the teacher said, when, where. Your meetings with the dean of students, etc.
This is awful. I am so sorry.

Even though this sucks right now, your son is learning some incredible lessons in the long run. Hugs.
posted by k8t at 4:56 PM on December 4, 2018 [19 favorites]

Pull your son out of school and explain to the principal that you'll be keeping him out until the situation is rectified. That should get their attention.
posted by coppermoss at 5:01 PM on December 4, 2018 [5 favorites]

some points:

- "ironic" racism isn't actually a thing that's okay, or funny, or a joke, especially in a situation where (i assume) a white adult is publicly victimizing a minority child

- it's not an open point of discussion that is appropriate when made by someone whose agenda is to prove that their own racism is acceptable

- when you are actually "just joking" about something that offends someone you tell everyone, not just one person privately, that it was a bad joke, and you publicly apologize for your stupid, harmful, hate-spreading words and deeds.

the final point should be one of the absolute demands made of this piece of shit teacher although personally i don't think he should be allowed to teach children at all. 3 fucking strikes.
posted by poffin boffin at 5:09 PM on December 4, 2018 [60 favorites]

Call the principal. If you don't receive the results you want, call the superintendent. If you still don't get satisfactory results, call the school board.
posted by dancing_angel at 5:09 PM on December 4, 2018 [26 favorites]

My dad was on my elementary school district's board for many years, and knowing things he dealt with in his tenure I think it would be absolutely appropriate to escalate this to the superintendent and/or school board. This is completely unacceptable, even once, even "joking". I teach college students and would expect to be severely disciplined and/or fired if I said this even once to one of my students. And they're adults.
posted by augustimagination at 5:12 PM on December 4, 2018 [43 favorites]

The school should be aware that this is a viral shitstorm waiting to happen. Is the principal aware of exactly how much extremely unpleasant national attention could be generated over a grown adult teacher being persistently racist in class to a child? If there's a way to convey this to the principal in a factual, non-threatening manner, that might help.

Honestly, what an utter immature asshole that teacher is.
posted by Frowner at 5:13 PM on December 4, 2018 [17 favorites]

I’m sorry I don’t have time to google more extensively, but Rethinking Schools and Showing Up for Racial Justice are too good resources.

It is awesome that you’d kid is confident enough to stand up for himself with an authority figure, but usually administration won’t do anything unless parents step in.
posted by nuclear_soup at 5:36 PM on December 4, 2018 [5 favorites]

Straight out racist. Point out he's teaching other kids to be racist bullies too, not just bullying your kid directly. Do you have any other parent friends in the same class who would be pissed as hell to hear about this behaviour and help complain?
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 5:38 PM on December 4, 2018 [6 favorites]

Wow, that's terrible. It sounds like this teacher is the racist version of the missing stair. In addition to all the school board escalation suggestions above (which I agree with), make sure your kid knows he's awesome and doing exactly the right thing by standing up to an authority figure who's in the wrong. Even if he's an outspoken kid, he could probably use some high-fives.
posted by basalganglia at 5:41 PM on December 4, 2018 [6 favorites]

Asian-American here.

WTF. Did you know that, in both Washington State and NY State, the term 'Oriental' is banned from being used in state documents?

Here are some things to print out, in case your teacher, the counselor, and the dean of students are stuck in the past, doesn't understand how shitty this is, and needs pieces of paper to scare them a little. I hope some words telling them how this would be a media shitshow would be helpful.

It is banned to use the word 'Oriental' in Washington state documents, since 2002

In New York State, it is banned to use the word 'Oriental' in state documents, since 2009

Why You Should Avoid These Racial Terms

Merriam Webster: "now sometimes considered offensive especially when used to describe a person"

Why saying 'Oriental' instead of Asian American gets so much wrong
posted by suedehead at 5:53 PM on December 4, 2018 [52 favorites]

If something like this had happened to me when I was a kid (I am half-Asian) I would have crumpled and felt ashamed and very picked on. This teacher sounds like a complete asshole who knows what they're doing and is fine tormenting a child over their race. Unbelievable.

