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sshameti's picture

In my classroom, the environment is very student-driven in that the students usually work on assignments or larger projects on their own or with their friends, while the teacher is maily available for questions and making sure the students are doin what they need to do. While I was sitting with one group of students who had already finished their work on the class assignment (it is believed in this school that all students work at their own pace so students will often be doing different things in class), the topic of race came up. One of the students said another student talked like a white person (both students were black) and that sparked a bit of a discussion amongst the group; in this group, there were four students who self-identified as black (three boys, one girl) and one boy who self-identified as white, and when I asked what it meant to talk like a white person, the first student said it meant he talked “proper.” I tried to push back and ask what it means to be “proper” and why one way is more proper than another, and after a little bit of back-and-forth, I think we kinda ended up in a “that's just the way it is” place. When I asked the other boy how he felt when people said he acted white he laughed and said he was used to it and that it’s the way his mama raised him; then a third student started talking about the “white-talking” black student and how he transgressed all these social rules by saying he was “a lot of things, a dark-skinned guy with a light-skinned haircut who acts like a [u-kno-what] sometimes but also speaks properly." The students also compared him to the actually white-identifying boy in the group, saying that the white boy actually “acted black”; when I asked the white student where he was from, he started listing a bunch of nationalities, including “Spanish,” and called himself a mutt, when one of the black students interjected and said “No. You’re just white.”


jccohen's picture


What an interesting and mutual learning opportunity!  I'm thinking back on some of the identity work we've done in various classes (e.g. Multicultural, Identity Access) and noting how this exchange is conceptually complex in much the same way as some of the theorists like Stuart Hall and Judith Butler who theorize identities as fluid, performative, etc.  The question about talking 'proper' as a 'white' way of speaking also reminds me of a several week long discussion we had in the jail last semester, and I too found it hard to probe beneath 'the way it is' explanation, though I can also imagine this as the beginning of some exchanges about language and power (where it sounds like you were headed).  Great, I think, that you took up the position of asking questions - this clearly elicited continued thinking and conversation, and also, I'm guessing, helped to build a connection with the students.