Category Archives: language in the classroom

The ethics of TV ‘experiments’

Macon, over at Stuff White People Do, picked up on the ABC show “What Would You Do?“, specifically an episode on racism in public settings and how people respond. It is in some ways reminiscent of some early ‘instigation research’ where researchers purposefully instigated some conflict to see how people would respond.

Macon tackles the issues of racism and white apathy, so I’ll largely leave that aspect to him, even though it is germane to this blog also.

Beyond that obvious issue, however, the concerns I immediately hit upon were those of human subjects in a research setting. All research that takes place which involves human subjects must be approved by an Institutional Review Board (IRB). IRBs function under the Office of Human Research Protection (OHRP), which basically is checking to be sure that researchers are not doing anything unethical, as in the classic Tuskegee Siphilis Case (which ran from 1932 to 1972 and, interestingly, the last widow to receive reparation payments after the Tuskegee case just died about two months ago). So if all research has to have oversight when human subjects are used, several questions arise about what the host of this TV program describes as an “experiment”:

  • Who approved this ‘study’? Does it have any IRB oversight?
  • Have they even thought about informed consent? Doubtful considering how upset several participants were.
  • What about debriefing? Every time I watched the film crew follow one set of people out on the street to do a post-interview, I wondered about all the other customers who were not interviewed and debriefed and who just slipped out the side and wandered off into their lives, unaware that what they’d been through was a con.
  • What about the effect on people of color? This ‘experiment’ is ostensibly to see how people would (or would not) respond, but people of color have no need to have this sort of store-front racism shoved in their faces since they are, in fact, living this reality every day.
  • Were participants compensated for their time, their discomfort, their trauma?

One of the questions IRBs consider when looking at a potential piece of research that involves human subjects is whether it stands to increase knowledge. Aside from the fact that most all people of color can testify that this is the reality in stores everywhere, upscale or down, there is also quite a lot of research that shows this as well. So what do we learn from ABC’s ‘experiment’ that we didn’t know before?

Another IRB question is whether a given piece of research does harm. Watching the responses by some participants (and only the ones that they chose to show, even thought the voiceover cites ‘more than a hundred’ people they filmed), I think it’s fair to say that, yes, it did harm: many people were really upset with what they witnessed. And what about the people who left the store but didn’t get caught by the film crew…. many of them may be left with the idea that this behavior is acceptable and appropriate, especially by someone with authority (the store security guard), because that’s what the silence of bystanders encourages.

And by silence of bystanders, I mean both the white people in the store who said and did nothing, but also those people accosted by the film crew who said and did nothing to stop this sham.

Unfortunately, the silence of bystanders is one of the strongest reinforcements for bullies, domestic and dating violence perpetrators, and people everywhere who would hold power over others.

This is the reason why all schools should be talking about talking: what do you say or do when you see or hear bullying? If we’re not talking about it in schools, youths grow up to be the callous adults who say nothing in episodes of “What Would You Do?”, as well as in the pre-production meetings of shows like “What Would You Do?”, as well as in their day-to-day lives.

So how are we talking to youth about their moral and ethical responsibilities to each other in our culture?

Boys of Color

The Rand Corporation, subcontracted to the California Endowment, has released a big study of inequities for boys and young men of color in California. Much of it is statistical evidence of what we already know: compared to white boys, boys of color have much lower educational attainment, grow up around more violence (exposure to violence outside of the home? Latinos are 2.1 times, African-Americans are 3 times more likely (p.19)), are more likely to die by homicide (Latinos are 5.1 times, African-Americans are 16.4 times more likely (p.19)), are more likely to be incarcerated (Latinos 2.1 times, African-Americans 5.5 times more likely (p.19)), have worse health (PTSD? Latinos are 4.1 times, African-Americans are 2.5 times more likely; HIV and AIDS? Latinos are 3.1 times, African-Americans are 6.9 times more likely), etc. etc. etc.

So much for a post-racial country.