And good for your son for speaking up, which is tough to do when you are a child dealing with adults. He sounds very mature and I'm glad you are there to back him up.

I teach college students and would expect to be severely disciplined and/or fired if I said this even once to one of my students. And they're adults.

Same here.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 5:57 PM on December 4, 2018 [8 favorites]

Wow, that's shocking. In addition to the principal and school board, I would also suggest filing a complaint with your state's teacher licensing agency, and maybe contacting local media as well. This is a person who should absolutely not ever teach a child of any race again. It's not enough to simply remove them from your child's classroom.
posted by kevinbelt at 6:06 PM on December 4, 2018 [9 favorites]

Make sure that as you escalate that the Counselor and Dean of Students are also subject to corrective action. They ignored an opportunity to stop and firmly correct this racist nonsense.
posted by quince at 6:08 PM on December 4, 2018 [16 favorites]

who can I escalate it to

General information on taking legal actions in school districts. The Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights (OCR) handles discrimination claims; generally, filing an administrative complaint (within 180 days of the last act of discrimination) precedes filing a lawsuit.

(P.S. Your kids are the coolest.)
posted by Iris Gambol at 6:09 PM on December 4, 2018 [3 favorites]

My kid's middle school had a teacher with Nazi sympathies. It came out in weird ways and jokes, it was nuts. Some parents first talked to the principal, then brought it to the Superintendent of schools. The teacher was forced into early retirement the next year.
Use the key words that scare school officials because they recognize push button words that will get them in trouble in the media, even if they are really too complacent or thick to care for real about the horrific actions of this teacher:
Write that the teacher is BULLYING your son with RACIST and INAPPROPRIATE behavior. You are going to be seeking legal action against his HATE SPEECH.
So sorry your son is going through this. It's appalling.
posted by nantucket at 6:11 PM on December 4, 2018 [48 favorites]

This is something BuzzFeed would be ultra down to report on and have action taken to correct the situation if you want to go that route and can stand working with the media in that way.
posted by Hermione Granger at 6:53 PM on December 4, 2018 [2 favorites]

The Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund should be able to provide advice at a minimum, and may also be able to contact the school on your behalf.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 7:21 PM on December 4, 2018 [9 favorites]

My jaw is on the floor. Please let your son know that he is doing an awesome job and reasonable adults are on his side.

Definitely escalate this to the school board. It is absolutely unacceptable.
posted by easy, lucky, free at 7:46 PM on December 4, 2018 [4 favorites]

I would absolutely keep him home tomorrow, and honestly I would wait for the school to call ME to find out where he was (because I'm a passive-aggressive bitch that way), and I would inform the secretary who calls that I had not received an adequate response to the racial harassment of my son by a faculty member and that I looked forward to the principal's resolution of the issue where a faculty member was using ethnic slurs and harassing a 13-year-old CHILD with them even after the child asked him to stop and inviting the class to debate his racial harassment of my child before my son would be able to return to school.

And yeah, this absolutely needs to be escalated to the school board, including the school's totally inadequate response. I'd start making those calls in the morning, and informing them you kept your kid home because of the racial harassment.

In the district where I was on school board, the minimum punishment for the teacher would have been suspension from the classroom for the teacher, the maximum firing. (Depending on seniority and prior complaints or lack thereof against the teacher, the union contract controlled a lot of it.) But yeah, wrath of freakin' God for this.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:59 PM on December 4, 2018 [35 favorites]

Schedule a meeting with the teacher and the counselor and your son and the principal. When the meeting starts, turn to the teacher and, as kindly as possible, ask him: "'Oriental' is a well-known and well-documented racist phrase. We are deeply offended by it, it is not a joke to us, and our son has tried to explain this to you. Yet you continue to use the phrase in his presence, in conversation with him, and in front of the class, shaming him. Why?" Then let the conversation go from there.
posted by davejay at 9:46 PM on December 4, 2018 [5 favorites]

>> Use the key words that scare school officials because they recognize
>> push button words that will get them in trouble in the media

Ding ding ding!

