Sometimes you hear a story that's so absurd that your first response is, "No freaking way." Then you read more details, realize that the absurd thing actually did happen, and alternate between outright outrage and a resigned "Well, of course."
I've lost count of how many times that scenario has played out in recent years. It's pretty much daily at this point. I feel like every media outlet should have a WTF section. Good times, fellow humans.
So, in today's WTF news, a middle school teacher at J.W. Dodd Middle School in Freeport, NY allegedly handed out historical slavery-era photographs and asked her eighth grade students to caption them. She then implored students to make the captions "funny" because she didn't want to be bored.
The assignment was shared by a grandmother of one of the students on Facebook:
The school district superintendent has issued two statements on the incident. The first stated that "a faculty member is reported to have used directions to describe an assignment that were very upsetting to some students and families" and indicated that the matter was under investigation. The second included more detail:
As you may know, we have been conducting an investigation regarding an assignment given to students by a J.W. Dodd Middle School teacher last Thursday.
The teacher's directions to the students concerned the writing of captions for Reconstruction Era photos. The Reconstruction Era is the roughly fourteen years following the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and end of the Civil War in 1865.
The District's investigation began last Friday after several parents contacted the school principal to share their concerns. The teacher was removed from the classroom while the investigation proceeded.
Let me be perfectly clear: Our investigation has determined that this lesson was poorly conceived and executed. The teacher instructed three separate classes of students to develop captions for photos of post-war sharecroppers. We understand from our investigation that she told students to 'make it funny' and 'don't bore me.'
Aside from the fact that this is a poor lesson, it is an insensitive trivialization of a deeply painful era for African Americans in this country, and it is unacceptable.
The teacher has delivered an apology which I will share with you this evening:
"It is with the deepest sense of respect that I apologize to the students, families and larger Freeport community for my insensitive words and actions last week. As a teacher and fellow member of this school community, it is my responsibility to exercise the highest degree of care and thought in all of my student and staff interactions. I failed to do so last week, and I fully accept that I must work hard to rebuild trust from my students, colleagues and the community."
We are currently finalizing an agreement with the teacher and her union representatives.
On behalf of the Board of Education, I want to thank the Freeport community for its patience through this investigation, and reaffirm our schools as places of tolerance and understanding.
Okay, so let's talk "Reconstruction Era photos." Theoretically, one could argue, these photos may not have been of enslaved people, but of newly freed black Americans. Except that a brief cursory of history shows that little changed for many black people during Reconstruction. The Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 only applied to the non-Union southern states — you know, the ones who were willing to fight to the death to keep the institution of slavery alive. Slavery didn't officially end nationwide until the passage of the 13th amendment in December of 1865. And after that, sharecropping and Black Codes resulted in black people still not being truly free. There's nothing funny about Reconstruction Era photos.
So yeah. This is what happened:
A teacher tasked with educating the minds of the upcoming generation thought it somehow okay to shine a humorous light on the violent history of racism in America.
A person professionally trained to teach children put time and thought into creating an assignment that compelled students to callously trivialize human atrocity and then passed that assignment onto her students.
A white woman responsible for helping kids understand the history of race in the U.S. told students that she would be bored if images of slavery-era black Americans weren't accompanied by the students' hilarious captions.
This was not a slip of the tongue or an unfortunate typo. This was not a problematic act from decades ago that someone dredged up. This was blatant racism. This is blatant racism, and it happened right here, in the U.S., last week.
Writer and speaker Ally Henny shared the story and commentary on Facebook, making an important point about "trauma laughter."
I don't know what's worse, the fact that this was an assignment or the fact that students participated in it. I don't even know how I would have responded to such an assignment as an eighth grader.
Let's think about what this lesson reinforces for the white kids who participated in it. Let's think about the social pressure that the black kids might've felt.
I bet you anything that the black kids had the funniest jokes because trauma laughter is a thing. We laugh to keep from crying, but we also laugh in order to disarm our oppressors so we can fit in and survive.
I know some people like to claim that the word "racism" is overused these days, but there's no ambiguity here. Laughing at the enslavement and suffering of black people is racism, full stop.
What were students supposed to take from this assignment? What was the purpose? Was the teacher aware of how incredibly wrong it was? I have these questions, but honestly, the answers don't even matter. The impact is what counts.
And more questions remain: How many times do things like this happen without any publicity? How often does racism slip by without having a spotlight shone on it, allowing unaffected people to believe that racism is no longer an abiding concern?
This is why racism needs to be talked about more, not less. This is why it needs to be pointed out and called out, every time.
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