You can never know what it’s like to be black,” Carlen said sharply. The class went silent.
It was the fourth week of school and my juniors had just begun Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees. The novel is set in South Carolina in the mid 1960s. Something intrigued me about the perspective and the interracial relationships during such social upheaval. I chose this book because I love the characters, but also because it opens the door to discussions of racial justice — both historically and today.
Growing up the only Asian-American student in my community, I promised myself that I would never walk away from issues of race in a classroom setting. Thus, for my 11th-grade American Literature class, I choose multicultural literature that explores how race plays out in characters’ lives, which I hope will in turn trigger discussions about how race plays out in our lives. One of my aims is to help students — especially my predominantly white students — recognize that life in our society confronts us with choices about whether and how we will act to counter racism. Too often, “racism” is reduced to how people treat one another on an interpersonal level. But I wanted them to think in broader terms about this country’s history of legislated racism and the lingering patterns of inequality produced by that history. Some of this curriculum I can map out in advance in lesson plans, but part of this work is improvisational, and I know I need to be alert to the unpredictable, and sometimes uncomfortable, ways that students respond to this teaching.
As part of Portland’s annual “curriculum camp,” I worked with a group of high school teachers to create a unit around The Secret Life of Bees as a stepping-stone for teaching about the human effects of institutionalized racism. I began the unit in my 11th-grade language arts classes at Portland’s Cleveland High School, an urban school, but one that is over 75 percent European-American. My students and I were early in the unit and just beginning our exploration of the impact of segregation in the lives of characters in the novel.
I opened our reading of The Secret Life of Bees by examining the dichotomy between the lives of whites and blacks in the South during the 1960s. I used Spike Lee’s documentary, Four Little Girls, to help students gain insight into the chasm between the two communities. The film focuses on the bombing of the 16th St. Church in Birmingham, Ala., by white supremacists. This African-American church was the center of civil rights activity there at the time of the bombing; the congregation was focused on helping black citizens gain the right to vote. Four young girls were murdered and Spike Lee focuses both on the repercussions of their deaths and how members of the community honored their lives through continuing civil rights activism. I chose this film to begin our unit because it is a powerful look at the blatant and violent racism that existed in 1965 and the struggle of African Americans and their white allies to fight for equal rights through their push to register African-American voters. This was our starting point.
Shortly after watching the film, I initiated a discussion on a scene from The Secret Life of Bees in which Rosaline, one of the book’s African-American characters, is arrested while on her way to register to vote. We reflected on what we’d learned about work for voting rights, and I brought out copies of the Louisiana voting rights test given to African Americans who tried to register. [A PDF of this test is available at http://rethinkingschools.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/Vote_test.pdf.]
We examined the tricks used in the test to keep African Americans from voting. I set the scene for them: “Imagine the fear that must have come with walking through that door, seeing the men with rifles standing a few feet behind you, and being handed a test, given 10 minutes to finish, and realizing that there was no way for you to pass.” The students were appalled and kept pointing out new questions for us to examine and to try and decode them, and finally concluded that there was no way to decode trick questions. They couldn’t take their eyes off the document.
As students put the tests away, I noticed Evan watching the clock from his desk, and I walked over and joked, “Stop counting down the minutes until you can run from the classroom.” He shushed me and told me he was timing Jessie to see if she could finish the test in 10 minutes. She wrote frantically as she sat hunched over the paper. Without glancing up she said, “I want to know what it was like.”
Suddenly, from across the room I heard, “You can never know what it’s like. You will never understand.” I turned quickly to see the fury on the face of one of my African-American students as she glared at Jessie. Jessie looked up from the test, her pencil poised over the paper, and stared across the room.
I knew I had to make a choice quickly and either cut off discussion or open the door all the way. I decided to let it swing wide open. I said: “Talking about issues of race is so difficult. It’s painful. Most adults don’t want to touch it and will silence others when they do. But I’ve found that at our school students will discuss it, and I want to give you room to do so. You need to know that when you say something in this class, you have to be ready to explain yourself and have an open discussion about it as a class.”
I motioned to the student who had confronted Jessie and said, “Carlen, tell us what you meant.” I sat down at a student desk and the room went completely silent. The students sat rigidly at their desks, and the tension in the room was palpable.