Just mentioning the media at all will probably get the situation cleared up in a hurry.

And if you're willing to tolerate publicity, actually roping the media in will drop a tactical nuke on a school system that probably has a lot more than these 3 jackasses running around.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 9:51 PM on December 4, 2018 [8 favorites]

Be prepared for an answer of, "well, I think it means the same thing; it's kind of a joke even if you don't think it's funny."

Potential followup questions: "Do you believe it's always acceptable to hurt a child, as long as you personally believe the child is overreacting? Which other racist slurs are acceptable as long as the person using them believes they're funny?"

This is likely to get a reaction of, "I am not a racist!" To which you can say, "well, you're certainly acting like one. Why would you do that, if you're not a racist?"

If you're in a one-party consent state, record the meeting. If a two-party consent state, ask to record the meeting; if they refuse, take notes. Tell them that you want an accurate record of what was said, when you go to the school board to complain about racial bullying by the faculty.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 10:00 PM on December 4, 2018 [8 favorites]

Wow, that sucks. Well done to your son for handling it so well. I think a key point for you to make is that not only did the teacher make a racist remark (using the slur the t-shirt calls out as offensive), he then made it into a class discussion! Like no one's ethnicity should be turned into a debate, particularly unprompted, without their consent and by someone in a position of power over them.
posted by JonB at 11:00 PM on December 4, 2018

As a teacher in a multiracial/international setting in Asia and my school’s diversity lead:

- the teacher is wrong, completely and utterly, and your son is heroic for defending himself in such an unbalanced power situation

- the face-losing climbdown this teacher will have to make is something he will definitely try to avoid; expect serious foot-dragging until his removal

- your son cannot return to this class without the fear of retaliation academically and additional bullying: it is too far gone now and he will be moving classes, or the teacher will be changing; this is not negotiable but also this is the situation this teacher has forced your family into. Do not accept a solution other than this.

- this is an important lesson for the students about responsibility and power: if the teacher is wrong but cannot be seen to be wrong in front of his learners, doesn’t the school have a responsibility to fix this?

- escalate as high as possible as soon as possible: this teacher definitely didn’t get the message of diversity training and apparently neither have his middle managers; this is sadly very common and only with serious threats to privileged people’s employment because of stuff like this do they take it seriously

- I guarantee you other teachers know this teacher is awful and almost certainly know about this specific case but feel constrained in how they can support your son against their colleague

- the school needs to have a serious reappraisal of its performance management system for teachers if this dude can be like this and suffer no consequences

- the school needs to incentivise students like your son to whistleblow and then work to protect them

Finally, no ‘class discussion’ should EVER have taken place on this topic because there is nothing to be discussed, as poffin boffin outlined above; also, ‘class discussions’ like this are more often than not missed opportunities for real learning and growth. Presumably there was no assessment of the discussion, no homework, and no addition to the syllabus on this, right? Because it’s not important to the teacher to do anything other than save face. With a week to prepare and develop a presentation or wrote an essay, your son and his classmates would have demolished this teacher’s argument; they were never given the chance.

Good luck!
posted by mdonley at 11:44 PM on December 4, 2018 [17 favorites]

Burn down the teacher: he seems to deserve it. Principal and superintendent and school board. Use CC’s liberally.