These boys and young men are growing up in a world dramatically different than what the average white boy grows up in. Which is not to say that no white boys grow up like this, nor to say that all boys of color grow up like this, just that many more boys of color grow up like this than white boys, and these boys tend to struggle in school.

Teachers have, off and on, been known to write off some of these students: “I can’t get to him,” “he’s just too disruptive for my classroom,” or “if his parents are not going support his schooling and homework and studying, what can I do?” I am not arguing that there are not cases of students who simply cannot function in school, but many of these ‘excluded students’ can be taught, just not necessarily in the way their school functions. Many of these excluded students are students of color, judging in part from the statistics in the Rand Corporation report.

Learner-centered teaching and other related theories over the past couple of decades have talked about changing teaching dynamics to meet more students where they are (also see Howard Gardner’s theories), and this Rand Report echoes some of these changes in education:

Learning Using Non-Didactic Approaches. A final example of a practice that is represented among many of the effective program models is the recognition that participant learning should take place through experiential approaches, such as role-playing, rather than through didactic approaches, such as straight lecturing. (page 26)

One of the reasons we need to fund our schools fully is that, once we make the needed repairs to the physical structures of many schools so they are physically safe places, we need to focus on supporting teachers in redeveloping curricula to meet students where they are. In Teacher Man, Frank McCourt talks of having five classes of forty students each, and a 200 student load is simply too much to allow a teacher to give students feedback on their work, challenge each student appropriately, and return work in a timely fashion. Unfortunately, too many of those boys of color are being taught by this sort of over-worked teacher who can barely keep up with the grading and testing requirements, let alone engaging each student individually.

Dehumanizing People of Color

Well Maricopa County, Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio is at it again. He’s been criticized before, by the Mayor of Phoenix among others, for violating civil rights and for ignoring some 40,000 felony arrest warrants so he can focus on rounding up people with brown skin. “Immigrants” and “Criminals”, Sheriff Joe calls them, but he doesn’t seem to care what their legal status. To quote the Mayor:

American citizens and U.S. veterans who fought for our rights are seeing their own rights violated. Immigrants, who are here legally, with paperwork in hand, are being treated like criminals. Vendors, with valid visas and properly licensed equipment, are being detained.

Last week, Arpaio paraded 220 “immigrants”, all reportedly Mexican, from the Durango Jail to the Tent City, and sent out a Press Release to announce this, and be sure media were present. They were dressed in prison stripes, chained, and marched down the street (traffic was rerouted for them), with an enormous force of armed guards around and above them.

This from a Sheriff who has some 2,700 civil rights violations filed against him from 2004-2007 and who has apparently cost the County some $43 million in legal settlements over the jails during his tenure.

Unfortunately, too many in this country see this sort of public humiliation to be permissible for people of color. It’s really unfortunate that we are teaching youth that it’s okay to treat POC not only differently from white people, but it’s okay to humiliate POC publicly.

Two years ago, Tarleton State University, the second-largest school in the Texas A&M system, discovered that an annual MLK Jr-day party at one of their fraternities was predicated on white students dressing up like racist stereotypes of black people.

Last fall, there was the case of the white teacher who tied up two black girls and made them get under a desk to demonstrate how slave traders treated slaves as they were bringing them to this country.

Last week, in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, a predominantly black elementary school called off their “Cotton Picking Day” where students were encouraged to come to school dressed as slaves for the day as part of Black History Month.

Of course these events are offensive and of course they are racist, and there are lots of other events like them. And, you’ll note, they are happening in schools. Not Sheriff Arpaio’s event, of course, but all the local kids heard about that and/or saw it on the tv. So are we talking about these events in schools? Are we, as adults, merely ascribing them to ‘extremists’ and assuming that ‘that sort of thing wouldn’t happen here’, or are we looking, with our students, at the cultural forces that make the people who do these things think it’s a good idea?

What do you do when a student in your class uses a term like “that’s so gangster” or “that’s so ghetto”? Do you punish, or do you start a conversation with the class about what those terms actually mean?