Carlen took a deep breath, leaned forward, and said pointedly to Jessie who was seated directly across from her, “You can never know what it’s like to be black.” Her face became more serious with each word, her tone angry. “I also don’t understand why white people always say, ‘I want to know what you’re feeling and know what it feels like.’ You don’t want to know what it feels like to walk down the street and have white women clutch their purses. You don’t want to know what it’s like to be different every single day. You can’t want to know because it’s horrible.”
Jessie pushed her blond hair back from her face and came right back at her and said, “But should I just remain ignorant then? Don’t you think it’s important for me to try and understand so that things can change? Race is a huge issue in 2006 and things haven’t changed and I think we have to learn to change things.” Her voice shook just the slightest bit, but she looked determined. No one made a sound.
“But there is nothing you can do to understand it. You are white and you will always be white and you won’t ever know what it’s like to be me.” Carlen never shouted, but the intensity of her words filled the room.
“But don’t I have to try? Shouldn’t I try?” Jessie’s voice sounded desperate.
“But, why? What will it change?” Carlen sat back in her seat and I felt 34 pairs of eyes turn my way.
The girls looked at each other for a moment, and I stepped toward them. I told them how much I appreciated their honesty and that I wanted them to feel that they could always stop our discussions to be honest about what they were feeling and thinking. I explained that we were not going to end this conversation for good — we would come back to it over and over so they should reflect on today and think about what they’d heard, felt and thought. In retrospect, I wish I had stopped the class and had them journal about what occurred so that they could gain some perspective in the moment. But, if I had, the following discussion may never have happened.
The ‘N’ Word
I breathed a sigh of relief as we returned to the book and Rosaline, who was on her way to register to vote. Before we began to read, I explained that in the next section and in sections to come, the N-word would be used, and I wanted them to understand my policy around that word. I explained that because of its painful history, I ask students not to say the word when we read aloud. Instead, I have them say N. I also explained that we would naturally never use that word in the classroom at any time or toward anyone. Just as a student continued our read-aloud, I noticed a hand out of the corner of my eye. In my gut, I knew that something was coming. I’d known the student for two years and I knew his penchant for creating chaos, but I asked anyway. “Joe, do you have a question about the book?”
“No, but I have a question about the N-word. Why can black people use it and white people can’t?”
Voices exploded from every corner of the room. “Are you a complete idiot for bringing that up now?” “Why are you trying to start something?” “What is wrong with you?”
I silenced the class and, with an inner grimace, thanked Joe for asking such a difficult question. What I really wanted to say was, “We don’t have time for that question now. Just don’t use the N-word.” But I knew that this was a pivotal point in my year and if I wanted to push kids, I had to push myself. I asked the students to close their books.
Internally I was shaking. What was I going to say? How did I let it get this far? Why wasn’t I prepared for this? I had five seconds to come up with something.
I explained to students that words that are historically used against a community in hate are often taken back by that community and turned around and used as words of power. I told them about my 6th-grade experience when I told my parents that we played “smear the queer” at school that day and how my parents almost jumped out of their chairs trying to cover my mouth. They explained why that word was never to be used again in our house because it was derogatory and disrespectful. I never forgot that, so when a friend of mine used “queer” years later when talking about her own community, I was taken aback. I asked her about its use and she explained how the gay and lesbian community had taken it back and used it as a word of power. I told kids that the N-word had an even more horrific past and so much pain connected to it and we had to be careful when dealing with it.
Joe was not appeased. He peered out at me from behind his glasses, “But why can’t white people use it?”
I explained that even within the African-American community, there was a split about whether or not to use the N-word and that the debate was heated and might always be that way. I noticed some students raising their hands, waving them around, and I had to make another split-second decision. I knew that they wanted to put their two cents in about the topic, and I was usually open to hearing what everyone had to say, but this was different. We had already had an intense blow up and two of my African-American students looked uncomfortable and were not making eye contact with anyone.
I knew what it felt like to be one of the only students of color in a classroom and to have to wait for other students to make comments that were stereotypical and painful. I knew the feeling in the pit of my stomach as I waited for the comment and knew everyone was looking at me and waiting for my reaction. So I continued: “But if you are not a member of that community and have never had that word used against you in hate, you don’t get to be part of the debate.” The hands slowly lowered. “The African-American community can discuss its use and debate its power, but we won’t use that word here and I hope you won’t use it anywhere.”