By the way, your family sounds awesome.
posted by wenestvedt at 3:45 AM on December 5, 2018 [3 favorites]

his take was that they thought the teacher was known for being sarcastic and didn't realize he crossed a line

If they try to chalk this up to "oh, that's just his way, he means well," you might also add that sarcasm and button-pushing are communicative techniques that are tricky to pull off well in the best of cases, and anyone using them has the responsibility of making sure that their "humorous" approach is not actually drawing blood. Doubly so for someone in a position of power. How many students have the spine and social/academic capital to confront their teacher, and their administration, in this way? How many students has this teacher hurt or shut down over the years, sometimes without even knowing it? Has he, or the administration, even thought about how the other kids in the class might feel, having seen him pick on a student brave enough to disagree with him, having seen him privilege his own ignorance over his student's knowledge?

Good faith on his, and the administration's, part requires educating themselves on the issues at hand (it's not a student's job to educate his teachers), educating themselves about the effects of their own behavior on your kid and on everyone else in the class, and taking responsibility for those effects. What will they do to guarantee that from now on students will not be bullied, picked on, or, frankly, subjected to gratuitous ignorance?

If the dread specter of "political correctness" or "safe spaces" comes up, you might mention that a good educator shouldn't have to be told to educate himself on issues he doesn't understand, and that even if he continues to disagree on some matter after learning more, a captive audience of kids whose future he controls is not the place to work out his issues.
posted by trig at 5:54 AM on December 5, 2018 [9 favorites]

There are a lot of really good scripts and suggestions here, and I just want to chime in and agree that a big part of the problem is the absolutely inappropriate lack of response from his counselor and the Dean. It's easy, when you are upset and other people, especially authority figures, act like it's not a big deal, to assume that you are crazy and overreacting and I want to say explicitly that you are absolutely not overreacting, you and your kid are the sane and reasonable ones in this situation and these people are neglecting their moral if not professional responsibilities to the children in their care.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 6:17 AM on December 5, 2018 [6 favorites]

There is a branch of the ACLU in every state. I would ask them to help, and I think they will be happy to. I'm so sorry your son has been harassed this way; it's unacceptable.
posted by theora55 at 6:55 AM on December 5, 2018 [4 favorites]

Schedule a meeting with the teacher and the counselor and your son and the principal. When the meeting starts, turn to the teacher and-
It is not your job to confront the racist; it was the administrators' job, and they elected not to do it. Treat this like the intolerable harassment it is and refuse to be in the same room as the racist teacher or the administrators who, through their inactivity, encouraged his harassment of your child. Call the ACLU.
posted by Don Pepino at 7:28 AM on December 5, 2018 [12 favorites]

I would keep the media as a last-resort option, just because of the potential that it could create more harassment for your family.
posted by pinochiette at 8:26 AM on December 5, 2018 [4 favorites]

I agree with pinochiette: make this about the teacher's racists words & acts, and NOT about your son.

Because this guy has probably also made other kids and adults unhappy, and his behavior needs to stop.
posted by wenestvedt at 8:38 AM on December 5, 2018 [2 favorites]

1) I don't condone racism. 2) I don't condone teachers using sarcasm with children, or continuing to challenge them when they've upset the child.

I'm going to try to represent a view that I haven't seen here. The teacher is guilty of #2, acting like a jerk to his students, but may not be doing it because of #1, racist beliefs. I say this because I don't believe that "oriental" is universally considered a racist term. Being out of the loop with respect to shifting language is not the same thing as being racist. I'm not sure what reaction you will get from escalating through the school system. It may depend on whether the people you speak to have heard that "oriental" is now considered racist.

Even so, I think your son's teacher is wrong to persist. I do wonder how much of what he said is (misplaced) critical thinking. Most of Russia is in Asia. India is also in Asia. Is there a one-to-one correspondence between groups of people that might have been called "oriental" and groups that might now be called "asian?" How does one back up their assertions? Is wearing a shirt enough to make something true? This isn't an appropriate situation for the teacher to probe, use critical thinking, and problem-solve, because (I think) this is an issue of personal identity for the child.

