The Casting Dock

Counseling Corner 2: race relations in elementary school

Let me paint the scene for you. I am sitting in the principal’s office along with a little black boy I’ll call Jamaal and a little Asian boy I’ll call Michael trying to get to the bottom of a bus incident. Bus incidents, just as a little aside, comprise about 20% of interpersonal “incidents,” with recess taking the brunt at 65%, the bathroom taking 10%, and miscellaneous other places taking that last little 5% sliver. Anyhow, so we’re sitting there and after about 15 minutes, the facts seems pretty clear (they’re never crystal when you’re dealing with kids): Michael wanted to sit next to Jamaal so he switched seats, which is prohibited on the bus. Jamaal told him he wasn’t allowed to and Michael thought he was being mean so he called him the N word. Jamaal got upset and shoved/hit him (the stories never align clearly). Michael hit back, etc. They land in the principal’s office.

Now this is where it gets fascinating when we are fleshing this all out. Here is a little sliver cut from the middle of our conversation:

Me: Michael, that is a very, very hurtful word. Do you know why Jamaal would get so upset when you used that word?

Michael: No.

Me: Do you know what that word means?

Michael: No.

Me: Well, why did you use it? And where have you heard it before?

Michael: I just heard my friend say it once when he was playing a video game and he was getting mad.

Me: OK, Jamaal, do you think you can tell Michael why you felt so upset when he used that word. It sounds like he doesn’t really know what it means.

Jamaal: Well, a long time ago there was this guy named Martin Luther King Jr. and he worked really hard so that people with my color skin wouldn’t be treated mean. Because a long time ago the…(pause)…(says to me)…can I use the b and w words?

Me: What do you mean?

Jamaal: (whispers) black and white.

Me: Yes, of course you can use black and white. There’s nothing wrong with those words.

Jamaal: OK, so a long time ago the black people and the white people couldn’t do things together, like they had to use different bathrooms and go to different schools and people were really mean to the people with black skin. And the white people would hurt the black people and call them bad names. And it wasn’t fair.

Me: So Michael, back when the black people and the white people were treated very differently, some people would use the N word towards the black people to be mean and to show that they thought the black people weren’t as good as the white people. It was a very sad and hurtful time where the black people didn’t have the same privileges as the white people and just like Jamaal said, it was really, really unfair. So when you use that word towards Jamaal, it makes him remember back to the time when people with his color skin were treated very meanly. In fact, I bet his grandpa has even talked about living in those times because it wasn’t actually that long ago.

Jamaal shakes his head “yes.”

Me: So he remembers all the stories his grandpa has told him and that is very sad to think about because that was a really awful time. That word is very, very hurtful, especially for people with his color skin and it is not a word that we ever, ever use. So when you called Jamaal that word, he got really hurt and really upset and he didn’t want to be near you anymore, which is why he pushed you. Do you understand why it was very hurtful now and why he would have gotten so upset?

Michael: (hangs his head low and speaks softly) Yes. I’m really sorry Jamaal. I didn’t know that.

Jamaal: I’m sorry for hitting you too.

Michael: It’s okay because that word is really bad so I understand why you hit me. I’m sorry.

I was just absolutely floored by this interaction. I was SO impressed that my little Jamaal understood and could explain this piece of history so clearly and concisely. And I was so glad that my little Michael could connect it with their situation and why him using that word would have been so hurtful and upsetting to Jamaal.

These are the moments, I tell ya.

{On a sidenote, it’s amazing the things that we say without having the slightest clue what they actually mean or how they might affect others. Kids are not alone in that.}

{mlk. water fountain. school.}


1 Craig W { 12.03.11 at 7:07 pm }

Beautiful, Lisa. We may survive yet.

2 Lindsey { 12.04.11 at 8:07 pm }

Thanks so much for sharing this, Lisa. You are doing such a great job with these kids…they are lucky to have you.

3 Mama Logan { 12.05.11 at 7:47 am }

Beautiful story! What a great way to start my work week. If only adults could act that same way!

4 noche { 12.12.11 at 9:52 pm }

Great story….great job by you unraveling it. What were the ages of these two fellows? I think we all need a Lisa around to help us sort out situations like this.

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