The class was silent for a few moments. No one spoke or moved and they seemed to ponder what I was saying. In solidarity with my African-American students, I had shut down a discussion that most of the class wanted to have, and I wasn’t sure that I had made the right choice; I followed my instincts and they were the only thing that I had in that moment. There were only a few minutes left in class, and I reminded them that this would not be our last discussion and that they should continue to bring up these important questions. I reiterated their reading homework and the bell rang.
Before Carlen left the room, Jessie walked over to her and said, “I’m sorry, Carlen. I hope you know that I wasn’t trying to make you angry. I just really wanted to know what it felt like.” Carlen simply nodded.
I asked Carlen to stay after class so that I could talk to her because she looked upset. After the students filed out, Carlen and I sat down and she began to cry. “I hate this. I hate having to deal with this. Why does it happen over and over?” I hugged her and we sat there for a moment. “Why do I always have to defend people of color? Why do I always have to explain?” I wanted to comfort Carlen, but my internal struggles were so heavy from such an intense class and the fear that I had done and said everything wrong, that I was at a loss for the right words.
I told Carlen, “I’m so proud of you for how openly you spoke and how willing you were to go to that place.”
“But it didn’t help. It never helps.”
“I think it helped more than you will ever know. You got people thinking. But you didn’t get to say everything, and I think you need to write about it. I want you to go home and write down everything that comes to mind about today. Reflect on it and get as angry as you need to. We’ll meet tomorrow and talk about it again.”
Carlen nodded and seemed to relax a bit. I sent her to the library to write and I went to my desk and put my head down. I was overwhelmed both emotionally and physically. I took a moment to email Carlen’s mom because I wanted her to know what to expect when Carlen came home. I needed someone to talk to, and I needed some help in processing the day.
I found our school campus monitor, Joann. She had been my ally for the past three years. Like me, she had grown up mixed-race (African-American and European-American) and was also the only person of color in her community. We had spent hours talking about issues of race and how to work with students around those issues. Outside of school, she worked with African-American writers in the community and African-American at-risk youth and had amazing insight into how to confront difficult topics.
So I asked her, “When I encourage students to think about race in an almost all-white classroom, do I do it on the backs of my students of color? Do I force them to carry a load that is too heavy just to help white students begin to deal with their own issues of race? It was too heavy for me, so am I just doing the same thing to them?”
She reminded me that many, perhaps most, teachers feel so much discomfort confronting issues of race that they try to avoid it in their classes. I was talking about race in a way that not everyone was willing to take on and that it was always going to be uncomfortable — for students and for me. But hadn’t we said that we worked with kids because of what we both experienced in our youth? Students of color were forced to carry the load of racism every day because racism is entangled in every aspect of their lives. As educators we have to find ways to be their allies and be sensitive to how our work in the classroom affects them.
The next day, Carlen returned with a letter that she wrote to the class. I asked her if I could read it aloud and she agreed. The following is an edited version of what she wrote:
Yesterday in class was very intense for everyone because of the subject matter and no matter how many times you can say you were comfortable sitting there, it is a fact that no one was. I don’t regret anything I said yesterday because I meant every word. When Jessie said that she wanted to take the test to get a feel for what it was like, my first reaction was to give her the benefit of the doubt and to think of it as just a statement. That was only half of my brain saying to keep my mouth shut… the impulse part of me always speaks up and I commented back as everyone knows. But I shouldn’t have forgotten that Ms. T. makes everything a discussion.
Although I am not the only person of color in the classroom, I always have something to say… and yesterday I did. Honestly, I was about to cry because I am tired of having to talk about racism and tired of having to feel this way once again because I always get offended. It hurts to have to think about the people out there that don’t think you deserve to be in a classroom with them or to even be alive. It makes me feel like as a black person I am stripped of my rights, confidence, value, and self-image every time I have to open a book or see a movie about slavery or racism.