One of the difficult aspects of being a teacher is the constant pressure to be a role model. Not just the I-say-please-and-thank-you variety, but the how-do-I-respond-to-hate variety, regardless of how ‘minor’ the infraction. It’s African-American Month, February is, so will we spend it with platitudes about how post-racial, post-civil-rights, post-slavery we are, casting furtive glances at the black student in the corner to see how he responds, or will we engage our students with actual conversation about real events that still take place and how we must respond to all forms of hate and prejudice, even when someone argues they’re ‘just joking’? Every time a teacher does not challenge these comments (or behaviors, like pulling eyes back to mimic Asians), that teacher has just taught the entire class that it’s not that big a deal to put down or humiliate people of color.

Beyond race in the U.S.? Yeah right….

So many in the punditry will have us believe that we now live in a post-racial America, but this is, of course, bunk. Ask nearly anyone of color (if you can’t see it yourself). There’s still lots of racism in this country.

Of course, the more, um, ‘subtle’ forms of racism (not a very good descriptor, granted) are the ones that many whites refuse to recognize, like being followed in a store, being questioned or pulled over by the police, or simply being scorned in public settings (“how do you know that’s about your skin color?!” some will ask). I’ve heard from many white people things like “I don’t see color”, which is intended to prove that they are not racist, while actually demonstrating that, at the very least, they are not seeing the whole person, and more likely that they are demonstrating racism in one way or another whether they want to think so or not. The things that whites agree are racist are ascribed to the extreme few (like the KKK and the Skinheads) and are therefore dismissed as being minor experiences for the greater public.

We believe we are, personally anyway, not racist anymore. We live in a post-civil rights country now, right?


Even if whites don’t ask anyone of color what their experience is (and let’s not forget that the vast majority of the punditry who are exclaiming this post-racial world are white people trying to define the experiences of people of color), we now have actual research to show for it.

Last week’s issue of Science Magazine has a piece of research that shows that white people think they’ll be really upset at an overt act of racism, but, when actually presented with it, they’re just not that upset and may not do or say anything about it. As CNN notes, these are some of the people involved in Project Implicit, based at Harvard, which has lots of tests people can take to see what their underlying prejudices are. (A warning from them is that if you are not prepared for learning what your underlying prejudices are, be wary of taking any of their tests.)

The upshot of all this is that, duh, racism is still rife throughout our culture. But if we talk about it and think about what it looks like and how it can manifest, we will be better prepared for those situations when we do encounter them. A white person who hears a racial slur has the privilege of ignoring it and walking away, and so it is incumbent on us to prepare ourselves for how we will respond when that happens (because it will happen).

These are conversations we need to have in school, in class, in groups of young people, starting at very young ages. Considering how much race- and ethnicity-based bullying there is in schools, we must help give youth the tools to use in those situations. If we do not, we will simply raise yet another generation of white people who will look the other way. It is the responsibility of white people to work to end racism.

h/t to Macon D over at Stuff White People Do on the CNN article.

Excuses, excuses…

Oh I’m just kidding! He knows I’m just kidding, he says, turning to the boy, right?

It almost doesn’t matter what just came out of this boy’s mouth, this is generally the first line of defense: I’m just kidding, as if all is made well, the classroom soothed, the world set right as long as those words are uttered.

The 7th and 8th graders that I teach are, developmentally, beginning to explore the world on their own for the first time as young adults, and are looking for what power they have or can take. They often push the teachers to see what they can get away with, and more often, they push each other around as they barter in personal power and reassess the social hierarchies.

If not checked at 13 and 14, unfortunately, these power struggles become ingrained and will need to be fed in increasingly unhealthy ways. For some of these middle schoolers, I am already wary of their eventual partners, fearful for the treatment they may receive in the search for power over others.

Middle School is at least as much about teaching social skills and healthy ways of interacting with the world as it is about any specific content students walk away with.