Best wishes and good luck.
posted by SandiBeech at 8:58 AM on December 5, 2018 [3 favorites]

By the way, while I think of the word "Oriental" as one of those weird and largely useless appellations, until reading this thread I was not aware of the strength of the emotions surrounding it. I would not have imagined that T-shirt existed for example.

Given that I'm a liberal with good intentions and I didn't know, it's possible that for some people in the management chain this is simply an education issue. An education that should be rammed down their throats with a plumber's helper, yes, but not necessarily something more than that.

This excludes the teacher of course. That guy shouldn't be within a mile of school, much less in a classroom.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 9:08 AM on December 5, 2018 [1 favorite]

I'm going to try to represent a view that I haven't seen here. The teacher is guilty of #2, acting like a jerk to his students, but may not be doing it because of #1, racist beliefs. I say this because I don't believe that "oriental" is universally considered a racist term. Being out of the loop with respect to shifting language is not the same thing as being racist. I'm not sure what reaction you will get from escalating through the school system. It may depend on whether the people you speak to have heard that "oriental" is now considered racist.

'Oriental' has been considered racist for decades in the US. It's just not a term that's used to refer to people, unless you're really, really old or deliberately being an asshole. When it comes to racism, I think impact is much more important than intent--especially when you're talking about such an unbelievably skewed power dynamic as a white teacher and a minority child.

Also, I'm not sure that it's useful to painstakingly figure out whether or not something is technically 'racist.' Does it matter? It's a racial comment that is making a minority feel invisible and disrespected as a result of their race. So just don't do it?
posted by armadillo1224 at 9:09 AM on December 5, 2018 [13 favorites]

[Folks, it's fine to note that there may be some people who haven't gotten the memo about the word "oriental" but please let it drop there. I understand it's not anyone's intent to be hurtful here, so: stop.]
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 9:17 AM on December 5, 2018

Sarcasm is a poor excuse for this behavior. Teaching is a profession, this teacher should start acting like a professional. This teacher is either on the cusp of or quite firmly in the territory of bullying, continuing a belittling behavior after you've been asked to stop multiple times is bullying (you know you're doing something hurtful and continue to do it = bully).

Here are some things you should research/look up as you go through the process of escalation.

Within district admin there will be someone who is responsible for overseeing the principals. Usually that title is Director of Elementary/Middle/High Schools. That person is who the principal reports to directly. That person probably sits on the Superintendent's leadership team. Find that person and report the principal to them.

When you contact that person, cc' the Superintendent so they know that there is a principal out there not responding to parent concerns.

Look up the student/family handbook for your school or district. I bet there's something in there about treating people with respect and that teacher is violating that. Be able to quote that passage in your communications to school district officials.

Go review the school board policies. You should be able to find them online. Because this teacher has not stopped picking on your son despite being asked, respectfully, to stop multiple times this teacher is veering pretty clearly into the realm of bullying (they are person with power abusing that power to belittle someone with less power). I am sure your school district has a policy around bullying, know that policy, know what the official reporting process is, follow that process, and send written communications to everyone involved showing how this behavior on the part of the teacher is bullying behavior and needs to be dealt with seriously.

I would ask the principal and dean of students to set up a meeting between you and this teacher (and possibly their union rep) to have a conversation about this behavior.

I might even go so far as to find out what the rules are about parents sitting in on class and take the time to go an observe this teacher.
posted by brookeb at 9:31 AM on December 5, 2018 [1 favorite]

"Teaching is a profession, this teacher should start acting like a professional. This teacher is either on the cusp of or quite firmly in the territory of bullying, "

Yeah, I'm not sure exactly how to phrase this, so I didn't throw it in my comment last night, but one kind-of common way that teachers behave unprofessionally is that they go down to their students' levels -- you see high school teachers posting gossipy shit-stirring stuff about their students' social lives on social media, elementary school teachers being cliquey and excluding low-status students, and with this teacher you have discovered the fail state of middle school teacher professionalism, which is acting like a 13-year-old edgelord and playing pubescent one-up-man-ship with children, and thinking it's funny in the same way that 7th graders think tiptoeing up to the line and pushing people's buttons just for the sake of riling them up is fuckin' hilarious.