After class and the discussion was over, Ms. T and I talked. I was really upset and I hate to admit it, but I cried. It didn’t upset me that Jessie made that statement or that it became a big deal. I was upset because I will never be able to explain to anyone who isn’t a person of color what it is really like. I can’t just walk in a store and not be watched or followed. I can’t make people feel safe around me when they assume that I want to steal something of theirs. I don’t get automatic respect from white people; I have to try even harder because someone always has a stereotype. I make jokes all the time, but it’s only because I wish it made me feel better about who I am and the race I am. I’m not saying I am ashamed and I have never wanted to be white. I just wish I didn’t have to be so different or so judged. But everything having to do with the subject just makes me want to leave the room, but I can’t let my people down by not getting through it.
Hopefully yesterday taught everyone something. But I also realize it only makes me stronger every day. I hope you all don’t hate me and I hope you understand where I am coming from and who I am as a person. But, to end it with four encouraging words… Peace and love, everyone.
Students were silent after I finished reading. They applauded Carlen and thanked her for her writing. I talked to them about the idea of sympathy versus empathy — that it is not possible for us to feel what people in other times or circumstances felt, but that it’s crucial that we attempt to understand how the conditions in people’s lives affect them. And from this empathy we can consider ways that we can work to make the world a more just place for everyone.
Looking back, I wish that I had stopped myself before handing students my conclusions, and instead asked them to write a reflection about what had happened the day before. It could have been something that they wrote to me or something that they wrote to Carlen or to Jessie, which I would read and give to them later. I missed an opportunity to use their writing as a means for them to reflect on crucial issues. I want students to gain insight because they come to realizations, not because I tell them. This writing might not have elicited realizations, but it would have given them an opportunity to express what they felt and wondered, which could have led to a valuable discussion.
After class I stopped Jessie as she was leaving and commended her for what she had said the day before. I told her that I knew how strong Carlen’s anger must have felt, yet she did not back down. I was so impressed by her courage. She told me that she wished she hadn’t started the conflict and that she hadn’t meant anything by it, but she real-
ly wanted to explain what had motivated her. She gave me a thoughtful look before she left but didn’t say any more.
My own role in prompting the blow-up in class continued to gnaw at me. Hadn’t I put Jessie in that situation? Hadn’t I asked her, and the entire class, to “imagine the fear” of people who took the voting test? Hadn’t Jessie simply done what I’d asked of all my students? Wasn’t this attempt at historical imagination a crucial component of social justice teaching?
Perhaps. And yet Jessie’s attempt to imagine the impact of racism in people’s lives felt presumptuous to Carlen — like Jessie was proposing to understand something that her white privilege would never permit her truly to grasp.
But what about Jessie? How did the exchange affect her? Jessie and I didn’t talk at length about the incident until the last day of school when I shared a draft of this article with her. Jessie explained that she felt “cornered” that day and had felt unable to express what she truly meant or felt. I think that she was politely telling me that I hadn’t helped open a space for her to speak. I’d allowed the conversation to happen, but hadn’t made it safe enough for her to express her intent or her confusion. She told me that she wished that she had been brave enough to speak her peace and help the class understand that she wasn’t trying to “be black,” but rather hoped to understand the severity of the situation so that she could better understand the extent to which institutionalized racism affects an individual’s daily life.
Jessie and Carlen’s responses were both legitimate; how does my teaching honor each of these? This is an issue I’m still pondering.
I learned many things from this experience both about my teaching and about myself. I realized that I hadn’t appreciated how uncomfortable it can be to teach about race, even though I considered myself an anti-racist teacher. It’s one thing to map out lesson plans on a novel about the Civil Rights Movement, but students’ reactions cannot be “scripted” in the same way that a lesson plan can be. Anti-racist teaching requires a willingness to go where students’ responses take us. I have to be willing to go deeper than just interactions between characters in a book.
I realized that I have to keep myself from being bound by my own calendar and recognize when students are engaged. I have to remember that learning comes in the cracks when we are open and willing to deal with the uncomfortable conversations, the unpredictable questions, and the spontaneous outbursts. I can choose books, films, and other resources that create opportunities to discuss racism, but that is not enough without being open to allowing the tough conversations to happen. I have to be willing to make mistakes and not have all of the answers and let my students learn without me always leading them there. I have to be willing to deal with the unexpected if I want to truly be an anti-racist teacher.
Heidi Tolentino (firstname.lastname@example.org) teaches at Cleveland High School in Portland, Ore. She co-authored “Brown Doll, White Doll” in the Summer 2004 issue of Rethinking Schools.