I very strongly feel that a teacher who has lost their grip on professionalism and is behaving "down" to their students' maturity level should be removed from the classroom permanently -- I have never seen it resolve in a positive fashion and it always recurs. They don't view themselves as an adult professional who's teaching children; they view themselves as a peer to their students whose age and power grants them social supremacy over their students (they're "king" of the clique, they're the coolest "cool kid"), and all kinds of nastiness and abuses grow out of this attitude.

So, like, don't feel bad about any consequences this teacher faces -- there's no way this is a one-time thing and I've never seen a teacher successfully remediate from it. (and ugh it makes my skin crawl in recognition just to read your description, I've seen this guy's dopplegangers in disciplinary hearings several times.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 3:02 PM on December 5, 2018 [19 favorites]

As far as what to demand from the district: when my friend's son was in a comparable situation, his parents made sure he would never have to have class with that particular teacher again.
posted by The corpse in the library at 3:23 PM on December 5, 2018 [1 favorite]

It's not your job to educate racists and clueless and/or privileged people. These are educators or educator-adjacent; they are capable of educating themselves were they the least bit interested or legally compelled to do so. That they are not educating themselves when it is literally their job indicates that they are not acting or speaking in good faith, and you cannot trust that any amount of patient debates or informative printouts from your end personally will be enough to make a racist/bully feel remorse for the racist bullying. "They delight in acting in bad faith, since they seek not to persuade by sound argument but to intimidate and disconcert."

Your only job is to protect and advocate for your son, which should not require you or your son to interact directly with this racist teacher ever again. If Racist Teacher wants to argue or make apologies with crocodile tears in his eyes, he can do so through your attorney. If you contact the ACLU and/or your state bar association, they will be able to direct you to attorneys qualified in this area of law, and those attorneys will usually agree to a free or inexpensive short first consult with you to discuss your legal options.

I agree with the encouragement upthread to solicit media/public involvement as a last resort if possible and to demand that the school administration respect your son's privacy as well as his rights, because public attention will draw internet racists out to harass your family, and you will want to avoid that almost as much as this school administration will want you to go away as quietly as possible to avoid scandal. Your legal advisors can best inform you how and when to use media attention as a potential tool.

tl;dr teaching racists=not your job; your job=advocating for your son; contact ACLU/lawyers to advocate for you
posted by nicebookrack at 9:38 AM on December 6, 2018 [3 favorites]

One incident might have been a mistake - someone who didn't know the loaded history of the word "oriental," and thought that attempts to distinguish between it and "Asian" were pointless. However, any teacher who persists in a behavior that bothers a student without good reason is too selfish or callous for the job; any teacher who persists in a behavior because it bothers a student, is a bully and a sadist.

And, "I think you are stupid to be bothered by this word" is not a good reason.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 4:10 PM on December 6, 2018

When's the next school board meeting? If your concerns aren't being met by either the administration or the board members, the public comment portion of the meeting would be a good time to bring this up. In a lot of places, these are covered by local media and aired on public access TV; a warning to be careful what you put out there if you go that route. I hope the district doesn't need to be shamed, it's doubtful your kid is the only one who has been singled out.
posted by greatalleycat at 7:26 PM on December 6, 2018

Your son is obviously tough as nails if he is able to advocate for himself in the face of such disgusting harassment in middle school, including escalating the issue to his counselor and dean. I am so impressed by his bravery and composure!

You are clearly great parents, but I just wanted to add-- be sure you listen extra carefully this week to what he wants (does he want / need some time away from school?), make home a soft place to land, and let him know it is okay to be vulnerable. Honestly I wish I could buy your kid an ice cream sundae.
posted by athirstforsalt at 8:38 PM on December 6, 2018

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